The adage that running a state is the best preparation for running a country is not getting much love these days.
The massive Democratic presidential field is down to just one state governor — Steve Bullock of Montana — and he is so far down in the polls and so far behind in the money chase that he just failed to qualify for Thursday night’s primary debate stage in Houston.
“We are in an era where politics is more personality oriented and ideologically oriented — and governors tend to be neither,” said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University. “Typically, governors were workhorses instead of show horses.”
The lineup for the third presidential debate will not include a single sitting or former governor.
Instead, the high-profile showdown will feature a former vice president, five senators, a mayor, an entrepreneur, a former House member, and a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development.
Seth Masket, a political science professor and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, attributed the struggles of governors in part to political media coverage that is “growing more nationalized in their perspective.”
“As the media focus more on national politics, it’s easier for senators to get nationwide name recognition, and harder for governors,” Mr. Masket said.
Others note that the current or former governors who have launched 2020 presidential bids hail from smaller media markets, are not flush with charisma and have touted moderate messages at a time when far-left populism is providing much of the energy among Democratic Party activists.
Since George W. Bush, who served as Texas governor, departed the White House, 18 current or former governors have launched failed presidential bids — some more than once.
Voters, though, have most recently tapped a pair off candidates — businessman Donald Trump in 2016 and first-term Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — who downplayed the importance of executive governing experience as the best preparation for the Oval Office.
Mr. Obama was the first senator since John F. Kennedy to win the presidency. Four of his five predecessors — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush — had served as governors.
Governors in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary also have found themselves overshadowed by the flurry of partisan battles in Washington between Democratic lawmakers and President Trump, which have driven a lot of the news coverage.
“Obviously, the issues that Trump is talking about are national and you have people strongly for and opposed to what he wants to do, so those issues getting debated get a huge amount of attention across the country as a whole,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll.
“It is much more difficult for governors to attract national attention when the issues that are largely before voters are national,” he said. “And senators and members of the House have greater access to the media.”
Indeed, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have the national media closely tracking their policy debates and conflicts with the White House. As a result, the governors on the presidential campaign trail have found themselves on the outside looking in.
Making matters worse for governors, federal election law prevents them from transferring money they raised for state-level campaigns to their presidential coffers. That puts them at a competitive disadvantage with House and Senate members, who can transfer campaign funds toward their presidential bids.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernard Sanders of Vermont have transferred millions of dollars into their 2020 campaigns.
But Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state, who made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a moderate who warned the Democratic Party against “socialism,” withdrew from the presidential race after it became clear they missed the cut for the third primary debate.
Mr. Inslee has turned his attention to running for reelection, and Mr. Hickenlooper has launched a run for the Senate against Republican incumbent Cory Gardner.
Mr. Bullock, meanwhile, has been trying to gain traction by making the case that governors have to act while lawmakers generally spend their time debating or looking to land rhetorical punches that could go viral, making it easier for them to excite the base and raise money. The bills they support, he said, are left for others to implement.
“Fundamentally, governors are on the front lines, meaning that this can’t just be about speeches or tweets,” Mr. Bullock has said. “We actually have to get things done. We’re accountable to the people that we serve. So we have to figure out ways to actually make government work. And I think that is a lot different than what we see in Washington, D.C.”
Arguing that Democrats have to win the support of more moderate, heartland voters if they are to defeat Mr. Trump next year, Mr. Bullock has focused much of his attention on retail politics in Iowa, where he is scheduled to campaign Thursday and Friday. He also has warned that some of the far-left candidates in the party’s crowded presidential field are running on “wish-list economics.”
It’s an argument that once could pull in a lot of support. This time, however, Mr. Bullock has barely registered in the polls.
Still, his campaign says the race is a marathon, not a sprint, and is far from over.
“We always planned to have a campaign that was built by organizing over time, not by hoping for a viral moment,” Bullock campaign manager Jennifer Ridder said this week in a campaign memo.
“While some pundits and operatives may prefer simpler narratives of who’s up and who’s down, voters don’t always abide by the attention spans of Beltway prognosticators,” she said. “And smart campaigns don’t, either.”