Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why Did Terry Nelson's performance last night made me curious?

On Election Night, both Mike Dennison and I were struck by the vote totals obtained by Terry Nelson, who was running for the Republican nomination for Governor, and Eric Mills, who was running for the nonpartisan Supreme Court. Nelson obtained 24 percent of the vote, and Mills received 20 percent of the vote. Neither ran a campaign of any note, nor did they spend any money. Nelson had raised $1,300 but spent none of it. Mills had $300. Why did they do so well without spending any money? It was curious.

I said as much on air, and sent out a tweet about the Republican primary vote totals earlier today. Former standout student Kendall Cotton suggested it wasn't odd--about 25 percent of primary voters go to the second candidate since 1996. He suggested it was par for the course--there's not much to see here. Move along.

Then why did Governor Bullock manage to get 92 percent of the vote and his opponent only 8 percent? I actually expected there would be more of a Democratic protest vote given that he is on his third Lt. Governor and the persistent attacks in paid media over the Governor's use of his plane. So it seemed odder still that Greg Gianforte, who I presumed had pretty much universal Republican support, would have done better than 75 percent. Especially given the fact that his opponent spent nothing.

Kendall's explanation sounded interesting. But then I looked at campaign finance expenditures from Follow The Money. Take a peak:

1996. Natelson received 23 percent of the vote in 1996 Republican primary. He spent $125,000.
2000. Natelson received 43 percent of the vote in the 2000 Republican primary. He spent $219,000.
2004. John Vincent received 27 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. He spent $48,000.
2008. Larry Steele spent $2,073 in the Republican primary and got 19 percent of the vote.

Only Steele fits the pattern of almost no money spent and a vote share north of 10 or 15 percent. Otherwise, all the candidates spent some money--and many had some name recognition from their involvement in politics.

So, we have an observation: Terry Nelson spends no money. Hardly campaigns. And gets 24 percent of the vote while Greg Gianforte spends a considerable sum and gets 75 percent of the vote. We might conclude that:

1. Republicans are ornery and about a quarter just vote against the presumed nominee because they don't like presumed nominees (then why, pray, are Democrats less ornery this year?)

2. Some Republicans are not satisfied with Greg Gianforte as their major party nominee.

3. Something else is going on. Perhaps Democrats are crossing over (but really? With the Sanders-Clinton race)?

Does this mean Greg Gianforte will have trouble winning in the fall? It depends on whether 1, 2, or 3 are operative in this instance. He might go on to victory against Steve Bullock with a unified Republican Party. Or, he might have some lingering trouble with his base--a la Congressman Rehberg in 2012, when candidate Teske (spending about $20,000) received a similar share of the vote. And the Congressman did have some trouble with the base--as some Republicans (as detailed in Battle for the Big Sky) abandoned him for Libertarian Dan Cox and others for incumbent Democrat Jon Tester.

I lead you to draw your own conclusions.

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