Assault slowed overall votes for Gianforte but might have grown them in some counties

May 28, 2017 GMT

MISSOULA — As ballots were counted Thursday night, many political observers had one key question: Would Democrat Rob Quist pull out a come-from-behind victory because voters were angry over allegations that Republican Greg Gianforte physically assaulted a reporter the day before?

No, as it turns out. Gianforte secured a clear, if narrow, victory over Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks, with 50.2 percent of the vote.

“The events of the last 24 hours really didn’t have much of an effect on the people who voted on Election Day,” Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said. “I was a little surprised by that.”

But an analysis of state election figures shows that Quist did receive an apparent boost in some counties from the news that his opponent had been cited for misdemeanor assault. However, it was largely negated by other counties where support for Gianforte actually grew after the incident saturated national news.

The regional differences seem to suggest that Montana voters interpreted the citation differently depending on their existing political views or apathy.

“Everybody has an individual filter and assumptions,” said Craig Wilson, an emeritus politics professor at Montana State University-Billings.

More than two-thirds of ballots were cast by mail in the month leading up to Election Day. On Wednesday night, a reporter approached Gianforte and asked him about health care reform in a short but testy exchange in which witnesses say the Republican grabbed the writer by or near the throat, threw him to the ground and punched him as he yelled at him.

After investigating, the Gallatin County Sheriff issued a citation for misdemeanor assault to Gianforte, who has until June 7 to appear in Justice Court, where he could face a maximum of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

News of the incident exploded on social media and dominated cable news broadcasts that evening and well into election day, with commentators wondering how it would influence decisions at the polls.

Liberal national political organizations poured money into last-minute ads in an attempt to boost Democratic turnout. They shared audio of the incident on social media and texted some potential voters with messages such as, “Hi — did you see Greg Gianforte attacked and choked a reporter last night? …. This is crazy.”

The quick turnaround producing those kinds of attack campaigns is a relatively new phenomenon, said Anthony Johnstone, a campaign finance expert at the School of Law at the University of Montana.

“In this case, they were chasing after a relatively small share of the electorate that hadn’t already voted and an even smaller share of that electorate that isn’t so disgusted by the events that they actually want to show up to the polls on Election Day,” he said.

More than $17 million poured into the 85-day contest, largely from national political organizations. Johnstone said it will be weeks before a complete tally is available and before analysts can see exactly how much went into these final campaign attacks on Gianforte.

Montana law does not allow people to change their ballot after it has been cast. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton suggests only a sliver of Montanans sought to do so, tallying 17 calls to his office’s main line. Some county election clerks told reporters they also had received inquiries.

At the polls Thursday, most voters who talked with reporters said the incident did not change their vote, although some said it encouraged them to show up rather than skip the election.

To any extent that Gianforte did worse on Election Day compared to mail ballots sent before his citation, voter outrage apparently was not strong enough that the overall outcome of the race would have been different if all ballots been cast that day, Stapleton said.

He noted that among the people who requested mail ballots for the fall elections, 94 percent cast votes in those races. Yet, among those same voters, only 74 percent mailed in their ballot this time, suggesting lower overall engagement.

“That’s significant. That’s a choice. Those ballots sat on their kitchen tables for 30 days and they did not send them in,” he said.

Some election volunteers said they talked to voters Thursday who had planned not to vote in the election but changed their mind after the alleged assault by Gianforte.

Because they had already thrown away their mail ballot, they had to cast one in-person at their polling location. It is unclear how many people who received absentee ballots chose to vote in-person instead or dropped off their mail ballot at a polling location because of the incident.

Because of the way votes are tallied, the state’s top election official could not provide a breakdown that shows which candidate won at the polls versus by mail. Each county election office counts its ballots, some by hand and others by machine, then transmit updates to Stapleton’s office. Those messages do not include information about whether each new count is based on mail or in-person ballots. But in general, the first results posted at 8 p.m. reflect mail votes only because polls had just closed.

And it’s those 8 p.m. numbers, along with absentee vote tallies, that Wilson used to answer the question political observers had Thursday: Did the assault shift votes?

“Yes,” said the pollster and statistician who has long analyzed Montana elections. “It varied a whole lot by county.”

Wilson’s conclusions were supported by an independent Lee Newspapers analysis of the same underlying figures.

In Missoula County, Quist received 61.4 percent of the early votes and 67.5 percent of the Election Day ballots. But the apparent boost for Quist in that urban Democratic stronghold was negated by two reliably Republican counties where nearly 40 percent of the vote was cast on Election Day.

In Ravalli County, 57.8 percent of mail voters and 63.1 percent of in-person voters supported the Republican. In Flathead County, Gianforte secured 54.9 percent of mail and 61.6 percent of in-person votes.

A shift was less obvious in other places.

Democrats used to regularly win Cascade County, but it is now a swing area that Republicans have won in some recent key races. There, figures show no significant difference in the attitudes of voters toward Gianforte. He received 50 percent of the votes before and 48.9 percent after the news of his assault.

Johnstone said the numbers suggest Montana voters fit the broader trend that America’s two major political parties are drifting apart and their supporters are becoming less likely to flip votes.

“It is not surprising we would see national polarization reach into Montana, particularly given the way this race was nationalized by parties and outside donors to some extent,” he said. “Another effect of the Gianforte incident might have been to turn off moderate voters on either side even as it mobilized more engaged voters.”

It is difficult to know for sure whether the assault was the only reason for a gap between results among mail and in-person voters. Political analysts said they also might reflect underlying differences between the types of voters who cast absentee ballots and those who choose to vote on Election Day, or demographic characteristics that tend to shape voter perspectives, such as age, race and income.