After losing a string of contests to rival Hillary Clinton, Montana offers Barack Obama his best chance to head into the general election with a head of steam.
He's riding a double-digit polling lead over Clinton in Montana, one of two primaries today that will end voting in their epic battle. The other state voting today – South Dakota – appears headed for a closer finish.
Obama has won many of the neighboring Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states—most of which were caucus formats. But Montana holds a primary election, and its demographics would seem well suited to Clinton.
“The Democratic Party here traditionally has been grounded in union support and using populist themes,” said Jim Lopach, a political science professor at the University of Montana. “You would think that would give Hillary Clinton an advantage here.”
But Lopach said there seems to be more enthusiasm in Montana for Obama, though he wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton kept things close.
A narrow Clinton loss, combined with a surprise win in South Dakota could lend energy to her last-ditch appeals to the superdelegates who will decide the nomination or – if nothing else – complicate her decision on whether to drop out.
Here are five things the pros will be watching in Montana:
East vs. West
Though Obama led Clinton 52 to 35 percent (with 13 percent undecided) among likely Democratic voters in Montana in a Mason-Dixon poll conducted May 19-21, his margin came almost entirely from the western part of the state.
“We had Clinton ahead in eastern Montana,” said Brad Coker, director of the poll.
The eastern part of the state is more rural and less densely populated. And it has all the demographic makings of Clinton country: lots of seniors, farmers and blue collar workers.
“If she starts cutting into his margins in the western part of the state, it could be closer,” said Coker.
That might be easier said than done, though, since the western part of the state seems well-suited for Obama. There are two big university towns – Missoula, home to the University of Montana and Bozeman, home to Montana State University.
Plus, there are clusters of younger and affluent voters around the ski resorts near Kalispell. And the state capitol of Helena is home to a significant population of well-educated white-collar government workers.
Clinton could make inroads in Western Montana in Butte, an old mining center, Great Falls, home to an Air Force base, and Anaconda, another older mining town.
The battle for Billings
About 15 percent of the state’s population live in Billings, Montana’s largest city with about 100,000 residents, and surrounding Yellowstone County.
As home to most of the state’s Democrats, Yellowstone County could be determinative. It’s considered cowboy country, but Billings is also a commercial hub with a population of professionals.
If Clinton wins the city and county by a good margin—and she is favored there—she could hold down Obama’s margin statewide.
The tribal vote
Montana’s seven Indian reservations are home to only about 8 percent of the population, but typically produce 20 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries.
Both candidates have assiduously courted the Indian vote, which is notoriously difficult to poll, thanks to the scarcity of telephone service on the reservations.
Obama visited the reservations of two tribes, the Fort Peck and Crow Nation, won endorsements by tribal leaders, and was even “adopted” into one of the them.
Hillary and Bill Clinton have held a combined three closed-door meetings with tribal leaders to talk about problems in Indian country, and the president of the Northern Cheyenne tribe has endorsed Clinton.
Still, the Clinton campaign is concerned about the Indian vote. That’s because they believe Indian country may be reluctat to accept a female president and Obama’s “Hope” rhetoric could play well in its economically distressed communities.
The student vote
The Obama team has asserted that the student vote – a major source of their support – has been on the decline somewhat in the contests held in and after May, when most universities let out for the summer.
It’s easier to organize students and get them to the polls when they’re surrounded by other students, the thinking goes, than when they’ve returned home.
But Montana’s student population is slightly different, according to Lopach of the University of Montana, who said it skews older and less transient.
Even though both the University of Montana in Missoula and Montana State wrapped up their school years with May 10 graduation ceremonies, Lopach said there are still plenty of students around.
“A lot of their students are older and work, and so they’re not as mobile as traditional-age students,” he said. “They do live in the community, because their kids are there, their spouses are there, they have jobs there.”
Plus, early voting started about one week before commencement and same-day registration could make it easier for new, young voters, like those Obama has attracted in other states, to cast ballots.
Rush Limbaugh vs. Obamacans
Montana, which doesn’t have party registration, opens its primaries to all voters, and both campaigns will be keeping an eye on high percentages of Democratic primary votes coming out of Republican counties.
Though there are competitive Republican primaries, including one for the open attorney general’s office, the campaigns expect self-identified Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary.
There are two schools of thought about the motivations of crossover vote.
Obama has been able to lure Republicans across the aisle to vote for him and his aides are hoping to benefit from what they call the "independent spirit and vote" of the state.
But some conservatives – most notably radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh – have encouraged Republicans to vote for Clinton to prolong the Democratic primary in the hopes that it will weaken Obama as he heads into a likely general election matchup with presumptive Republican nominee John McCain.