In Defying the Odds, we discuss the early stages of the 2016 campaign, when many candidates were unknowns. We are now in the early stages of the 2020 race.
Most people in the US don’t know much about Montana, and know even less about its governor. But from one perspective, Bullock’s anonymity is an advantage. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who battled four decades of accumulated narrative about who she was and what she stood for, the ignorance around Bullock allows him to write his own, unexpected, and — at least for the Democrats who saw him in Iowa — impressive story of how effective he’s been as a leader.
So how can a straight white man move forward amid an atmosphere, at least among Democrats, that’s resistant to, or even repelled by, the idea of more straight white men in power? By trying to reach voters, at least in pivotal primary states, the old-fashioned way: one-on-one, on the ground in Iowa, while other candidates are keeping their message national. Bullock is going for that Jimmy Carter, decent dad appeal. He’s the opposite of Trump, who is definitionally not nice, intentionally abrasive, purposefully uneducated. His strategy isn’t to eclipse Trump, but to offer an entirely different narrative — not to make America great again, but to make politics nontoxic, or at least less toxic, again.
If Bullock makes a serious run for president, it’ll be because what his candidacy represents — common civility, decency, and the fight against corruption — outweighs what “white male politician” has come to represent, especially for the women and people of color so crucial to the Democratic voting coalition. In our current cultural moment, that’s a big ask. The only way to do it: by speaking passionately and convincingly to the issues that Democratic voters care about. Bullock’s betting that if he can do that, it doesn’t matter if most people don’t know his name right now. There’s time. They will.