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The Winnowing Continues With Steve Bullock And Joe Sestak

To you, “leftovers” might mean the two-thirds of a honey-baked ham still sitting in your fridge — but to political junkies, it means the rapidly dwindling number of presidential candidates. In the past 24 hours, two Democrats have dropped their long-shot bids for the White House: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Rep. Joe Sestak.

After the number of major presidential candidates (by FiveThirtyEight’s definition) peaked at 24 in early July, there are now “only” 16 candidates remaining. (Finally, Democrats have fewer presidential candidates than Republicans did at the height of the 2016 primary!)

So far, August has seen the most candidates say goodbye, with five candidates dropping out just as debate qualification standards were about to tighten in September. But I wonder if December could be another wipeout: In addition to Bullock and Sestak, more highly touted candidates like Sen. Cory Booker and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro look unlikely to make the next debate, whose standards for inclusion are tougher than ever.

But failing to make the upcoming debate wasn’t Bullock’s and Sestak’s problem; they only made one debate between them (Bullock squeezed onto the stage back in July), yet unlike the candidates who dropped out in August, they soldiered on despite the odds. Both candidates argued that a grassroots approach of convincing one voter at a time could build them a loyal following, and both focused on Iowa in particular, where they spent much of their time. But as they discovered, the reality is that retail politicking may not actually help candidates win votes.

In fact, these days, media coverage may be the most important factor in presidential campaigns, and Bullock and Sestak got very little of it. My colleague Dhrumil Mehta has been tracking the number of cable and online news stories featuring the 2020 candidates, and he consistently found that Bullock was among the least-covered, while Sestak was regularly dead last in TV and online news mentions. Indeed, it was not without justification that Sestak lamented in his dropout announcement that his campaign lacked “the privilege of national press” — although given that he hadn’t won an election in nine years and entered the presidential race relatively late, we were skeptical about his chances anyway.

The failure of Bullock’s campaign is more notable. On paper, he coulda been a contender: He’s a sitting governor, and governors have historically done well in presidential nominating contests. (Although it’s likely the 2020 nominee will not be a current or former governor — with Bullock’s departure, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is the only remaining current or former governor in the race.) And as the former chair of the Democratic Governors Association, he’s friendly with the establishment and even enjoyed the endorsement of Iowa’s most prominent statewide Democratic officeholder. He could also make a convincing case for his electability against President Trump, something that is very important to Democratic voters this cycle, as Bullock won reelection as Montana governor by 4 percentage points at the same time that Trump carried the state by 20 points.

But as with so many other candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden overshadowed Bullock. Biden has proven more durable in the primary than many pundits expected, which has limited the ability of similar candidates (center-left, white, male, perceived as electable, possessing executive experience) to get a foothold. And, for whatever reason, donors and other party leaders who are leery of Biden have chosen to recruit new candidates to enter the race rather than get behind a candidate like Bullock. And with his polling average in Iowa barely better than it was nationally, Bullock may have concluded that his path to the White House no longer existed.

That doesn’t mean Bullock’s political career is over, however; many Democrats would love to see him run for Senate in Montana, where Republican Sen. Steve Daines is up in 2020.1 Although the seat isn’t currently seen as vulnerable, a Bullock entrance could make the race competitive: Bullock has a track record of overperformance in the state and has maintained strong approval ratings there (slightly better than Daines’s, in fact, despite Montana’s red hue). And an additional competitive seat would be a boon to Democrats, given their narrow path to a Senate majority (the party must flip four Republican-held seats, or three if it also wins the vice presidency). Bullock has repeatedly denied that he would run for Senate, however, and his spokeswoman reiterated on Monday that he does not plan to run. But if Bullock were to change his mind, it wouldn’t be the first time this year that a presidential candidate denied interest in the Senate yet wound up running anyway — former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper went through almost the exact same song and dance. At the very least, you can bet that Democratic leaders will continue to pressure Bullock all the way up to Montana’s March 9 filing deadline.


  1. Term limits prevent him from running again for governor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.