Election 2020 Steve Bullock Guns

Montana Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate Steve Bullock speaks at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 8 in Des Moines.

in Des Moines.

in Des Moines.

, Iowa. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Gov. Steve Bullock’s presidential campaign released a memo Wednesday seeking to reassure donors by outlining his strategy to succeed in the Iowa caucuses and emphasizing that he is the candidate who can defeat President Donald Trump.

Montana political scientists say Bullock’s focus on Iowa and capturing former Vice President Joe Biden’s supporters is his only path forward as he is barely registering in the polls and isn’t among the 10 candidates who qualified for the debate stage in Houston on Thursday.

Bullock is banking almost entirely on Iowa, according to the campaign memo. He has 25 organizers there and has visited the state 10 times as a candidate.

“On one level, it’s basically Iowa or die,” said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University.

There is some precedent for Bullock’s strategy of focusing on Iowa. In 1976, former President Jimmy Carter, then a little known former Georgia governor, captured 27.7% of the vote in the caucuses to become the frontrunner. In 2004, John Kerry was polling in the single digits shortly before he won Iowa and went on to be the Democratic nominee for president.

“With a candidate that hasn’t gained a lot of national attention, at this point, the strategy has to be winning early caucuses like Iowa,” said Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at Carroll College.

To make it to the Iowa caucuses in February, Bullock has to raise money. One way to secure donors is to start moving up in Iowa polls, Parker said. He also can keep his budget low by continuing to focus on grassroots initiatives and cable interviews, which provide free publicity, Johnson said.

In the memo, campaign manager Jenn Ridder wrote that Biden, the frontrunner, and more liberal candidates, can’t win the presidency.

“Again and again, we hear from Democratic primary voters that the most important quality in a candidate is their ability to beat Trump in November,” Ridder wrote. “At the same time, there is a growing fear that the candidates promising revolutions are out of step with the general election voters while others fear Vice President Biden may be unable to take down Trump.”

Both Parker and Johnson said Bullock is right to criticize Biden because both candidates are using a similar strategy. Biden is portraying himself as the most electable candidate, while Bullock is emphasizing that he is the only Democrat in the race who won a state carried by Trump in 2016. To stand out from Biden, Bullock has to cast doubt on Biden’s electability and seize some of his supporters.

Bullock can also stand out as a pragmatic moderate with a history of bipartisanship, which sets him apart from the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party and could enable Democrats to capture independent and Republican voters, Parker said.

Although Bullock didn’t meet either the Democratic National Committee’s donor or polling criteria for Thursday’s debate, he could still make the stage in October if he collects more donations and gathers more supporters. Even if he doesn’t make the next debates, he could still have a shot.

“The focus on the debates is crazy because not that many people pay attention to them,” Parker said. “He doesn’t necessarily need to focus on the debates, but he does need to improve in the polls in Iowa to move forward.”

Bullock announced his run in mid-May — after many other candidates had already entered the race. Bullock's campaign is counting on him gaining more traction in the next four months.

“As the field winnows and voters start paying closer attention, they’ll see Bullock is a winning choice, which sets him apart from the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. A Democrat with progressive values and a focus on getting things done in the here and now,” Ridder said in the campaign memo.

Perrin Stein can be reached at 406-582-2648 or at pstein@dailychronicle.com. Follow her on Twitter @PerrinStein.

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