Sabato's Crystal Ball

What to Make of Montana?

Sifting through a bizarre race for 2018 clues

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 26th, 2017


The Great Depression-era Montana: A State Guide Book, produced as part of the federal government’s American Guide Series, notes that the state’s history “is alive with action and color.”

That doubles as a great description of the state’s special at-large congressional election, particularly its outrageous final hours, during which Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte (R, MT-AL) attacked a reporter. The incoming congressman now faces misdemeanor charges even as he basks in the glory of electoral victory.

In previewing the race last week, we thought the likely outcome — a Gianforte win in the single digits — would be notable in that it would continue the trend of Democrats generally outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing in the small but growing number of special U.S. House and state legislative elections. According to a running tally by Daily Kos Elections, MT-AL represented the 18th such election since last November’s presidential election, and the Democrat has now performed better than Clinton in 12 of them, and on average they’ve done 11 points better in terms of margin — a stark contrast to special elections conducted in the leadup to the 2014 midterms, when Democrats routinely undershot Barack Obama’s 2012 margins. That tally includes two big Democratic upsets earlier this week in special state legislative elections in New Hampshire and New York.

Clinton lost Montana by 20 points last year, and musician Rob Quist, the Democratic nominee, lost by six points on Thursday, a 14-point net improvement. It’s another example of this trend and is probably a sign of increased Democratic engagement after the party took a nap in special elections and midterms during the Obama years, as can be typical for the president’s party.

Republicans can come back with the argument that Democrats couldn’t even win a race in a Republican state that routinely elects Democratic governors and senators against a very flawed candidate in Gianforte, nor could they fully capitalize on a national environment that is poor for Republicans at the moment given President Trump’s weak 40% average approval rating.

Then again, Republican outside groups vastly outspent their Democratic counterparts, who were leery of getting too involved in a district that is more Republican than the ones they are likely to target next year: MT-AL was President Trump’s 118th-best district by margin in 2016, and Democrats currently hold only one district more Republican than that (Rep. Collin Peterson’s MN-7). Another consideration for national Democrats: MT-AL is the 125th-most Democratic seat held by Republicans, meaning there are better potential targets. For example, GA-6 ranks 27th on this measure, helping explain the large amount of outside Democratic spending in that race, which will be decided on June 20. Still, it’s easy to imagine some blowback from the Democratic grassroots against the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for not spending much in Montana. Some were angered by the DCCC’s non-involvement in the KS-4 special in April, a race the Democratic candidate also lost by six points.

Gianforte’s Wrestlemania moment happened the night before the election after at least two-thirds of the total votes had been cast in advance. Perhaps if this had happened a little bit earlier it may have made a more dramatic effect; as it was, Gianforte’s 11th-hour mistake may have helped Quist. The general rule nationally is that Republicans do a little bit better on Election Day than they do in early voting, but in many counties — such as Yellowstone (Billings) and Cascade (Great Falls) counties — there didn’t seem to be much if any change in margins from early votes and votes cast on Election Day. Quist’s margin improved by a few points after Election Day votes were tallied, meanwhile, in Missoula County, a Democratic bastion.

PredictWise conducted a snap poll Thursday afternoon and found that Gianforte’s lead had dipped to five points from 12 points in polling it had done a week ago (see more here from PredictWise’s David Rothschild). So perhaps this did shave a few points off Gianforte’s margin of victory, but it’s impossible to know with much certainty without robust exit polling, which was not conducted in Montana.

Given that Montana is an at-large state, we can compare data at the county level to last year’s presidential race and look for trends. Within those results is an encouraging sign for Democrats, although before getting into it we’ll simply caution readers that a single election with two unusual candidates is not necessarily applicable to other races.

In the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, Crystal Ball contributor Robert Wheel identified some typically Republican and Democratic counties that, because of their demographic traits, might break their longstanding streaks of supporting one party or the other.

