In a few hours, polls open across the state of Montana for a special House election to replace Ryan Zinke, who was tapped by President Trump to serve as secretary of the interior. Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in that race, closed out his electoral push in a particularly unorthodox way, allegedly body-slamming Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs to the ground after being asked about the Republican health-care bill.
In any context, the apparent assault would be a stunning development. But happening so close to the election, it turns an already weird contest into one of the most unusual moments in modern American political history.
The obvious question — beyond “will Gianforte face criminal charges” — is how this will affect the vote. And that is extremely hard to answer.
Normally, one would assume that an event of this magnitude would significantly alter the course of the race. But 2017 is not normal, and the relationship between voters and the news media at the moment is unpredictable. We’ve repeatedly seen the strength of partisanship in powering candidates past controversy, most notably in the form of support for Trump over the course of 2016. One would think that this would cost Gianforte a substantial number of votes — but it would be hard to be surprised if it didn’t.
A statement from Gianforte’s campaign tries to leverage that partisanship, calling Jacobs a “liberal reporter.”
We saw this last year, too. When Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of assaulting a reporter from Breitbart News, fervent supporters of the candidate refused to believe that reporter, Michelle Fields, or The Washington Post’s Ben Terris, who observed the incident. Video footage proved that they were telling the truth.
Of course, the effect of an event of this magnitude would also be limited by how close the event was to the election itself. It takes time for news to trickle out, and the odds are very good that many people who vote Thursday won’t have heard about this incident before they do so. As of this writing, an hour-and-a-half after the incident occurred, the local NBC affiliate in Montana has no coverage of it. Update: By 9 p.m. Eastern time, other network affiliates had picked up the story.
That said, the modern era of newsgathering — and the involvement of a reporter — means that more people will be made aware of this than one might think. Both CNN and MSNBC quickly pivoted to the story, interviewing reporters who were nearby. (Update: Shortly before 11 Eastern, Fox News reporters fully corroborated Jacobs’ version of events. The article led the national Fox News website.) Jacobs’ story spread rapidly on social media; it was the No. 2 trending topic in the United States by 8:30 p.m. That is, 8:30 p.m. Eastern. In Montana, it was only 6:30 — leaving lots of time for local news to play catch-up. An announcement from the local sheriff that he would hold a news conference the same evening likely means a lot more attention was paid to the incident than usual.
However! It’s also the case that Montana early voting had already wrapped up. By the end of the day on Sunday, Decision Desk HQ reports that 226,554 votes had already been tallied, slightly more than were cast in early voting in 2014, the most recent non-presidential-year House contest in the state. (TargetSmart’s Tom Bonier noted that the party split of the 2017 votes was about the same as during the election three years prior.) In 2014, only about 368,000 votes were cast in total. What turnout will look like in a special election is hard to predict, but if it’s similar to 2014, that means that 62 percent of votes have already been cast early.
None of those early voters will have the opportunity to let this news affect their vote, even if they wanted to. (While some states allow early voters to replace those ballots, Montana doesn’t.) That could have been the fate of far more voters: A Democratic effort to mail ballots to all of the state’s voters failed in the state House of Representatives in March.
Another wrinkle: As reporter Ari Berman notes, Montana has Election-Day registration, meaning that those interested in voting but who haven’t registered can do so at the polling place Thursday. An effort to reel back that rule was defeated on the ballot in 2014.
It’s also not clear what the state of play was in Montana coming into Election Day. Republicans bombarded the state with advertisements and a last-minute robo-call from Trump, suggesting that they weren’t confident that Gianforte would hold the seat last won by a Democrat in 1993. Democrats have made a late push in the state, buoyed by strong performances in a number of other special elections so far this year.
So what will happen on Thursday? It’s almost impossible to tell — as it will be almost impossible to tell after the fact how important Gianforte’s apparent assault on Jacobs was on the result. If Gianforte pulls out the victory, there will almost certainly be a number of other questions that await him before he heads to Washington to take his new position.