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)

It’s looking unlikely that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock will qualify for the upcoming Democratic presidential debate, but political pundits say it’s early enough in the 2020 campaign that he could still make up ground.

“The problem about not making the debate is his campaign can lose momentum, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle,” said Jeremy Johnson, political science professor at Carroll College.

To qualify for the debate, Bullock must receive contributions from at least 130,000 unique donors and reach 2% in at least four Democratic National Committee approved polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28.

Bullock, whose campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, is far from qualifying. As of August 12, he had fewer than 65,000 unique donors and hasn’t achieved 2% in any of the polls, according to the national website FiveThirtyEight.

Even though Bullock is unlikely to make the debate stage, he is trending upward in the polls and could gather more support as candidates drop out of the race, Johnson said. If Bullock doesn’t make the debate, Johnson said his best bet for progressing in the race is doing well in the Iowa caucuses, which means he has to make his case to voters through TV interviews and rallies.

Lee Banville, associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, said the debates are an indicator of financial and voter support, so not making them can be a sign that a candidate doesn’t have what it takes to be the Democratic nominee.

“This is a major blow,” he said. “Is it fatal? I think it’s too early to tell.”

As candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper have dropped out of the race, Bullock might capture their supporters and rise to the top, Banville said. He also could make up for the lack of exposure and media attention that debates provide by paying for advertisements and reaching out to voters directly.

Since launching his campaign, Bullock has been a vocal critic of the Democratic National Committee’s debate criteria. After Inslee dropped out of the race on Wednesday, Bullock said the rules hurt candidates like himself and Inslee.

“So I think as we’re losing governors from this race, maybe we ought to think about: Are these DNC rules for the debates disadvantaging folks who have gotten the real things done?” he said on MSNBC.

When Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, announced last week that he had met the donor qualifications for the debate, Bullock called him out.

“You shouldn’t have to be a billionaire to run for president or participate in debates,” Bullock said in a news release. “Money doesn’t vote. People do. And I think the most important qualification any candidate should have is a record of getting things done for everyday people.”

Steyer is one poll shy of qualifying for the debate, which will be Sept. 12-13 in Houston.

Although Bullock likely won’t qualify for the debate stage this time, a Democratic National Committee memo released this week indicates he could still qualify for the October debate. The memo says the October debate will have the same rules as the September debate, but polls conducted between June 28 and two weeks before the debate will be accepted. This means the candidates in the September debate would qualify for the October debate and would give candidates like Bullock more time to fulfill the requirements.

“This could help, but if he doesn’t make the October debate, it’s difficult to see how he could be the Democratic nominee,” Banville said.

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

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