Monday, April 2, 2018

Carhartt, Bloodlines, and Place of Birth: The Recurrent Battle Over Who’s the Most Montanan

This is a special guest post by Kal Munis, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia. Kal is a lifelong Montanan, and is an alum of both Montana State and the University of Montana. I expect to feature his work often here.

With the 2018 midterm elections just a little over seven months away, candidates have begun to ramp up efforts to distinguish themselves from one another. In addition to the various typical dimensions on which we might expect those aspiring to represent us to stress their unique qualifications—such as prior political experience, policy positions and past accomplishments—there is another conspicuous characteristic upon which political candidates in Montana attempt to out-maneuver one another: successfully conveying that they possess an authentic Montanan identity.
 Typically, candidates try to signal to voters that they share with them various attachments to the customs, values, and lived experiences particular to their geographical constituency. They do so in numerous ways including in video advertisements, mailers, press releases, emails, social media postings and other campaign media. It should be noted that these activities don’t stop at election day—indeed, many politicians will continue to cultivate their image of place-based authenticity as a component of what political scientists refer to as their “home-style.”
Candidates in Montana and elsewhere clearly engage in this behavior cycle after cycle due a belief in the campaign community that it is an effective practice. In a content analysis of all video based advertisements that were paid for by campaigns during the 2012 and 2014 U.S. Senate elections, I found that these types of ads are widespread throughout the country, with the highest level of usage being clustered in Western states such as Montana. Despite their seeming ubiquitousness, it remains unknown whether campaigns' decisions to deploy these appeals are evidence based or the product of folk-wisdom based inertia.
 Irrespective of their effectiveness, however, some pundits (and voters—see the comments on this ad) have remarked that excessive hand-wringing over which candidate is the most Montanan borders on xenophobic, particularly when such concerns are tied to place of birth. At the same time, however, it seems widely accepted that the success of many candidates in Montana, particularly Democrats Senator Jon Tester and Governor Steve Bullock (as well as former Governor Brian Schweitzer), has been largely predicated on their ability to connect with voters on the basis of place.
In large part, the mechanism through which this connection has been fostered in Montana, as well as that upon which many campaign appeals based on place identity are made, is the candidate's birthplace. For successful Democratic candidates in Montana, it seems that part of the litmus test has been whether they’re a native of the state. For a recent example, look no further than Governor Bullock’s successful 2016 reelection bid against then Republican gubernatorial candidate and current U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte. In that race, the Bullock campaign was able to successfully paint Gianforte as an outsider with deep connections to California and New Jersey. So out of touch with Montana was Gianforte, according to Bullock’s campaign, that he was willing to try to run roughshod over that which many Montanans hold to be most sacred: public lands. The narrative was simple: Bullock, a native Montanan, respects and maintains Montana values, whereas Gianforte—a Californian multi-millionaire by way of New Jersey—does not. The result, meanwhile, was shocking, as returns revealed that Bullock defeated Gianforte by 4 points, all while Gianforte’s co-partisan in the presidential race, Donald Trump, crushed his Democratic foe by a staggering 22 points.
As part of the 2018 midterm elections, Tester will defend his Senate seat and multiple Republicans are competing in their party’s primary to challenge him. Currently, most observers regard Matt Rosendale as being the front runner among these challengers. And, if recent advertisements are any indication, it would seem that several left-aligned groups, including the Montana Democratic Party, consider him to be the front-runner as well.
In a recent advertisement, the MTDP makes an overtly place identity charged indictment of “Maryland Matt” Rosendale, namely that he is an outsider who “doesn’t share our Montana values.” In the ad, the MTDP takes a ‘don’t just take our word for it’ strategy by relying mostly upon statements made by (or on behalf of) prominent Montana Republicans, as well as upon a compilation of footage of Rosendale himself butchering the pronunciation of the state he is running to represent in Washington. The statements (which are attributed variously to current U.S. Senate primary opponent Russ Fagg, former U.S. House primary opponent and current Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, and to a PAC that supported Ryan Zinke in the 2014 Republican primary for the U.S. House of Representatives) all suggest that Rosendale’s non-native born status should be viewed as a deficiency in the eyes of voters. Of these statements, Stapleton’s makes the case against Rosendale’s non-native status most powerfully, stating “we don’t need that East Coast value here in Montana, we don’t need somebody from the East Coast representing us in Montana, we need a Montanan representing us on the East Coast.”
This theme, though in decidedly less antagonistic tone, was on display yet again a few weeks ago in Bozeman at the Republican U.S. Senate candidate forum (not a debate!) put on by the College Republicans at Montana State University. The forum, which featured Rosendale and his three opponents, Troy Downing (a fellow non-native from California), Albert Olszewski, and Russel Fagg, saw all candidates take pains to stress their connections to Montana and demonstrate their embrace of Montana values. Rosendale and Downing (the non-native candidates) did so in decidedly apologetic fashion, with the following statement by Downing being emblematic of the tone: “I’ve always been a Montanan, it just took me 31 years to get here.” Fagg and Olszewski (the native candidates), meanwhile made their born and raised Montanan bonafides front and center from the outset, with Fagg, for example, noting that he “has the Montana roots, the Montana endorsements, (and) the Montana donations.”
It was a portion of Fagg’s closing statement as well as Rosendale’s that followed, however, that really drew my attention. In his last appeal to the crowd in Bozeman that night, Fagg made his case that his native Montana roots would be critical to defeating native Jon Tester in 2018. “I’m a fourth generation Montanan…and (my family) has live and loved Montana since before Montana was a state,” he said “[…] and the reason that’s important, I appreciate everyone that has moved to Montana because they love Montana, but the Democrats are going to unmercifully beat up two of my opponents because they moved here nine years ago (Downing) and fifteen years ago (Rosendale). It may not be fair, but it’s the truth. If you put me on that ticket, that takes that argument away from Senator Tester.” Fagg then went on to note that he has to date collected the lion’s share of endorsements from prominent Montana Republicans from well-known names such as Marc Racicot and Denny Rehberg (Rosendale, meanwhile, has the support of prominent national Republicans such U.S. Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee) before passing the mic to Rosendale.
Fagg’s point was brought into stark relief just moments later when Rosendale mispronounced “Montana” so badly that even I, a social scientist who studies the role of place-based identities in politics, couldn’t help but to find it grating. In my defense, it was the contrast of Rosendale’s mispronunciation and Fagg’s ominous message regarding the importance of Montana roots in eyes of Montana voters that made the moment so powerful. And, apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice—the MTDP released the “Maryland Matt” ad just a few days later and appeared to indirectly reference the forum in a short blurb accompanying the ad’s posting.
Do voters care about where candidates were born? To begin to investigate this question, I draw upon data from three different surveys that I have fielded (one in Autumn 2015, one in Spring 2017, and another in early fall 2017) utilizing Mechanical Turk samples. All respondents in these surveys reside in the United States. Within each survey, I included a question asking whether and how important respondents thought it was that candidates running for Congress in their state had been born there. In the most recent two surveys, an additional question was asked regarding whether respondents felt that candidates born in their state were more likely to understand the values and needs of people in their state.

