Control of the United States Senate may hinge on Montana, where Democratic Senator Jon Tester is set to face what could be his toughest re-election bid. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines, a fellow Montanan, is taking the effort to unseat Tester seriously. As Montana voted for Trump by over 15 points in 2020, it is in the same class of highly vulnerable Democratic-held Senate seats as West Virginia and Ohio.
For Tester to win in 2024, he will naturally need to generate ticket-splitting from Republican white voters. But most importantly, he will need a robust turnout among the 6.6% of Montana’s electorate that is Native American. This article will offer an overview of Montana’s 7 federally recognized reservations and then look at their historical turnout and some possible hypothetical scenarios.
Montana’s seven federal reservations are pictured below:
Flathead Reservation (1)
The Flathead Reservation is the most populous of Montana’s seven reservations. Encompassing portions of Lake, Missoula, and Sanders Counties, roughly 31,000 people live within the Flathead boundaries. The Native tribes located within the Flathead Reservation are a confederation of Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles. Uniquely among Montana’s 7 reservations, only 34% of people living within the reservation are actually Native American. A big factor in encouraging a strong white presence in the Flathead Reservation is the 1904 Flathead Allotment Act. This act led to a cycle of indigenous Native residents of the land selling allotments of land to settle debts to white settlers. The largest municipality on the reservation is Polson. On balance, Republican-leaning. But certain Democrats like former Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Jon Tester can make it closer through a combination of Native voters punching above their weight and crossover white support.
Blackfeet Reservation (2)
The Blackfeet Reservation lies within Glacier and Pondera Counties, situated between the Canadian border and the peaks of Glacier National Park. Headquartered in the city of Browning, the Blackfeet Reservation is over 83% Native. The primary demographic here is the eponymous Blackfeet Tribe.
Rocky Boy’s Reservation (3)
Rocky Boy’s Reservation straddles the border between Hill and Chouteau Counties in north-central Montana, near the towns of Big Sandy and Havre. Rocky Boy’s Reservation is very small, with fewer than 4,000 residents, but nearly all are Native. Generally between 88 and 93 percent of voters here are Democratic, except for Jon Tester who is a Big Sandy native. Tester earned near-unanimous support here in 2018.
Fort Belknap Reservation (4)
The Fort Belknap Reservation encompasses just over 4,000 people living in Blaine and Phillips Counties, made up of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, the latter of which is also known as the A’aninin. The reservation developed around the Fort Belknap Agency.
Fort Peck Reservation (5)
The Fort Belknap Reservation encompasses 2 million acres in northeastern Montana, spanning the Counties of Valley, Roosevelt, Daniels, and Sheridan. Major towns include Frazer, Wolf Point, Brockton, and Poplar. The Fort Peck reservation is one of the less-Democratic areas looked at in this article. Wolf Point is only 60% Native compared to 81% reservation-wide — as a result, the town is relatively evenly divided politically.
Crow Reservation (6)
The Crow Reservation spans portions of Yellowstone and Big Horn Counties, right next to the town of Hardin. The Crow reservation is the largest in Montana, and is home to numerous coal deposits, including one active coal mine. A substantial portion of reservation inhabitants speak the Crow language as a mother tongue, in place of English.
Northern Cheyenne Reservation (7)
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation spans portions of Rosebud and Big Horn Counties, and is home to the localities of Lame Deer, Busby, and Ashland. The residents belong to the Cheyenne and Crow tribes. Situated right next to the Custer National Forest, and near the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the reservation is the only spot of Democratic strength amid a wide plain of Republican domination.
A set of demographic and political data for each of the seven reservations is printed below:
Native voters on reservations in Montana face many issues when engaging in the political process, including rural isolation, poverty, language barriers, and a Republican legislature that has passed voting initiatives with negative impacts on Native communities. All of this leads to a systematic discrepancy between the turnout rates of white and Native voters.
The next section of the article will examine these turnout discrepancies and what they could mean.