Wheel noted some well-educated and/or diverse longtime Republican counties that might support Hillary Clinton because of Donald Trump’s well-documented problems with white college-educated and nonwhite voters. Some of the ones he mentioned, like California’s Orange County, did indeed flip (Orange County hadn’t voted Democratic for president since 1936). On the other hand, Trump’s unusually impressive strength with working-class whites — essentially, whites without college degrees — gave him the opportunity to flip some usually reliable Democratic counties. Sure enough, Trump did run extraordinarily well in many counties with these characteristics, helping him break the supposed Democratic “Blue Wall” in the Midwest. Some examples include Itasca County, MN, which voted Republican last for president last year for the first time since 1928, and Elliott County, KY, a county that had never voted for a Republican in its entire history. Trump didn’t just win it – he racked up an eye-popping 44-point margin.

Clinton held two counties with Trumpy profiles in Montana, Deer Lodge and Silver Bow in the state’s southwestern corner, but she did so with dramatically reduced margins from typical Democratic presidential showings. Obama had won both by 32 points in 2012, but Clinton only carried Deer Lodge by seven and Silver Bow by 14.

Quist restored Democratic order in these counties, winning both by 34 points. Granted, that’s a little weaker than Obama’s 32-point respective wins in each relative to the statewide vote in each election, given that Quist lost statewide by six and Obama lost statewide by 14, but it does provide a very limited example suggesting that Trump’s performance in some traditional white working-class bastions may not be transferable to other Republicans, at least in the short term.

Reclaiming many of these counties is a must for Democratic candidates across the North. For instance, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) needs to regenerate traditional Democratic margins in the Greater Youngstown area — an area that swung very heavily to Trump — in order to win his likely rematch with state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) next year.

In any event, Thursday’s results provide both parties with a little bit of mental reinforcement. Republicans avoided a loss that could have further upset their jittery battleground members, and Democrats can point to overall special election trends that suggest the opportunity for significant gains next year if they can be replicated on a nationalized scale. There’s a long way to go.

Before we leave Montana behind and look ahead to the intensely expensive and competitive GA-6 special election next month, we need to re-rate Gianforte now that he’s a congressman-elect.

We had the MT-AL special listed as Leans Republican going into the election, and for now that’s where we’re going to keep it. Gianforte still has a misdemeanor assault charge hanging over his head, and perhaps an opportunistic Democrat may smell blood in the water looking ahead to next year. Then again, Gianforte’s body slam may eventually blow over and not do him any lasting harm, and Democrats may very well be looking at many other districts next year (indeed, the national party did not prioritize the special election much at all compared to the GOP).

So it may be that we eventually upgrade Gianforte to Likely or Safe Republican, but we’ll hold off for now given the uncertainty introduced by these last few days of “action and color.”

Center for Politics Poll Finds Public Ranks Kennedy Highest Among Recent Presidents

Survey conducted by Reuters/Ipsos coincides with upcoming Kennedy centennial 

UVA Center for Politics May 25th, 2017


As the nation marks the 100th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s birth on Memorial Day, a University of Virginia Center for Politics-Reuters/Ipsos poll finds that Americans rate JFK more highly than other recent presidents.

The online poll of American adults found that of the presidents who served from 1950-2000 (Dwight Eisenhower through Bill Clinton), Kennedy received higher average ratings than any other president, and more than half of respondents (53%) named him as one of the one or two best presidents in that timeframe. Additionally, 87% of respondents expressed at least mildly favorable views of Kennedy.

Table 1: “Would you say you are generally favorable or unfavorable towards President John F. Kennedy?”

The rating of Kennedy as one of the best recent presidents improved from 2012, when the Center for Politics partnered with Hart Research Associates on a different online poll that used identical question wording as part of the Center’s Kennedy Half Century project. The percentage of respondents naming JFK as one of the best presidents in the second half of the 20th century increased from 41% to 53% (Table 3). The numbers for most of the other presidents stayed stable, with the exception of Bill Clinton, whose rankings declined significantly (as shown in both tables 2 and 3).

