The former Florida governor, who entered the GOP presidential race Monday, has been unable to generate elite support, emerge as a favorite in moderate-voting New Hampshire, or match up as well as Scott Walker or Marco Rubio against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.
It was easy to see Jeb Bush’s path to the Republican nomination when he announced the formation of his super PAC in December. He wasn’t guaranteed to pull it off — not by any stretch — but he seemed well positioned to appeal to the coalition of party elites and blue-state voters that has allowed center-right establishment candidates to win the party’s last two contests.
Bush might still take exactly this path to the nomination. But the striking — and surprising — thing about his candidacy is that he formally entered the race Monday bearing many of the costs of the center-right approach without seeming to enjoy many of the benefits.
He has not won the invisible primary, the behind-the-scenes competition for elite support that often decides the nomination, and he has not even emerged as a favorite of the party’s large bloc of more moderate voters. He starts in a weaker position than not only his brother in 1999 or his father in 1987, but also Mitt Romney in 2011.
To a certain extent, Bush is a victim of unfair expectations. He was often called the front-runner, even though it was obvious that the party’s large conservative and populist base would have serious reservations about an establishment candidate who often seemed to attack conservatives. And he was likely to face stronger competition, like Scott Walker, than recent Republican nominees.
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What is surprising, though, is Bush’s relatively vulnerable standing in the places he had seemed strong only a few months ago. It’s no surprise that he has miserable numbers among Iowa caucusgoers, who are very conservative, and tea-party supporters nationwide. It is surprising that he has not emerged as a clear favorite in New Hampshire, where self-identified moderates make up nearly half of the electorate. In national polls, he fares no better against Hillary Rodham Clinton than Marco Rubio or Walker, and his favorability ratings are worse than all of them. The party establishment hasn’t unified around him, perhaps in part as a result of these indicators.
Bush’s struggle is a reflection of his own missteps and weaknesses, like a handful of stumbles on the campaign trail and his unpopular last name. But it is also a reflection of the strength of his competition — not just from the mainstream candidates who can take a slice of the relatively moderate voters and elites he requires to be viable, but also from the conservative candidates he ultimately needs to defeat.
The early signs of Bush’s strength — like prominent hires, reports of prodigious fundraising, Romney’s decision to stay out of the race, and reports that similarly positioned candidates were struggling to find breathing room — have all faded. Some are no longer true.
Romney’s exit now looks like the exception, with a flood of candidates joining the race. Most significant is Rubio, the senator who many believed would not run if Bush, his mentor, did.
Rubio, 44, may offer the field’s best case for “electability” because of his youth, charisma and Cuban heritage, and he is competing for many of the same supporters as Bush, including in their home state of Florida. A stronger Bush would have made it very difficult for Rubio to win the nomination, but Bush’s weakness has created an opening for Rubio that didn’t even seem to be there as recently as two or three months ago.
John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, also seemed unlikely to run until a few months ago. Like Rubio, and along with Chris Christie and Lindsey Graham, he could draw at least some supporters and voters from Bush. “I didn’t think I was going to be back up here again because, frankly, I thought Jeb was just going to suck all the air out of the room,” Kasich said two weeks ago in New Hampshire, “and it just hasn’t happened.”
Bush’s fundraising, with a goal of $100 million for his super PAC, is impressive. But it’s hard to say just how impressive it really is in an era of unlimited contributions, when even a candidate like Ted Cruz can raise more than $30 million for his super PAC in a few weeks. And in recent days, there have been reports that Bush might fall well short of early fundraising expectations — a further sign of weakness.
Even if his fundraising is as strong as he hoped, there is no reason to expect it will be decisive: Romney barely won pivotal states like Ohio and Michigan in the 2012 primaries, despite an overwhelming financial and organizational edge over a candidate, Rick Santorum, who was not nearly as strong as Bush’s competition is today.
Perhaps most important, it’s surprisingly hard to find prominent elites who support Bush — aside from a spurt of donors and high-profile aides who joined his team a few months ago and late last week. When my colleague Peter Baker recently surveyed 120 people who worked for President George W. Bush, only about 25 responded to say they supported Jeb Bush. So far, Bush has received no formal endorsements from outside Florida, and nothing is a better indicator of primary strength than endorsements.
Much of the Republican elite has serious reservations about whether Bush is the best candidate to face Clinton. It’s not hard to imagine why: His favorability ratings and standing against her are dismal.
Last month, he struggled to answer a question about whether he would have invaded Iraq, given what we know today.
Candidates like Rubio, Walker, Kasich, Rick Perry, Christie and Rand Paul can compete for moderate and independent voters in New Hampshire, a state that Bush may need to win. On paper, one would expect that a relatively moderate Republican would fare well in New Hampshire. But Bush has struggled to take a lead there, and it’s fair to wonder whether he is as good a fit for the state as one might guess from his moderate reputation.
The state’s voters aren’t just relatively moderate; they’re independent and iconoclastic. John McCain won the state in 2000 and 2008, while Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul combined to amass more support than Romney received four years ago. One wonders whether an establishment-backed Bush is the right candidate to appeal to a state with a penchant for “mavericks.”
Just as important, the field includes candidates who have the potential to consolidate conservatives without alienating the rest of the party. The inability of conservatives to get their act together has been one of the biggest assets to the establishment. In the last two Republican primaries, conservatives settled on two evangelical favorites — Santorum and Mike Huckabee — who had little chance of defeating the more mainstream front-runner in a long battle.
This year, both Walker and Rubio have the potential to consolidate conservatives and win a national campaign. Of the two, Walker has the easier path. He already holds a modest but consistent lead in Iowa polls, and, unlike recent Iowa winners, he has the broad appeal and elite support necessary to win a protracted contest. He could even win New Hampshire, especially over a divided field, something that could not be said for either of the last two winners of Iowa.
Rubio has a somewhat harder path. While Walker is a natural candidate of very conservative voters in part because of his victories over unions and liberal opponents in Wisconsin, Rubio lacks as clear a pitch to one of the party’s major factions. So far, he is the second choice of many.
But Rubio offers the conservative elite a reliable representative of their views, and they believe he is well positioned to face Clinton in the general election. He is also a charismatic enough politician to become the first choice of many if elites bestow the necessary resources, or if another candidate stumbles, and it would be unwise to rule out the possibility that he could simply outperform Bush in the minds of voters and elites alike.