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Demographics Don’t Explain the GOP’s Big Sky Problem

An enduring mystery of the 2012 election cycle is how GOP candidates managed to lose senate races in both Montana and North Dakota, states which voted resoundingly for Mitt Romney–by 13.5 and 19.8 percentage points, respectively. Though pre-election polling data was relatively scant, statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver pegged the likelihood of a Republican victory in North Dakota at 92.5% and in Montana at 65.6%. Instead, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp prevailed over Rick Berg by 1.0% to replace the retiring Kent Conrad, while Democrat Jon Tester–long regarded the cycle’s most vulnerable incumbent–defeated Denny Rehberg by 3.9%.

Post-election analyses have generally cited demographic trends as a prime hurdle for Republicans, but such explanations would appear inapplicable to these races. An analysis [1] (PDF) by the Winston Group, a Republican polling outfit, flags the two outcomes as particularly troubling signs for the party because they cast doubt on popular explanations for why the GOP floundered. Relative to the rest of the country, the “Big Sky” region is old and white; the percentage of young voters actually decreased by 7% in Montana between 2008 and 2012. Such factors would seem to work in Republicans’ favor.

Neither Berg nor Rehberg held particularly “extreme” views by his state’s standards, and neither were unexpected victors in heated primary contests, i.e. Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock. Rehberg, who lost to Tester, had represented Montana’s at-large House district since 2001; Berg had represented North Dakota’s at-large House district since 2011–both were the “establishment” choices. Neither candidate attracted national attention for controversial remarks i.e. Akin or Mourdock, and were known commodities in their state.

And yet Berg underperformed Romney by 9.2%, while Rehberg underperformed Romney by 10.5%. Thus, a significant portion of voters in these states “pulled a switcheroo,” opting for Romney plus a Democratic senate candidate.

An inference to be made here is that while Obama was sufficiently unpopular in “Big Sky” country that Romney won easy victories, this dynamic did not translate into broad-based support for Republicans. In other words, many voters sought to signal their discontent with Obama, but not necessarily re-empower the Republican Party. It seems unlikely that a different tack on immigration policy, one widely-suggested post-election remedy, would alleviate the party’s woes in Montana or North Dakota. Rather, for a host of reasons, conservatives in these states have soured on the national GOP’s brand.

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#1 Comment By M_Young On December 7, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

“. It seems unlikely that a different tack on immigration policy, one widely-suggested post-election remedy, would alleviate the party’s woes in Montana or North Dakota”

Quiet the opposite in fact, with a referendum similar to California’s 187 getting, I believe, near 2/3 of the vote, and outperforming Romney and the other GOP candidates.

#2 Comment By Rogue Elephant On December 7, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

The problem continues to be that we are not able to accurately communicate what being a Republican means, and why it should be in the people’s best interest. I think I came pretty close to a winning strategy in this recent blog over at Conservative Island, hope you enjoy it — [2]

#3 Comment By Noah172 On December 7, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

The two Republicans lost because of economic issues, largely: free trade, not reigning in Wall Street, ruling out tax increases on the wealthy, health care, old folks’ programs, and cost of living.

In Montana, Tester and Rehberg evenly split those who said unemployment was their biggest economic concern, and Tester won comfortably those who said that “rising prices” were their biggest economic concern (the largest group, 43% of all voters, more than twice those who said “taxes”). Tester crushed Rehberg among voters citing health care as an important issue, more than canceling Rehberg’s advantage on the deficit. Rehberg did poorly with independents, underperformed with under-$50K earners, and only barely won the over-$100k set. It should also be noted that Tester is a down-the-line protectionist, rode the antiwar wave to Congress in 2006, and is, for the moment, the most immigration restrictionist Democrat in the Senate (B+ from Numbers USA, soon to be outdone by incoming Democratic Senator Donnelly from Indiana).