Table 2: Mean rating that respondents gave each president who served from 1950-2000 on a scale from zero (one of our country’s worst presidents) to 10 (one of our country’s best presidents)

Table 3: “From that same list of presidents who served between 1950 and 2000, which one or two stand out in your mind as the best president(s)?”

When asked to choose selected recent or historical presidents to hypothetically serve as the country’s next president, Kennedy (22%) rated similarly with Ronald Reagan (23%) and Barack Obama (21%). Here again, Clinton’s numbers declined significantly from the previous 2012 survey. It is worth noting when comparing the 2017 poll to the 2012 poll on this particular question that it was posed open-ended in 2012, allowing respondents to name any president they liked, while in 2017 only the top ranked responses from 2012 were provided to respondents to choose from.

Table 4: “Suppose you could bring back any of the U.S. presidents, living or dead, to be the next president of the United States. Who would you most want to be the next president?”

While it’s hard to pinpoint specific reasons for Kennedy’s improvement from the previous poll, it’s possible that there are some additional, residual good feelings about Kennedy engendered by all the JFK coverage that occurred during the anniversary of his assassination in 2013 and as part of the current emphasis on his centennial.

Bill Clinton has suffered a sharp decline since 2012. Whereas 33% of respondents rated him as a 9 or 10 on a 0 to 10 scale five years ago, our new poll finds just 16% rate him as a 9 or 10. This shift comes from an across-the-board partisan decay in positive views of the former president, with more Democrats, Republicans, and Independents rating Clinton more unfavorably. Bill Clinton’s worsened public perception may mirror the similar decline of his wife, Hillary Clinton, during and in the aftermath of a brutal, unsuccessful presidential election.

In 2012, Hillary Clinton had strong favorability nationally while she was secretary of state. Once she re-entered the political fray and was the target of negative attacks for two years, her numbers eroded significantly, and that erosion appears to apply to her husband as well.

Some other observations from the poll:

— When given a number of words and phrases used to describe Kennedy, respondents generally thought positive descriptors applied to Kennedy more than negative ones. However, respondents in this poll were not as impressed by JFK in several ways as respondents in 2012. Asked to rate different terms and phrases to describe Kennedy on a scale from 0 to 10, 50% said “charismatic” was a 9 or 10 versus 61% in 2012, 39% rated “courageous” as a 9 or 10 compared to 48% in 2012, and 47% rated “patriotic” as a 9 or 10 versus 56% in 2012.

— JFK received the most bipartisan support from respondents regarding which former president (living or dead) they would want to be the next president. Ronald Reagan led on this question overall with 23%, followed by Kennedy with 22%, and Barack Obama 21%, as noted above. But JFK’s support was more evenly split among partisans, with 25% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans choosing him. This support contrasted with Reagan and Obama: 50% of Republicans picked Reagan while only 6% of Democrats did, and 38% of Democrats picked Obama while only 7% of Republicans did. And Kennedy was also the most common answer for Independents, with 27% selecting him versus 18% for Obama and 17% for Reagan.

— Obama’s improvement and Clinton’s decline on the question of which former president respondents would like to see be the next president of the United States was driven by changes among Democrats. In the 2012 poll, while Obama was seeking his second term, 41% of Democratic respondents picked Bill Clinton as the person they preferred to be the next president, while just 10% picked Obama. In the new polling, 38% of Democrats picked Obama while only 11% picked Clinton.

— Respondents had a good sense of when Kennedy served: 78% were able to accurately select “the early 1960s” as when he served in office. Unsurprisingly, older respondents scored better on this question than younger ones: 95% of those over 60 knew when Kennedy served, while just 60% of those aged 18-29 did.

This Ipsos poll was conducted May 11-15, 2017 on behalf of Thomson Reuters and the University of Virginia Center for Politics. For the survey, a sample of roughly 1,472 adults age 18+ from the continental U.S., Alaska, and Hawaii was interviewed online in English. These findings are compared to 2012 results with a sample of 2,009 adults for an online poll conducted June 7-13, 2012 by Hart Research Associates. Statistical margins of error are not applicable to online polls, so the precision is measured using a credibility interval. The 2017 poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for all respondents. The 2012 poll had a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. For more on the methodology, see here.

