Indeed, a lot of Montana residents voted for both Bullock and Trump, but would any Trump voter actually pick Bullock over the incumbent president in 2020? Sales, who was about to take off for a trip down the Colorado River, told me he thought Trump would still win Montana, perhaps by 10 points. He’s not sure Bullock’s appeal will translate in other states, where he can’t meet as many voters, and where people aren’t as easily won over by a friendly presence. “Montana is like a 600-mile-long Main Street,” Sales says.
Montana is mostly white, mostly rural, mostly mountains. It’s a small enough state that a few weeks ago, a Boy Scout–troop leader reached out to Bullock online to ask the governor whether he could present a merit badge to a boy who’d missed a recent ceremony because he’d broken his leg, only to have his hamster die right before the make-up ceremony. Bullock showed up to do the deed.
“Even if we can cobble together 270 electoral votes, if you’re not winning back places that we’re not winning or competitive in, you’re not going to govern,” Bullock told me. The voters who feel that they’ve been left behind by the economy shouldn’t be supporting Trump, Bullock says, but it’s up to the Democrats to convince them of that. If “we’ve lost that voter, instead of saying, ‘We’ll actually give you a reason to vote for us,’ I think we’re missing something. And we’ll deserve to lose,” he says. He’s struggled to get national Democrats to agree with him.
“Initially, when I traveled and said 25 to 30 percent of my voters voted for Donald Trump, there was often a response of, ‘What’s wrong with those voters?’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Bullock told me. “Never like, ‘How is it that we’re not sufficiently connecting with folks?’”
Bullock started thinking about running almost as far back as Election Night 2016. He was 50 years old, term-limited, and ambitious to do more, and had no interest in entering the Senate, no matter how many times Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to recruit him (many times).
He didn’t get serious about running for president until March, when he began staffing his PAC. He put off any campaign moves until after he finished his final legislative session. (The Montana state government meets for a few months every two years.) A planned teaser trip to New Hampshire a few months ago was scrapped because Bullock thought it would get in the way of Medicaid-expansion negotiations back home.
Realistically, Bullock’s run is all about Iowa, and it is the place he has so far invested in. An adviser told me Bullock will barely campaign elsewhere over the next 10 months—save for a few swings through New Hampshire, and perhaps the occasional stop in Nevada because it’s close enough to home. South Carolina is not on the table, nor is trying to mount the long-game operation some of the other campaigns have been building in anticipation of a drawn-out nomination process that could hinge on a rolling brawl for delegates all the way into next summer’s Democratic National Convention. This game plan seems out of sync with an election calendar that will include an intense month of coast-to-coast campaigning between the Iowa caucuses on February 3 and a Super Tuesday with more big primaries than ever before, on March 4.