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October 24, 2008

Schweitzer holds strong lead in gubernatorial race, MSU Billings poll says

Large segment of undecided voters will play role in many other statewide races, political scientist says

MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, the incumbent Democrat seeking his second term in office, holds a substantial lead over state Sen. Roy Brown, his Republican opponent, according to a Montana State University Billings poll released Friday.

The poll, reflecting the opinions of 403 Montana registered voters who said they were likely to vote in the Nov. 4 general election, showed that 60.2 percent said they were likely to vote for Schweitzer while 27.3 percent said they would vote for Brown.  There were 8.2 percent of the respondents who said they were undecided while 4.3 percent said they supported Libertarian candidate Stan Jones.

Dr. Craig Wilson, professor of political science at MSU Billings, said that given the amount of money the governor has raised in his re-election campaign and given his continued popularity, the results likely mirror those seen in other polls. But it was interesting, Wilson said, that Schweitzer’s support does not come totally from Democrats.

“In terms of his overall support, about 40 percent of Schweitzer’s supporters in this poll are independents,” Wilson said during a press conference Friday in which the results were released.

Of Schweitzer’s supporters, 46 percent were Democrats, 40 percent were independents, 13 percent were Republicans and the rest were undecided about their political affiliation, the poll said.  Brown’s support, meanwhile, was made up of 70 Republicans, 24 percent independents, 4 percent Democrats and 2 percent unaffiliated, the poll showed.

Schweitzer’s supporters were 56.5 percent female and Brown’s backers were 58.7 percent male, the poll said.

Another large lead can be seen for incumbent U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg. The MSU Billings poll shows the Republican with support from 59 percent of those polled while Democrat John Driscoll has 25 percent and Libertarian Mike Fellows has 5 percent. The undecided number amounted to 11 percent. Majorities of men (64 percent) and women (54 percent) said they would vote for Rehberg.

The MSU Billings poll was started in 1989, and this year marks the 23rd survey of voter preferences and opinions. The co-directors of the poll are Wilson, Lennon and Dr. Scott Rickard, director of the Center for Applied Economic Research.  The poll involves students enrolled in Political Science 350, a public opinion and polling class. They help write the questions and do phone surveys through the university’s Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing (CATI) lab.

The phone survey was completed over the course of five nights last week dialing of random phone numbers across the state. The methodology selects both the phone numbers and the members of a household to interview.

The poll results showed that more than 90 percent of people interviewed are very interested in this year’s general election. And while there is a lot of recognition of candidates in the presidential and governor’s races, that name recognition falls in other statewide races, Wilson said.

In fact, the MSU Billings poll shows that there are a lot of undecided voters when it came to queries about races of secretary of state, auditor, attorney general and chief justice of the Montana Supreme Court.  For example, while Mike McGrath holds a 48 percent to 15 percent lead over opponent Ron Waterman for the position of Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, 36 percent of those surveyed said they were undecided.

The same trend showed up in the Montana Secretary of State race. Democrat Linda McCulloch polled 41 percent of the survey respondents while Republican incumbent Brad Johnson had 35 percent and Libertarian Sieglinde Sharbono had 3 percent.  There were, however, 21 percent who said they were undecided.

For attorney general, Democrat Steve Bullock showed 45 percent of support while Republican Tim Fox had 38 percent. Seventeen percent of those surveyed said they were undecided.

In the state auditor’s race, Democrat Monica Lindeen showed a 41 percent to 35 percent lead over Republican Duane Grimes. There were 24 percent of those polled who said they were undecided.

“There are a lot of undecideds because there simply isn’t much name recognition,” Wilson said. “There may be a lot of recognition of Bullock and Fox in Helena, but not outside of that because they’ve never held elected office.”

That large number of undecided voters will make the determination come election day, Wilson said, and it may come down to last-minute decisions.

“When it comes down to it, they might not recognize the name, but they will recognize the party affiliation,” he said.

In other aspects of the poll:

  • 69 percent of those surveyed said they supported Legislative Referendum 118, commonly called the 6 mill levy. The levy is a statewide property tax levy that supports the Montana University System. Reauthorization is put to the voters every 10 years.
  • When asked about candidates for the Montana House of Representative election, 43 percent said they would vote for the Democrat, 41 percent said they would vote Republican, 11 percent said they were undecided and 5 percent said they did not favor either party. 
  • 73 percent favored expansion of children’s health insurance in Montana. The issue will appear on the ballot as Initiative 155 and would allow expanded health coverage for uninsured children under the CHIP, the Montana Medicaid Program and employer-sponsored health insurance.
  • 75 percent were opposed to lowering the drinking age in Montana from 21 to 18. The question was widely opposed by Republicans (82 percent), Democrats (72 percent) and independent voters (69 percent).
  • 53 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as being “pro-choice” while 34 percent identified themselves as being “pro-life.” Of those surveyed, only 1 percent said they were undecided.

No results were reported in the U.S. Senate race and the race for Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction because a mistake was made on the questions for those races.

In putting together the questions and the options for answers on those two races, an "undecided" response was inadvertently left out of the queries. Because of that, the poll respondents were forced into making a choice between candidates, Wilson said.  He said polling ethics require that respondents be given the option of being "undecided."  Because of that, the surveys for U.S. Senate and Superintendent of Public Instruction are not valid and are not included in the poll results to be released today.  

Wilson said he discovered the error when he was reviewing survey results on Thursday afternoon, after the Day 1 results were released. He noted that "undecided" choices were included in all queries that were reported on Thursday and in all the other queries to be released today.  

He also said that this was the first poll query mistake in any of the 23 polls conducted by MSU Billings since 1989.

"We apologize for this error and will redouble our efforts to see that it will not be repeated," Wilson said.  

A full copy of the survey results are available on the MSU Billings web site.

10-24 msub poll craig.jpg

MSU Billings political science professor Dr. Craig Wilson talks to the news media about poll results.

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