The full poll is available here and the crosstabs are here. The 2012 poll is available here and the crosstabs here.

In addition to the poll, the Center for Politics is marking the Kennedy centennial through a series of public programs and symposia. Earlier this year, the Center hosted an exhibition of never-before-seen photos of JFK and a panel on his relationship with the media. Additional public programs and symposia planned for the year include:

— JFK 100th Birthday celebration at UVA Reunions. (June)

— Race to the Moon, featuring pioneers of America’s exploration of space. (September)

— Secret JFK Records: A look into the records of the Kennedy assassination that remained sealed from public view. (October)

The final dates and participants will be announced ahead of each event.

As part of JFK100, the Center also is partnering with PBS to produce a national television documentary featuring a selection of the unreleased photos and new stories about the life and legacy of JFK. The new documentary will serve as a sequel to the Center’s 2013 release, The Kennedy Half Century, which won an Emmy Award for Best Historical Documentary. The Center also is partnering with Coursera and iTunes U to produce a series of new lessons for its Massive Open Online Course entitled The Kennedy Half Century and taught by Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato, which to date has enrolled nearly 200,000 students from around the world.

Stepping Up: How Governors Who Have Succeeded to the Top Job Have Performed Over the Years

2018 could see a number of successor governors running for full terms in office

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 18th, 2017


On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) moved to end debate on the nomination of Gov. Terry Branstad (R-IA) as the next U.S. ambassador to China. While the exact timeline is uncertain — Democrats could try to stall the appointment — Branstad’s confirmation for the diplomatic post is expected very soon. Upon becoming ambassador, Branstad will resign the Hawkeye State governorship and hand the reins over to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who will become Iowa’s first woman governor. Once she takes office, Reynolds is expected to run for a full term in 2018 as a gubernatorial incumbent, albeit a “successor incumbent” rather than an elected one.

She is unlikely to be the only such incumbent running in 2018. As things stand, there are already two freshly-minted governors who may fit the bill: Govs. Kay Ivey (R-AL) and Henry McMaster (R-SC) are already ensconced in their new posts due to the resignation of Gov. Robert Bentley (R-AL) and the appointment of former Gov. Nikki Haley (R-SC) as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Ivey has not yet stated her plans regarding the 2018 election, but it would somewhat surprising if she didn’t run. After all, she ran in the 2010 gubernatorial race for a time before dropping down to run for lieutenant governor instead. McMaster is certain to run in 2018.

Additionally, it is possible that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R-KS), a possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate, could become governor of Kansas if Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) exits office early. In March, Brownback was rumored to be in line to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for food and agriculture. While there has been nothing further on his prospects for that appointment, Brownback’s name is now circulating as a possible choice to be the State Department’s ambassador for international religious freedom.

So there’s a chance that four (or even more) unelected gubernatorial incumbents could be on the ballot running for full gubernatorial terms next year.

With at least a handful of successor incumbents or potential ones running for governorships in 2018, we decided to examine the electoral performances of previous governors who took office via succession going back to the end of the Second World War (i.e. first election is 1946). We looked at the primary and general election showings of every governor who ascended to that post following the resignation or death of the previous governor and then ran as a successor incumbent in the next regular or special election for that governorship.

As it turns out, having a sizable number of elections involving successor incumbents in 2018 wouldn’t be that unusual. Since the first post-World War II cycle in 1946, there have been nine election cycles (presidential or midterm) with at least three successor incumbent governors seeking election. In fact, there were five such contests in 1948, 1970, and 1978, and four in 1946, 1954, and 2010. Overall, 62 successor incumbents have sought to continue on as governor in the next regular or special election for the governorship, and they are listed in Table 1 below. This table includes two less-clear-cut cases who were serving as acting governors while the sitting governors were still technically in office, but they are included because they were serving in the gubernatorial role while actively running for the office (see the Table 1 footnotes). Most recently, then-Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown (D) ascended to the governorship after the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber (D-OR) in 2015 and won the rest of that term in a 2016 special election; she will be up for a full term in 2018.