There was no exit poll in ND, but Heitkamp hit Berg on taxes (Berg is a multimillionaire who would personally benefit from the policies he advocated), trade, aid to farmers, SS and Medicare, and so on, while cutting against her party’s environmentalist squeamishness with energy production.

#4 Comment By sestamibi On December 7, 2012 @ 4:11 pm

Several problems with this analysis.

First off, the GOP retained control of both US House seats that Berg and Rehberg relinquished, as well as control of both houses of both states’ legislatures and the ND governorship (the MT Dems held their governorship).

Second, ND has no voter registration, a heritage from its days as a sparsely populated, homogenous, rural state. With large numbers of outsiders flooding in to work in the oilfields, the possibility of fraud cannot be ruled entirely out of the question in many locations–especially in a senate race as close as this one was.

#5 Comment By steve in ohio On December 7, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

These two races have had me scratching my head since election day. Is it possible that the Republicans were too establishment? In North Dakota, I read where Berg beat a more conservative candidate. In Montana, a Libertarian and the Republican together received more than 50% of the vote.

#6 Comment By Seki On December 7, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

The answer is simple for those of us who work with the 20-30 years old crowd.

Thanks to Bushs 41 and 43, almost everyone under 30 thinks the Republican party is a joke.

And the GOP fatally insulted the only young people with any interest in the Old Elephant at the Convention. Gee, let Ron Paul be nominated and tally his convention votes. Couldn’t do that much? Really? Party of the Stupid!

Every two years more of the Baby Boomers and their elders fall off the electoral rolls. Every two years, more of New America joins the voting rolls.

Defeat? You ain’t seen nothing yet. GOP extinction by 2022 (after the next re-apportionment) is my prediction. The Demo’s begin to split between the ‘Greens’ and the Hispanics in the absence of any Republican threat.

#7 Comment By Paul Emmons On December 7, 2012 @ 5:34 pm

Here in Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett is well-known for wanting to let the frackers rape the state with a minimum of either regulation or taxation– despite the financial exigencies he also cites to slash various services, especially education. Many Republican candidates for the legislature follow suit.

TAC carried a report just a day or two ago about the horrors endured by North Dakotans who must live on the ground amidst the upheaval occasioned by this frantic quest for fossil fuel. The positions of the losing candidates around these issues might have contributed to their defeat. What were they?

#8 Comment By zathras On December 7, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

Sometimes, you look at universals, sometimes, you look at particulars. In some states, the Democrat won the Senate race because the Republican was so bad (see Missouri and Indiana). In ND and Montana, the Democrat won because they were so good. Tester and Heitkamp are model candidates for Democrats in red states. They know how to talk with their constituents and seem like they are “one of us.”

#9 Comment By Mark in LA On December 7, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

If I was a Montanan I would have voted for Jon Tester as well. He was one of the courageous 5 Democrats that kept the Dream Act from going to the Senate floor for a vote in that lame duck session.

Stick with the devil you know.

#10 Comment By Mark in LA On December 8, 2012 @ 1:32 am

Yes Rogue Elephant, amnesty for illegals, guest workers, free trade, corporate welfare, and licking the boots of Wall Street are winning issues to most Americans. You did say Republicans, didn’t you?

#11 Comment By Jack Shifflett On December 8, 2012 @ 2:32 am

I live in Montana–Missoula, to be specific, a college town and a notoriously liberal bastion. I hate to be the one to bring this up, and I’m certainly impressed by the astute analyses other folks are offering, but maybe we should consider this: President Obama is, um, a person of color, and Jon Tester is not. If you can find a better explanation of the voting discrepancy in this state, by all means, let me know.

#12 Comment By Dakarian On December 8, 2012 @ 4:16 am


That….doesn’t help, sorry. It’s the same grandiose ‘feel good’ statements we always here..and reject. Those are the claims conservatives always make.

it’s also the claims that were followed during the Bush years. That’s the elephant in the room. A lot of America feels that we’ve tried it, and are suffering now to it.

