Bozeman, Montana
Bozeman, Montana.

Editor's Note: For more news on the mountain west, go to NewWest, where this article first appeared.

For a fair amount of time in Montana elections, if you had the rural counties then all you had to do was pull in Yellowstone County (and Billings as its county seat) to win a statewide election. With few exceptions, as went Billings, so went Montana.

I don’t think that’s so anymore, and let me tell you why I believe that.

First, let me point out that when you use Times Square as the benchmark, all of Montana is rural, but according to the guidelines of the U.S. Census Bureau, we’ve several “urban” areas in Montana. It essentially boils down to the larger cities and the bedroom communities surrounding them. Billings, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, and Missoula are what I consider the “big seven” with Livingston, Havre, Miles City, Hamilton, and a few others on the verge.

Montana map

Montana, now population-weighted toward the west
Source: Student Britannica Online

Now, if you plot these towns out on a map, you’ll notice they're decidedly weighted toward the western part of the state. The Yogo Inn in Lewistown, Montana, has a floor tile indicating it as the geographic center of Montana. I’ve no reason to quibble with that distinction, but I would daresay the population-weighted center of the state is a bit farther west.

A visit to Montana’s Census and Economic Information Center (a great wealth of information for statistics nerds like me) yields some interesting and, frankly, unsurprising results. If you take a look at the executive summary, or the actual data (note: both are pdfs), the population trends by county in Montana show the gains no longer come mainly from the plains. My apologies to Eliza Doolittle.

Hysham football, Montana

Hysham, Plentywood, Wibaux, Chester, and Harlowton lead the percentage losses, while Butte, Great Falls, Glasgow, Plentywood, and Fort Benton lead the actual numbers drop. Butte is the only city of the nine listed that is both considered urban and outside the plains; Great Falls clearly would be considered urban as well.
Meanwhile, 8-man football in Hysham, Montana, in 2004, when this photo was taken, became six-man in 2006.
Photo: MDT1960

On the other side of the coin, Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley have seen double-digit growth, and the top five counties for numerical population growth account for 47 percent of the entire state’s population. They also split 68/32 percent Urban/Rural. In the 2000 Census, Montana already had over half its population (54 percent) in the urban category with the trends continuing to show a steady trickle out of our rural areas.

What does this mean? A number of things, I’d imagine, but from the campaigning side of things, the western population concentration has weakened the traditionally strong political grip of Billings, and the rural voter is slowly but surely being eclipsed by the urban voter. As the majority changes to urban, so do the needs of the voters – and that will only serve to hasten the departure from our truly rural counties.

I’m not sold on the idea that Montana is shifting from red to blue, or blue to red—but if there is a shift in Montana’s political landscape, I’d say look to the peaks and the prairies.

J.P. Pendleton is a Montana journalist who was director of communications for Sen. Conrad Burns. He lives in Billings.

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