BILLINGS – A new poll released Wednesday found large percentages of Montana voters still undecided about races for governor and the U.S. House, and noted strong support for Republican Mitt Romney for president.
The Montana State University-Billings poll said 40 percent of voters supported former congressman Republican Rick Hill for governor and 38 percent backed Attorney General Steve Bullock, a Democrat
Another 20 percent remained undecided with less than a month to go until the election.
“You can’t say one man is ahead of another. If it’s that close, it’s dead even,” said poll co-director and professor of political science Craig Wilson.
Libertarian Ron Vandevender had support from less than 2 percent of voters in his race for governor.
The university’s Sept. 27-30 telephone survey included 477 adults and had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
The gubernatorial findings were fairly consistent with a poll by Lee Newspapers of Montana last month that found the race a statistical tie between Hill and Bullock.
In the House race, 36 percent of voters backed Republican Steve Daines, a former technology executive from Bozeman, while 23 percent backed Democratic state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings.
Almost 38 percent of voters remained undecided, eclipsing support for each of the House candidates. Other surveys have found both candidates suffer from low name recognition.
Libertarian David Kaiser had just over 3 percent support in the race.
The high numbers of undecided voters in the House and gubernatorial races appear to reflect the difficulty candidates have faced trying to break through a U.S. Senate contest that has dominated the airwaves. Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Denny Rehberg and their supporters are pouring millions of dollars into television and radio ads in a Senate campaign expected to be the state’s most expensive ever.
It’s also only once every six years that so many offices are up for election in Montana, making it hard for down-ticket races to capture the public’s attention, Wilson said.
In the House race, Wilson said it was clear Gillan would have to capture a disproportionate share of the undecided voters to prevail. But he added that many of those voters likely have no party affiliation, which he said “is a whole lot better than having to go out and take Republicans away from Daines.”
Wilson and other analysts have said Daines’ sizeable lead in campaign donations gives him more resources to reach out to voters.
Last month’s Lee Newspapers poll found lower percentages of undecided voters in the House and gubernatorial elections.
But MSU-Billings poll organizers said Wednesday they were confident in its results. The survey had a confidence level of 95 percent, meaning only 5 percent of the time would the results be expected to fall outside the margin of error, poll co-director Jennifer Pope said.
Wilson said the findings overall spoke to voters making highly partisan choices and bucking Montana’s tradition of ticket-splitting.
In the presidential race, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney had support from 49 percent of respondents compared with 35 percent for President Barack Obama. Libertarian Gary Johnson polled just under 3 percent while 10 percent of respondents were undecided.
Obama lost Montana in 2008 by only 2 percentage points to Republican nominee John McCain. But that came after Obama campaigned hard in Montana and visited several times during his tough primary battle with Hillary Clinton. Romney visited Montana in July for a fundraiser.
This year, the Obama campaign has concentrated its efforts elsewhere, particularly swing states considered key to an electoral college victory.
More than half of Montana voters – 56 percent – disapproved of the president’s job performance. That’s a slight decline from a similar poll in 2011 but an increase over prior years.
Obama also scored low marks when voters were asked who could better handle the economy and reduce the deficit. But the president had higher likeability ratings in Montana than his opponent, a finding in line with polls nationwide.
Respondents were almost evenly split on the issue of which presidential candidate could better deal with international relations.
In other poll findings:
• On the issue of free speech, 82 percent said freedom of speech in the U.S. is more important than not offending people living in other nations or states.
• Regarding military intervention in Iran, 64 percent supported using force if there is evidence the country is building a nuclear weapon; 22 percent were opposed.
• A strong majority of 60 percent of respondents supported removing U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, compared with 20 percent opposed and 20 percent undecided.
• Just over half of voters, 52 percent, said they opposed the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. That’s down from 61 percent two years ago.