Reading up on the different sides of the Right I believe Libertarians probably have the best shot, especially if the focus fire on key government issues rather than attempting to take down the entire system (not to say you need to deal with it in small bites. I bet you can make a strong case against the federal reserve if you can translate it to something the general public will want. Bah, just saying that the Big Banks are running it should be enough)

Conservatism, though really needs to deal with the Bush factor, and in more than the “It’s in the past, get over it.” The public believes that Bush followed the Conservative mindset by having full reign of the country from 2000-2006 and proved just how horrible it is. Even if you can convince everyone that Obama is worse, it still doesn’t improve Conservative’s image. bah, it might make it worse: if the Far Left can make the case that Obama wasn’t really a Liberal then it can lead to “We tried the Right, we tried Fake-Left, now we need Real-left.”

The questions are: Is Bush a good example of conservatism? If not, then what would a conservative leadership do that Bush didn’t and wouldn’t that mean the Republican party isn’t conservative? If Bush is a good example, then what went wrong and how is it not the fault of conservative policies?

I’ve heard a few mark Bush as betraying the system with his high end spending, though it seems like the alternatives they put out are ones I would’ve made, and I lead left.

The best I’ve heard as far as the latter option try to point to 2006 democrats-which has the scent of holding the Hot Potato until 1 second left then handing it over-Obama (waiting for the Potato to go off THEN passing it over), or Clinton. Clinton has the most weight, though when I hear examples (mostly the deregulation of the housing sector) it makes me think “wait, isn’t that Clinton making a conservative choice then? How does that HELP conservatism’s case?”

If Bush really was a bad example, then Republicans need to do more than just say the same lines over and over. They need to contrast themselves with Bush..no not walk away, actually contrast themselves. That, followed by a down to basics discussion on how conservatism helps the general public can lead to a good revival.

Now if Bush is a good example….it might just be the end of conservatism then, at least for a long, long time.

#13 Comment By Cliff On December 8, 2012 @ 5:18 am

I think zathras has it right. I don’t know much about Heitkamp but Jon Tester seems purpose-built to represent Montana in the Senate.

#14 Comment By JonF On December 8, 2012 @ 7:21 am

Re: With large numbers of outsiders flooding in to work in the oilfields, the possibility of fraud cannot be ruled entirely out

If the oil workers now reside in North Dakota are they not entitled to vote there, per the laws of that state? And the fact that Romney racked up a large majority would argue against vote fraud.
In Montana Tester had the advantage of incumbency, and as others note here he was no wild-eyed liberal, but a solid local guy (Republicans of that sort– moderate and well-liked– that can also win in solid blue states). I would agree that the North Dakota race was a real surprise, but not so Montana.

#15 Comment By CharleyCarp On December 8, 2012 @ 9:37 am

Quick, without googling, name an accomplishment of Rep. Rehberg.

#16 Pingback By Right Quick: Grand Old Demographics « Token Dissonance On December 8, 2012 @ 10:27 am

[…] the reasons for the mixed message in the Midwest, The American Conservative reminds us to keep an eye on the plains: “Relative to the rest of the country, the “Big Sky” region is old and white; the percentage […]

#17 Comment By Noah172 On December 8, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

Jack Shifflett,

Were you in Montana four years ago? In that election, Obama got 47.1% of the vote — the best showing for a Democrat in the state since 1964 (Clinton eked out a win in 1992, but with a lower share because of the Perot factor).

Unless you are willing to argue that Montana voters were unaware of Obama’s ancestry (half-white, let’s not forget) in 2008 but were suddenly deeply troubled by it in 2012, let’s knock off the racism accusations.

BTW, in Missoula County Obama’s popular vote declined by 10% in 2012 compared to 2008, and his percentage of the vote declined 4.3 percentage points; these figures aren’t much less than Obama’s declines statewide — 13% and 5.4 percentage points, respectively. How many “racists” are there in your “liberal bastion”?