Given the racial polarization apparent in and around reservations, the percentage of voters that is Native is usually a good approximation for how blue or red an area can be. With this in mind, let us look at how Native populations relate to Democratic votes in a county, by reservation, for the 2020 presidential election.
The graph shows statistics for pseudo-turnout, defined here as Republican votes as a percentage of white votes cast, or Democratic votes as a percentage of Native votes cast varied greatly. For white voters, this value was 82.9%. For Native voters, it was 52.5%.
Looking at the 2020 Senate race, these values were 75.4% for whites and 57.2% for Natives. For 2018 Senate, which is the most recent statewide election Democrats have actually won, this was 48.6% for whites and 56.8% for Natives. Comparing these local Montana Democrats to Joe Biden, it can be reasoned that they have a stronger pull by nature of their well-developed relationships to Native communities.
The decreasing percentage metric for white voters can be attributed to 1) a small crossover demographic of Trump/Bullock voters in 2020 and Trump/Tester voters in 2018 as well as 2) a large dropoff in low-propensity Republican voters sitting out the midterm year of 2018. It has been posited that Governor Bullock’s decision to mail every voter a ballot in the pandemic election of 2020 ended up boosting low-propensity Republican enthusiasm.
Given that raw votes hardly changed for Bullock and Tester, it is clear that the apparent “persuasion” that Tester gained with white voters is in large part confounded by low rural white turnout.
Even as Republican votes increased by over 40% between 2018 and 2020, the number of Democratic votes on the reservations stayed the same. This is with thousands of nonvoting Native American voters, who likely lean Democratic to some degree, staying off the voter rolls. To counter a likely increase in white and Republican turnout due to a presidential year, Democrats would be wise to tap into the small but dark-blue pool of untapped Native voters.
To illustrate a crude simulation of the math, let us assume that in the Flathead Reservation, 35% of Democratic voters are white and 65% are Native. On the other 6 reservations, we will assume splits of 1% and 99% respectively. Using the voting-age population statistics, we find the following numbers.
In total, this adds up to an upper bound of roughly 14,000 votes that the Democrats can net from Native reservations that they do not currently have. Obviously, reservation voters are not monolithically Democratic, and many low-propensity voters may be Republican-leaning. But here is a table of the votes that would be netted to the Democrats at different partisan splits, along with the percentage that this vote margin would shave off from the actual results of the 2020 Senate race, which was decided by 61,000 votes.
Using very conservative assumptions, it is likely that extra Native turnout could boost Democrats statewide by up to 2 percent, with an absolute theoretical maximum of around 2.5%. This is a full quarter of the statewide margin in the 2020 Senate race – certainly not nothing. At a congressional district level, given that the reservations are roughly evenly distributed between districts 1 and 2, this boost should not be concentrated in a particular district assuming equal efforts in all areas.
Some caveats must be declared. First, racial polarization is a well-observed phenomenon near Native reservations, but there are Native Republicans and white Democrats in these areas. Second, observing polarization in quantifiable detail is made exceedingly difficult due to the relative dearth of precincts inside each reservation, as well as the latent turnout variations.
In addition, the Montana Democratic coalition is reliant on more than *just* Native turnout in reservations. But Native reservations do pack a punch — while Ryan Zinke’s 3.3% win in MT-01 pictured below is outside the margin where Native turnout could have decisively changed the outcome, stronger outreach by Monica Tranel could have made it far closer, similar to the Colorado 3rd race further south along the Continental Divide.
In conclusion — Native voters are a varied and diverse linchpin of the Democratic coalition in Montana. As 6.6% of the state, their votes are crucial. For Jon Tester to win in 2024, he has to maintain crossover Republican support from rural whites in enough magnitude — but if he can do enough of that, a strong operation in Indian Country may come through to pull him over the line. Democrats have their work cut out for them walking the red-state tightrope, but as an 18-year incumbent with strong established relationships all over the Treasure State, he might be the one to pull it off.