In a poll released today by Montana State University, Gov. Steve Bullock is shown leading the 2020 U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Steve Daines, with 46% of respondents saying they’d vote for Bullock if the election were held today. For Daines, that number is 39%.

In the presidential race, President Donald Trump led Democratic candidate Joe Biden by 5.6 percentage points. The poll overall has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6%. The senate race question was addressed to likely voters, a smaller sample size, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6%.

Much of the poll, which surveyed 738 Montanans from mid to late April, focused on the political impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Asked about Bullock’s job performance handling the response, 70% of those surveyed said they approve or strongly approve of his performance. Approval of Daines’ job performance during the coronavirus response was 48%, while 28% said they didn’t know. 

David Parker, chair of MSU’s political science department and one of the poll researchers, largely attributes those numbers to the role executive officials play in times of crisis, and to media coverage and voters attention being focused so intently on the state’s efforts to staunch the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s not like [Sen. Jon] Tester or Daines are out there every day having a stand-up news conference,” Parker said. “The governor’s doing that, health officials and mayors are doing that, school boards are doing that. So sure enough, they’re getting the lion’s share of attention. And people are hungry for action in times of crisis. So they see that and they’re like, ‘I like that. Something is being done.’”

To illustrate the extent of Bullock’s exposure during the pandemic, Parker points to his blog post last month in which he analyzed media mentions of Bullock and Daines during March. Mentions of Daines rarely topped 10 per day even as Congress debated and passed a $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. Bullock’s daily mentions spiked to more than 30 a few days after he declared his candidacy March 9, then jumped to 50 daily mentions after Montana’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced March 13. When Bullock issued a statewide stay-at-home order March 26, his media mentions leapt to nearly 70 per day. According to the poll, more than two-thirds of respondents supported or strongly supported that order.

The results indicate Bullock is also polling well among independents in Montana, commanding a 14-point lead over Daines, with 15% undecided. 

One particular figure that caught Parker’s attention is the appearance of a wide gender gap in the Senate race. Bullock led Daines among women voters 52% to 29%.

“The only way you get a gender gap that big is that not only are there Democratic women voting overwhelming [for] Steve Bullock, you have independent women voting for Steve Bullock and likely a not-inconsequential number of Republican women who are indicating they’re going to vote for Steve Bullock, and that is fascinating,” Parker said.

That gender gap may track with the results of a public health poll released by MSU yesterday that showed women reporting higher levels of stress, life disruption and concern about the coronavirus than men. His role as governor put Bullock on the frontlines of addressing such concerns, and his work has received considerable attention, as evidenced by the elevated media mentions.

Parker said the strong approval of Bullock’s handling of the coronavirus response indicated in the survey mirrors what he’s seen in similar polls across the nation: People have rallied around their governors, and are becoming far more aware of local and state government efforts as a result of the pandemic. In general, efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus have created an environment rich with information and populated by a public clamoring for it. As a result, Parker believes the pandemic could have a significant impact on the 2020 election, and not just on Montana’s Senate race.

“If you have a richer information environment for individuals, the logical consequence should be higher voter turnout, and might be less ballot drop-off as you go further down the ballot,” Parker said.

This story was updated May 5, 2020, to clarify the poll’s margins of error.

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...