Table 1: How important do you think it is for candidates running for Congress
in your state to have been born in your state?

Fall 2015
Spring 2017
Fall 2017
Extremely Important


Very Important


Moderately Important


Slightly Important


Not at all important

Results for the first question are remarkably stable across all three samples, as can be seen in Table 1. In the most recent sample, one third of respondents indicated that they felt candidate place of birth to be highly important (including both the “extremely important” and “highly important” categories). A little over a quarter of respondents indicated candidate place of birth to be moderately important. Meanwhile, a minority of respondents (41%) indicated that candidate place of birth is only slightly important or not important at all to them.

Table 1: In general, do you think that candidates born in your state are better
at understanding the values and needs of people in your state?

Spring 2017
Fall 2017




            As for respondents’ perceptions regarding whether native born candidates are more likely to better understand the values and needs of their constituency, a large plurality in both samples (an average of 47.5%) indicated that they felt this was the case, with a small minority (an average of 14%) of respondents saying this wasn’t likely to be the case. A large number of respondents in both samples indicated that they were unsure regarding this question (38%). These results are presented in Table 2.
            To further explore responses to these questions, I use various methods (including ANOVA, OLS, and logistic regression) to model the relationship between responses to these questions and respondents’ partisanship.[1] First, I estimate the association between how important respondents rated candidate birthplace and respondents’ partisanship while controlling for the influence of other background characteristics. Results show that, on average, the place of birth of political candidates is significantly more important to Republicans (by about 25%) than it is for Democrats even after controlling for the influence of respondents' level of educational attainment, gender, self-reported recent voting history, and whether the respondent lived in a rural area. Moreover, further analysis reveals that Republicans’ average importance rating of candidate place of birth is significantly higher than that of independents as well, though Democrats and independents do not differ significantly from one another in this respect. Finally, I model the association between partisanship and perceptions of whether being born in state imparts upon candidates a special constituency related knowledge (all while again controlling for a number of other related factors). Results indicate that Republicans are 4.5 times more likely on average to indicate that candidates born in their state typically better understand the values and problems associated with that state.
            Taken together, these results suggest that many Americans see candidate place of birth as being an important attribute of political candidates. More specifically, a majority of people in my sample indicated that it is at least moderately important that candidates be born in the state that they seek to represent in Congress, with a full third indicating that they feel it is highly important. Moreover, a plurality of respondents indicated that they believe that candidates born in the state they are running in are more likely to understand the needs and values of their constituency. Results also indicate a significant association between these considerations and partisanship, with Republicans endorsing both to a greater extent than non-Republicans on average. All of this is especially noteworthy considering that these results are derived from a sample comprising survey respondents from all across the United States. And, in terms of demographic characteristics, the sample skews slightly younger, more liberal, and more educated than the American population as a whole—as well as Montana. So, if anything, I would expect the patterns and statistical associations described above to increase in magnitude if the sample were one perfectly representative of Montana.
            Finally, in relating all of this back to Montana politics, the results presented here seem to lend some credence to Republican candidate Russ Fagg’s (as well as many others) warning to Republican primary voters that (in)congruence between where candidates are born and the district they hope to represent is important to voters—and, at least in this sample, especially amongst self-identified Republicans. And, since Tester will almost certainly have to win over a considerable percentage of voters who recently voted for our Republican president, these results suggest that one fruitful path for him to do so would be to continue to appeal to voters on the basis of shared Montana values and identity (as Bullock did in his successful 2016 reelection bid). Whether and to what degree he is able to do so could very well be moderated by whether a native-born Republican, such as Fagg or Olszewski, is at the top of the Republican ticket.
B. Kal Munis is, amongst other things, a 6th generation Montana native and alumnus of both Montana State University and the University of Montana. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter @KalMunis.

[1] If you want more specifics on the data and my analyses, please send me an email or leave a comment below.