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Montana voters like to split their tickets; pick candidate, not party

Montana voters like to split their tickets; pick candidate, not party

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HELENA – For much of Montana’s history, voters have been ticket-splitters.

A majority of Montanans may vote for a Republican for president, but then turn around and elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in the same election.

In fact, we lead the country in ticket-splitting when there are Senate races on the ballot during presidential election years. That’s what a 2012 analysis by Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics, found.

He looked at 862 U.S. Senate races in presidential election cycles across the country over the past century. Only two states – Montana and North Dakota – have voted to split their presidential and U.S. Senate ballots more than half the time, he found.

Montana was tops nationally, splitting its presidential and Senate votes 55.6 percent of the time or in 10 of the 18 relevant elections from 1908-2012. North Dakota was second with 52.9 percent.

Overall, Ostermeier found the rate of ticket-splitting in presidential and Senate races was 29.2 percent.

“We’re ticket-splitters,” said Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University Billings. “It depends more on the personality of the candidate than the party.”

In an essay nearly 50 years ago, Thomas Payne, the late University of Montana political science professor, also attributed the ticket-splitting to the personal nature of politics here. Voters get a chance to meet and know the candidates.

Payne also wrote in the 1960s that Montanans seemed to like to send liberals to Washington, D.C., to bring federal dollars back to the state, but often put conservatives in control of the statehouse to keep a close watch on how it was spent.

Montanans have voted for the Republican candidate for president about twice as many times as they’ve chosen the Democratic candidate.

Yet since the constitutional amendment to allow the direct election of U.S. senators took effect in 1913, Montanans have overwhelmingly elected Democrats to hold the two Senate seats.

Republicans have never won an election for the Senate seat now held by Democratic Sen. John Walsh. Democrats have controlled that seat since 1913.

The other Senate seat, the one held by Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, has been in Democratic hands for all but 24 years since 1913. Republican Sens. Zales Ecton held it from 1947-1952, and Conrad Burns had it from 1989-2006.

When Montana had two members of the U.S. House, the voters from the western district usually elected a Democratic congressman and those from the eastern district most often chose a Republican congressman.

After Montana lost the second seat after the 1990 Census, the state’s two veteran congressmen – Democrat Pat Williams from the western district and Republican Ron Marlenee from the eastern district – faced off in an epic battle in 1992. Williams prevailed and also won in the 1994 election.

Williams decided to retire from Congress and didn’t seek re-election in 1996.

Republicans have held the state’s lone House seat ever since.

As for governors, Montanans have elected more Democrats than Republicans over the state’s history.

Since the early 1950s, however, voters have tended to elect governors from one party for three or four terms and then suddenly put the other party in charge.

Republicans held the governor’s office from 1952-1968, followed by Democrats from 1969-1988 and then Republicans from 1989-2004. Democrats have had the governorship since 2005.

Likewise, control of the Montana House and Senate is often split, although since 1993, Republicans have for the most part controlled both chambers.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at

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