#18 Comment By Travis On December 8, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

Yes, the Bush elephant in the room is a much, much bigger issue than conservatives want to admit.

My young adulthood – from 18 to 25 – was spent under George W. Bush’s presidency. Now admittedly, I was of liberal inclinations even before then, but here is what I watched happen during that time:

Massive tax cuts focused on the wealthy
Two unnecessary foreign wars and occupations
Explosive growth in military spending
Mushrooming budget deficits
A multi-billion-dollar subsidy program for Big Pharma
Fundamentally un-American policies on torture, trial, imprisonment and surveillance
Dramatic increase in income/wealth inequality
Giant taxpayer-sponsored bailouts for investment banks
Demagoguery of gay and lesbian Americans

Now, you might say “Obama hasn’t been much better on some of these issues” – and you’d be right. But at this point in time, I am inclined to permanently associate GWB’s abhorrent policies with the GOP, and nothing the GOP has done since then has made me think they’d do anything differently.

Thus, I just laugh when Republicans want to talk about budget deficits or fairness or small government – because the last GOP president did exactly the opposite of all of that.

George W. Bush made me, effectively, a permanent Democratic voter.

#19 Comment By Adam Nedsoulis On December 9, 2012 @ 2:48 am

Not really surprising, when one considers that–over the past two decades–the Republican Party, like a turtle (sorry, Mitch) withdrawing into its shell, has hunkered down in Jesusland, i.e., the South. I see no dichotomy in “Big Sky” Americans voting for Romney, a Mormon (read: Not a genuine Jesus-lover) for the presidency, while eschewing support for two men who might have flipped the Senate into the hands of wannabe theocrats.

#20 Comment By Don Quijote On December 9, 2012 @ 8:07 am

Yes, they do…

You have an older and whiter state and you run on a platform of privatizing Medicare and you expect to win?

How many of these older white people got a few missives from the AARP accusing the Republican Party of wanting to cut or just plain kill Medicare? Every damn one of them.

#21 Comment By CharleyCarp On December 9, 2012 @ 9:59 am

Noah, I live in Missoula as well. While I don’t think racism can be completely ruled out here or anywhere else as a factor, I think it also pretty relevant that the President had virtually no campaign presence here at all. No one thought it was going to be close, and so all the money and energy went into our two marquee races: senate and governor.

(Actually, I think racism was a bigger factor in our statewide race for superintendent of public instruction — the votes for which are going to be recounted. Maybe: it’s in the courts.)

#22 Comment By Seth Owen On December 9, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

I’ll echo Travis, except to note that the reasons he note also apply to a fair number of older voters as well. Until Bush the younger I was a fairly reliable Republican voter, if not an automatic one as I would split my vote on occasion.

The Bush years and worse, the evident GOP inability to do some self-examination about why those years were such a fiasco, has turned me into just as reliable a Democrat vote. That’s not to say I wouldn’t consider splitting my vote — but I haven’t since 2004.

#23 Comment By james On December 9, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

I live in Billings, Montana, & I voted a mix ticket for several reasons. One, our Democrats tend to be quite moderate, whereas the Republicans have an obnoxious tendency towards being toadies to the current ruling GOP powers. I voted Tester because I agreed with his policies on immigration, trade, & federal funding for college students. His environmental positions help, too.

I voted Romney because Obama he was so very ineffective in dealing with the opposition (both foreign & congressional), & I didn’t see why that’d change with re-election.

