This week, we’ve seen a couple more hits to the Senate GOP. This time, it’s not just direct Senate polling, but also a poll of Presidential approval from Civiqs, and the findings out of Montana are disastrous for the GOP. Far from Donald Trump being the tide that lifts all GOP boats in the state,his approval numbers are now down to -7 net, 45%-52% approve-disapprove. In this state he won by 20% last time, Trump is now underwater and turning off the voters he needs. And that is music to Steve Bullock’s ears.
Now, this is not at all an argument that Donald Trump will lose Montana in November to Joe Biden – I highly doubt he will. The LeanTossup Presidential model agrees with me – the state is safely in the GOP’s hands – but this is a case more than most where margins matter. Not because there’s some prize in the electoral college for winning the state by 10% or 30%, but for the Senate. The task for Steve Bullock is a lot easier if he needs to outrun Joe Biden by 10% than by 20% in order to win the Senate seat. In 2016, he outran Hillary Clinton by 24% on route to the Governorship again, but federal offices are usually more partisan. If you’re Bullock, every point that Biden can close the gap in the state is a point you don’t have to do by yourself alone. An underwater approval rating isn’t usually correlated with winning a state by 20%, and that’s why Steve Daines is in trouble.
Daines, who won the open seat in 2014 in a very good Republican year, only won 17.7% against the Democrats second choice for nominee, after nominee and Lt. Gov John Walsh was forced to drop out of the race in August. He only outperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance by 4% despite a 10 point shift in the political environment towards Republicans, and since then Daines has experienced good approvals – 47%-31%, per Morning Consult’s latest data. His approvals are admittedly better than his fellow Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, who won in 2012 with Romney on the ballot and won again in 2018 against a stiff challenge.
That Tester 2012 race in many ways illuminates the path for Steve Bullock. Tester won by 4% on a day Romney won by 14%, and in doing so showed how down ballot Democrats can overperform the top of the ticket. Tester won 16 counties in his successful re-election, while President Barack Obama only won 8, and Tester won the Obama-Tester counties by more than the President did. He also limited Romney’s margins in red counties, and that combination allowed for the mass overperformance. For the Democrats, that strategy – limit the bleeding in the red areas, run up the Democratic counties, is common – is commonplace – it is how Doug Jones won Alabama in 2017 while only winning 1 Congressional District (the reliably blue 7th).
The next day, a poll from a Democratic pollster backed up the idea that Bullock is ahead with a 49%-46% lead for the Democrat, perfectly in line with the LeanTossup model’s result of 48.9% to 46.1%. Bullock is outrunning the top of the ticket by 12%, and in doing so opens up yet another Democratic path to the Senate that didn’t exist two months ago.
For Daines, the strategy to re-election once your popular governor entered the race was always going to be by trying to limit the number of Trump-Bullock voters. If you could do that, it would be enough, given the state’s Presidential lean. But if Trump is going to be this unpopular with residents of Montana on Election Day – a big if – even that strategy is looking troubled. For now, all Daines can really do is hope the President’s numbers recover – cause if not, Trump’s unpopularity will be a minor hit to the President’s ego and a major hit to the GOP’s Senate chances.
Evan Scrimshaw (@EScrimshaw) is Managing Editor and Head Of Content at LeanTossup.ca and a contributor to the Decision Desk HQ.