Table 1: Post-World War II successor gubernatorial incumbents who sought the governorship in next regular or special election

Notes: Instances where an individual succeeded to the governorship after losing a party primary for the ensuing election are not included. In the “Election type” column, “R” refers to a regular general election and “S” refers to a special general election. In the “Primary %” column, “U” signifies that the individual was unopposed in the party primary or was nominated at a party convention with or without opposition; “DC” signifies that the individual was defeated at a party convention. In the result columns, “W” indicates the individual won the primary, primary runoff, or general election; “RO” indicates that the primary election resulted in a primary runoff election; and “L” indicates that the individual lost in the primary, primary runoff, or general election. The “Party in general” column refers to the general election outcome for the successor incumbent’s political party. The data are available in spreadsheet form here.

Footnotes: 1.) Following the Three Governors Controversy, Lt. Gov. Melvin Thompson (D-GA) became governor of Georgia in March 1947. 2.) Following the election of Gov. Spiro Agnew (R-MD) to the vice presidency of the United States, state House Speaker Marvin Mandel (D-MD) was elected by the Maryland legislature to the governorship in 1969 because Maryland did not have a lieutenant governor position at that time. 3.) Lt. Gov. George Ariyoshi (D-HI) became acting governor in late 1973 because of the illness of Gov. John Burns (D-HI). Ariyoshi served in that role for the remainder of Burns’ term while running for governor in 1974. Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III (D-MD) became acting governor in the middle of 1977, when Mandel handed over executive power after being convicted for political corruption. Lee served as acting governor for 19 months and sought his party’s nomination in 1978 while in that position.

Sources: CQ Guide to Elections, OurCampaigns, Center for the American Governor, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, state election authorities, archived state blue books, and state legislative manuals

In total, 39 of the 62 successor incumbents who sought election from 1946 to the present went on to win the general election, 14 lost in the general election, and nine failed to win their party’s nomination.  That 63% success rate is worse than the reelection rate of elected incumbent governors in the same timespan (74%) but does compare favorably to the 49% success rate of appointed U.S. senators who sought election since World War II. The better performance of successor incumbent governors versus appointed U.S. senators makes sense: Often times, the gubernatorial successor was elected in his or her own right for another statewide office such as lieutenant governor or secretary of state, whereas some appointed senators have not won a previous statewide contest — or any kind of election at all, in some cases.

Unsurprisingly, gubernatorial successors who had previously won on their own statewide ballot line have performed slightly better than those who rose from top positions in state legislatures or unelected statewide offices. The latter category includes lieutenant governors who ran on the same ballot line as the governor; many states do not have separate elections for governor and lieutenant governor. Those who had won statewide before were more successful across the board, from nomination battles to general elections. Table 2 lays out the election data for successor incumbents for governor based on whether or not the individual had held a statewide-elected office prior to acceding to the governorship. Overall, 69% of successor incumbents who had been elected statewide to their prior position went on to win a gubernatorial general election versus just 54% of those whose previous post wasn’t a statewide-elected office. This pattern suggests that someone like Reynolds — a running mate — might be more vulnerable than someone like Ivey or McMaster, who were both elected in their own right as lieutenant governors (Ivey has actually won four statewide elections). Still, both Alabama and South Carolina use primary runoff systems, so neither will have a simple road to their party nominations.

Table 2: Successor incumbent gubernatorial election performance based on prior statewide elected status

Turning more specifically to performance in nomination contests, 42 successor incumbents had primary opposition in the subsequent gubernatorial primary. They won an average of 62% of the vote and a median of 60%. But the primary vote percentage ranged from 12% to 91%. Table 3 lays out the primary and general election results for the 42 successor incumbents who faced primary opposition.

