While Donald Trump holds a 10-point lead, Montanans are not thrilled about the presidential candidates from any party, which has eroded the base support for both Trump and Hillary Clinton in a state that has historically been a Republican stronghold, according to a poll commissioned by Lee Newspapers.
Among those polled, Trump leads 46 percent to Hillary Clinton's 36 percent and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson's 11 percent. A nearly even split of those polled reported having a favorable view of the three presidential candidates: 31 percent for Trump, 31 percent for Clinton, and 26 percent for Johnson. The two major-party candidates were largely viewed unfavorably – 50 percent for Trump and 56 percent for Clinton – while almost a quarter of those polled did not recognize Johnson's name.
"It's highly unprecedented to see two major-party nominees be so poorly thought of," Montana State University political scientist David Parker said. "It's the first time ever we've had two candidates that people just really dislike."
The results of the statewide Mason-Dixon telephone poll conducted early this week highlight divides within both political parties in Montana – and shows the potential that voters are so disenchanted with their choices that they are less likely to be swayed by new revelations about the candidates' characters.
University of Montana journalism professor and political researcher Lee Banville noted that Montana tends to differ from national polls in large part because it leans so heavily Republican and a significant number of voters identify as independent.
"A Republican candidate who might not be doing that well nationally oftentimes does well here. Democrats who are doing well nationally oftentimes aren't particularly liked here," Banville said. "What's unusual here is the degree to which we are just like everyone else. We just want this thing over."
Nationally, Clinton has held a consistent if at times slim lead in recent months, according to polling results compiled by RealClearPolitics. In 49 polls of likely or registered voters conducted since Sept. 1, Clinton held a lead in 38 of them. Pollsters reported a Trump lead in five polls, the most recent being in early October. Six were reported as ties.
Parker noted that Montana almost always goes GOP in presidential races and often with stronger base support than other states.
"If you look down at the Republican number, the fact that Trump is only pulling 77 percent is crazy. That should be more around 90 percent among Republicans," he said, noting Trump is underperforming compared to both Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. "According to this poll, 17 percent of Republicans are not voting for their nominee. Even among Democrats, 9 percent are not voting for their nominee. Clearly they're making other choices."
Montana GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann, a longtime Billings legislator, said he's not concerned.
"He's 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton here, and the object is to be first," he said, admitting Trump "is not a traditional Republican candidate."
"I can't pretend he is," Essmann said. "And I don't believe he's pretending he is."
Compared to other recent elections, 19 percent of Montanans polled said they were more likely to vote for a third-party candidate, and nearly all of those who said that have indicated support for Johnson. The 11 percent of Montanans who reported they will vote for Johnson is about double the figure reported in national polls.
"If we have a strong Libertarian streak as a state and there is concern among some Republicans as well as Independents about Trump, then Gary Johnson becomes less of a protest vote and more 'this is a legitimate vote,' " Banville said.
One incident that some analysts expected to trigger voter protests seems to have had little effect in Montana. In the days after a video recording of Trump making lurid remarks about grabbing and kissing women without their consent, many national polls saw the gender gap widen as women abandoned support of Trump with Clinton's lead ranging from 6 to 33 points, with most in the double digits. By comparison, national polling news site FiveThirtyEight reports that the average gender gap between Romney and President Barack Obama in 2012 was half the size of the one between Clinton and Trump.
Montana bucks the trend.
"It's tiny here," Parker said.
Among women voters polled, 44 percent said they would cast their ballot for Clinton and 39 percent for Trump. That's only a five-point difference, although the margin of error could mean the actual figure is a little higher and therefore more in line with national polls – or even lower and therefore more unusual by comparison.
A look at the favorability ratings by gender suggests that the comments by Trump might actually have damaged his reputation among Montana women but that that will not cause them to vote for someone else – although analysts say that is difficult to pin down without prior Montana polls for comparison.
Only 21 percent of women said they had a favorable view of Trump – half the rate among men. Fifty-six percent of women said their view of Trump was unfavorable, while 23 percent were neutral – compared to 44 percent and 16 percent respectively among men.
"Typically what we see in surveys is a wider gap in terms of favorability that doesn't always translate into a large gap in vote choice," University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste said. "Republican women voters might be really disgusted by Trump's comments, but they might not be willing to vote for Hillary Clinton or say they're undecided."
Parker suspects that many voters are so discouraged by both candidates that they are defaulting to party loyalties, particularly in eastern Montana, where Clinton's favorability rating was just 18 percent, and other rural parts of the state.
"These are the places where Trump has appeal," he said. "They're largely going to be white, less educated, blue collar."
Banville noted that the top issues listed by voters also suggest character attacks are less likely to sway voting decisions in Montana. When asked which issue is the most important in this year's election, 26 percent chose the economy and jobs while another 25 percent chose national security and fighting terrorism. Personal character and leadership ability ranked fifth out of seven with just 8 percent naming that the top issue.
"Given what these voters are saying in this poll, they are much more concerned about their jobs and security than they are about the trustworthiness or character of the people who are going to lead us," he said. "Those issues, in Montana in particular, break strongly to the Republicans."
Parker agreed, noting that even with Trump polling lower than the last two GOP nominees, Parker still expects him to win the state.
"Trump's got it here," he said. "With the third party, it's going to be hard for the Democrats to win under any scenario."