Montanans are divided over the job performance of statewide elected officials but generally disapprove of U.S. Department of the Interior recommendations to reduce the size of national monuments, according to results of a new poll announced Thursday by the University of Montana.
Some 62 percent of Montanans polled disapproved of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's recommendations to decrease the size of national monuments, according to UM's inaugural Big Sky Poll. Of 603 respondents, 29 percent approved of the recommendations, and an estimated 9 percent declined to answer the question.
Following Zinke's recommendations, President Donald Trump in December ordered drastic reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah, according to the Associated Press.
Zinke is a former U.S. Navy Seal and served as a Montana congressman until his secretarial appointment.
According to UM, the poll was conducted via telephone between Feb. 1 and Feb. 19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
The Big Sky Poll also evaluated the state's top politicians, including two who are running to keep their seats in 2018, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican.
Respondents rated the politicians as excellent, good, fair or poor, and they generally were split on Tester's performance and gave Gianforte low grades.
An estimated 46 percent of those polled rated the performance of Tester, a moderate Democrat first elected in 2006, as generally favorable, with 19 percent giving him "excellent" marks and 27 percent giving him a "good" grade. Some 48 percent of respondents gave the Big Sandy farmer low ratings, with 23 percent calling his work "fair" and 25 percent "poor."
Just 7 percent of respondents believe Gianforte is doing an "excellent" job, and 23 percent think he's doing a "good" job, with roughly 30 percent viewing his performance as favorable overall. Some 59 percent disapprove of his performance, with 22 percent rating it as "fair" and 37 percent as "poor."
Gianforte is a Bozeman businessman who won a special election in May to complete Zinke's congressional term.
Political analyst Lee Banville said historically, any politician with an approval rating of less than 50 percent — in this case, both Tester and Gianforte —is considered vulnerable.
"I think it leaves open doors for people who may be running against either of those guys," said Banville, a UM journalism associate professor.
However, he also said the poll asked respondents to grade the performance of those politicians, and a voter who considers Gianforte's performance "fair" may still plan to cast a ballot in his favor.
"You always have to watch interpreting too much into what somebody means when they say their job performance is fair," Banville said.
In evaluating the Big Sky Poll outcomes, Banville said the low ratings people gave the Montana Legislature struck him, especially in contrast to that of Gov. Steve Bullock. Republicans control the Legislature, and the governor is a Democrat.
Just 1 percent of those polled consider the Legislature's performance "excellent" compared to 13 percent who consider Bullock's performance at the top. Some 18 percent rated the Legislature's work as "good" and 32 percent rated the governor's work the same.
An estimated 66 percent gave the Legislature losing grades, with 45 percent rating them as "fair" and 21 percent as "poor." By comparison, 49 percent gave the governor low marks, with 32 percent rating him as "fair" and 17 percent as "poor."
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Respondents may be frustrated with the way the state budget unfolded, Banville said, but it's hard to know if they're upset the Legislature didn't do enough to block the governor's agenda or they're angry legislators didn't do enough to help. Either way, he noted the discrepancy.
"The degree to which the Legislature seems to be looking less popular than the governor seems to be interesting," Banville said.
On the other hand, despite President Donald Trump's rocky first year in office, he is still seeing relatively high support from poll respondents, some 43 percent, Banville said. More people gave him low grades, an estimated 53 percent.
However, Trump got "excellent" ratings from 20 percent of respondents and "good" ratings from 23 percent; he received 12 percent "fair" ratings and 41 percent "poor" ratings, numbers that could have been much lower given the crises the White House has faced and at times inflicted on itself in its first 13 months.
"Those aren't bad, given the rough year the president has had," Banville said.
Montana State University political science professor David Parker said he wished the poll had solicited standard approval and disapproval ratings comparable to other surveys rather than the rankings it sought. Because the "excellent" or "fair" ranks don't align just right with the "strongly approve" or "somewhat disapprove" categories, he said observers can't make apples to apples comparisons.
He also said he was struck by the approval ratings for U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican. The outcomes for the other politicians generally track other results Parker has seen, but the ones for Daines look different.
For example, in a recent SurveyMonkey Axios poll, Daines had a 58 percent approval rating, with 21 percent strongly approving and 37 percent somewhat approving, according to a chart of unweighted outcomes linked to the Axios website.
On the other hand, in the Big Sky Poll, just 34 percent of respondents gave Daines a good grade, with 8 percent calling him "excellent" and 26 percent calling him "good."
A similar split exists between the polls when it comes to the president's ratings. According to the unweighted Axios numbers, Trump had a 57 percent total approval rating from polled Montana voters, with 39 percent strongly supporting him and 18 percent somewhat supporting him.
The Big Sky Poll is directed by UM associate professor Sara Rinfret, director of UM’s Master of Public Administration program, and UM marketing associate professor Justin Angle, along with seven graduate students from UM’s MPA and Business Analytics programs.
Rinfret said the reason Big Sky Poll results might not reflect "approval" ratings is because the academics aim to evaluate job performance from a moment in time. She said the poll, which follows best practices and is supported by UM's Social Science Research Laboratory, does not aim to predict outcomes but to get a pulse on Montanans' perspectives.
"We're trying to paint a broader perspective for Montanans on a variety of different topics," Rinfret said.
She said the Big Sky Poll will gather information every year, so longitudinal data will be available. She also noted that outcomes are weighted for gender and for urban versus rural voters.
One goal of the poll is to provide students at UM an applied experience, Rinfret said. As such, the Big Sky Poll will be offered on an ongoing basis with its next iteration planned for fall 2018.
Big Sky Poll Approval Ratings
Gov. Steve Bullock
Mont. State Legislature
Rep. Greg Gianforte
Sen. Steve Daines
Sen. Jon Tester
Pres. Donald Trump