Table 3: Primary and general election outcomes based on primary performance

Note: Includes only the 42 successor incumbents who had opposition in their party primary. For candidates in runoff states, they are included based on their result in the initial primary.

With an eye on the general election, there does seem to be some connection between worse outcomes and greater competition in the primary. For successors who won 70% or more in their primaries, 83% won in November. But for those that won at least 50% but less than 70%, only 54% won in November. Of course, this is a small sample, and the three successors who managed to win their party nomination with less than 50% of the primary vote all went on to win in November. So don’t take it to the bank that winning less than 70% in a primary means a coin-flip in November for any of the 2018 successor incumbents. After all, Ivey and McMaster are both in deeply Republican states where winning the party primary/runoff may be tantamount to winning in November.

As for the nine successor incumbents who failed to get to the general election, their stories are possibly more interesting than those who won their party’s nomination. Of the nine, eight lost in primary or primary runoff elections and one at a party convention. Most of the primaries and primary runoffs were competitive, with only one successor governor losing by double digits (South Carolina’s Ransome Williams, who lost in the 1946 Democratic primary to a fellow named Strom Thurmond). Interestingly, in each of these nine cases, the loser’s party went on to win the general election. This was partly because some of the states were relatively safe for one party or the other (i.e. a Democratic Solid South state or a rock-ribbed Republican Plains or Mountain state).

A big-name intraparty opponent caused problems for some of these successors. Perhaps the best example was Gov. Albert Brewer (D-AL), who succeeded to Alabama’s governorship in 1968 following the death of Gov. Lurleen Wallace (D), wife of presidential aspirant and ex-Gov. George Wallace (D). Brewer then faced George Wallace in the 1970 Democratic primary for governor, winning a plurality of the vote, but not a majority. Wallace then narrowly edged Brewer in the primary runoff by three points and won the general election for the second of what would be his four terms as Alabama governor. South Dakota also had a former governor return to defeat a successor incumbent in 1994. Following the death of Gov. George S. Mickelson (R) in a plane crash, Gov. Walter Miller (R-SD) became chief executive of the Mount Rushmore State in 1993. But former Gov. Bill Janklow (R), who had served from 1979 to 1987, decided to run for the office again. The ex-governor defeated Miller by eight points in the party’s June 1994 primary and went on to win the general.

In a bizarre situation in Georgia, a former governor who had previously served for three months — Herman Talmadge (D) — defeated the “real” successor incumbent, Gov. Melvin Thompson (D), in the 1948 Democratic primary. Talmadge’s father, Eugene, won the Peach State’s 1946 gubernatorial election with nearly 99% of the vote, but the victor had been unwell for some time. Talmadge backers had worried about the possibility of the incoming governor dying prior to inauguration, leading them to get the younger Talmadge enough write-in votes to be a possible candidate for the state legislature to elect if the elder Talmadge passed away. Eugene Talmadge did die and his son, having finished second to his father by way of write-ins, was elected by the state legislature. However, the 1945 state constitution had created the post of lieutenant governor, which created confusion over succession. The lieutenant governor-elect, Thompson, eventually won in court to become the next governor, but not until Herman Talmadge had served as governor for three months. In the 1948 special election that followed, the younger Talmadge challenged Thompson in the Democratic primary for governor and defeated him 52%-45%, going on to easily win the general.

The lone successor incumbent to lose out at a party convention was Gov. Olene Walker (R-UT), who became the Beehive State’s first female governor in 2003 following the resignation of Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) to become EPA administrator. The long-time lieutenant governor was fairly moderate by Utah standards, and she decided to run for a full term only a couple of months before the party convention. She finished fourth at the conservative-dominated party convention in 2004, missing out on a top-two spot that would have placed her in the party primary (which Jon Huntsman went on to win).

So with all of this in mind, keep an eye on what the 2018 crop of successor incumbents decide to do and monitor just how strong their primary opposition may or may not be. They may start as favorites, but victory is no certainty.