#24 Comment By Jack Shifflett On December 9, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

Noah: yes, I was in Montana four years ago (that’s when I got my “Trout for Obama” bumper sticker!). As to how many racists there are in the liberal bastion of Missoula–it’s probably more than zero, but I’ll try to take a census on the subject and get back to you. Meanwhile, I’ll ask you to consider that citing “race as a factor” might not be exactly the same thing as claiming “racism as a factor”. I know a number of folks here in Missoula whose opinions about the President seem (to me) related to or influenced by his race, but none of them are folks I’d call “racist”. (Given his mixed parentage, maybe only half their antipathy is due to race?) Obama’s 47.1% showing here in 2008 is quite easily explained–just ask Mitt Romney. Finally: remember, the question here is, how to explain the discrepancy between the Obama vote and the Tester vote? I don’t know a single person in Montana (not even in the People’s Republic of Missoula) who is all that impressed by Jon Tester’s performance thus far in the Senate; but he still out-performed the President at the polls.

#25 Comment By Bob Larson On December 10, 2012 @ 9:14 am

I am a liberal who has lived in both Montana and North Dakota.

Tester and Heitkamp won in large part because they ran against weak Republican candidates. And both of them ran effective, populist campaigns.

Berg lost his home county (Cass County – Fargo) by a large margin. Berg was one of the founders of Goldmark Properties who are basically the slumlords of Fargo. Just ask any college student who stayed in a Goldmark property if they ever got their security deposit back.

North Dakota’s state house and senate both increased their already large majorities. Berg lost because he was a flawed candidate. Generic Republican candidate would probably have defeated Heidi.

Rehberg is a pretend rancher who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. His family recently sued the city of Billings in a dispute over fire protection. He was also involved in a late-night boat crash on Flathead Lake where the driver (and Rehberg) were both intoxicated. In short, Rehberg was not a strong candidate.

#26 Comment By icarusr On December 10, 2012 @ 10:21 am

“the possibility of fraud cannot be ruled entirely out of the question in many locations–especially in a senate race as close as this one was.”

If you want to know what ails the Republican Party, read no further, and no other, than this line.

Bear in mind that the author of this particular bit of wisdom actually notes that Republicans won the at-large House seats; and the question posed by the main article is why Senate candidates outperformed the President. The answer: out of state oil worker illegally voted for Senate candidates (who are essentially local), but voted against the House (at-large) candidates and the President (the only national candidate). The logic is blinding, of course.

As I said in a comment in another post, so long as Republicans are the anti-ACORN and “voter fraud” party, they cannot expect much more than the 47% they are getting, mostly from the Southern Strategy states.

#27 Comment By icarusr On December 10, 2012 @ 10:30 am

Jack: “Meanwhile, I’ll ask you to consider that citing “race as a factor” might not be exactly the same thing as claiming “racism as a factor”.”

There are, I think, two issues related to race. First, objectively speaking, Obama has done better than at least a couple of white Democratic Presidential candidates, and not particularly worse than the rest. It is not so much the race of the candidate that determines the Presidential vote, but, to the extent that race is a factor – and Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and Lee Atwater, would attest that it is – the issue is “race-identification of the Party”. The Democratic Party is viewed as the party of equal opportunity for Blacks, and as such, it is considered the party of disenfranchisement for certain groups of Whites. Democrats can put John Winthrop himself on the ticket and will lose the Southern Strategy vote.

Second, the race of the candidate matters in terms of how he is discussed and criticised. I remember a Marty Peretz article in TNR in which the author talked about how clueless Obama was, such that his Generals had to tell him the ABCs of military engagement. Then there is Sununu’s despicable, “He needs to learn what America is all about”, or Cornyn’s (either him or Coburn), “Pat him on the head and say, son, you’ve got to go home now” – not a direct quote, but he did say, “son” and “pat on the head”. That sort of monumental condescension has little to do with actual critique and quite a lot with the race of the President, somewhat contextually bare in Peretz’s article, and overt in the case of Sununu and the other oik.

#28 Comment By Bob On December 10, 2012 @ 11:19 am

Rehberg lost because of this case:
Rehberg Ranch v. City of Billings Complaint
He cost the citizens of Billings, MT over $20k defending his lawsuit. That angered enough people to cost him the election.