Jeb Bush’s Nightmare Scenario

Bush is expected to be a formidable contender for the GOP nomination. But there are signs that his biography will lead to struggles in the primary’s early stages.

Jeb Bush shouldn't brush off polls that show him struggling in early states. After all, that doomed another one-time Republican presidential contender: Rudy Giuliani.
National Journal
March 24, 2015, 4 p.m.

Talk to enough Re­pub­lic­an in­siders about the pres­id­en­tial primary field, and you’ll get a com­mon sen­ti­ment when it comes to Jeb Bush. Most strategists agree that Bush has to over­come ser­i­ous hurdles to win the nom­in­a­tion, but they say he’s a for­mid­able can­did­ate thanks to his deep polit­ic­al net­work and abil­ity to dom­in­ate the com­pet­i­tion in fun­drais­ing. “I can’t see him drop­ping out be­fore Flor­ida,” said one former GOP con­gress­man well-con­nec­ted to the field.

But there are signs that a worst-case, crash-and-burn scen­ario for Bush is more real­ist­ic than even his skep­tics re­cog­nize. He’s un­der­per­form­ing in early pub­lic polls and is re­ceiv­ing a frosty re­cep­tion from Re­pub­lic­an fo­cus groups. His en­titled bio­graphy is at odds with the Re­pub­lic­an Party’s in­creas­ing en­ergy from work­ing-class voters, who re­late best with can­did­ates who have struggled to make ends meet. The Bush name is a re­mind­er of the past at a time when GOP voters are des­per­ate for new faces. And after los­ing two straight pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, Re­pub­lic­an voters are think­ing much more stra­tegic­ally—and aren’t nearly as con­vinced as the polit­ic­al press that Bush is the strongest con­tender against Hil­lary Clin­ton.

It would be fool­ish to over-read the res­ults of fo­cus groups, but it’s equally egre­gious to ig­nore their find­ings—es­pe­cially giv­en that they’re paired with polls that show Bush’s can­did­acy a tough sell among voters. Last week, Bloomberg and Purple Strategies co­sponsored a New Hamp­shire pan­el of 10 Re­pub­lic­ans, most of whom were hos­tile to a Bush pres­id­en­tial bid. “I know enough to know I don’t need to keep vot­ing for a Bush over and over again,” one par­ti­cipant said. Sev­er­al laughed at the no­tion that he’s the front-run­ner. Not a single one said they’d sup­port him for pres­id­ent.

(RE­LATED: Is Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Fam­ous Name Boost­ing Her In Early 2016 Polls?)

In Janu­ary, a fo­cus group in Col­or­ado con­duc­ted by Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Peter Hart for the Annen­berg Pub­lic Policy Cen­ter found sim­il­ar find­ings of an elect­or­ate look­ing for a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship. “I wouldn’t be op­posed to Con­gress say­ing, ‘If your last name is Clin­ton or Bush, you don’t even get to run,’” one GOP-lean­ing in­de­pend­ent said. Most of the words tied to Bush in a free-as­so­ci­ation ex­er­cise were neg­at­ive. Among them: “Joke,” “No thank you,” and “Don’t need him.” The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Dan Balz wrote that the par­ti­cipants were “dis­missive, some­times harshly” in their as­sess­ment of Bush.

The fo­cus group an­ec­dotes match what polls have con­sist­ently found. Des­pite Bush’s high pro­file and stand­ing as a more-prag­mat­ic Re­pub­lic­an, his over­all fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings are sur­pris­ingly me­diocre. In a March NBC/Wall Street Journ­al poll test­ing wheth­er GOP voters would con­sider back­ing cer­tain can­did­ates, Bush’s num­bers were in the middle of the pack of the field. While 49 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans said they’d con­sider back­ing Bush, 42 per­cent said they couldn’t see them­selves sup­port­ing him. That net +7 ad­vant­age badly trailed Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er (+36), Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida (+30), and even was be­hind neurosur­geon Ben Car­son (+23), former Arkan­sas Gov. Mike Hucka­bee (+12), and Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky (+9).

Mean­while, this month’s CNN/ORC sur­vey found Bush’s more-mod­er­ate and prag­mat­ic mes­sage hasn’t im­proved his im­age. His na­tion­al fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ing is at a sur­pris­ingly low 31/47 level, hampered by very weak num­bers with in­de­pend­ents and Demo­crats. In Iowa, a late-Janu­ary Bloomberg/Des Moines Re­gister poll found his fa­vor­ables among Re­pub­lic­ans barely pos­it­ive, at 46/43, among the worst of the myri­ad can­did­ates tested and on the de­cline from Oc­to­ber 2014. In last month’s Bloomberg/Saint An­selm poll in New Hamp­shire, Bush holds stronger num­bers among Re­pub­lic­ans (61/26 fa­vor­ab­il­ity), but it is still viewed un­fa­vor­ably by the over­all elect­or­ate (35/50).

(RE­LATED: The Trouble With Be­ing Jeb)

The Bush cam­paign’s the­ory of the un­der­whelm­ing polls is that most voters don’t know much about him, and his num­bers are more of a re­flec­tion of his last name than his myri­ad achieve­ments in polit­ic­al life. “People hear the name ‘Bush,’ and they auto­mat­ic­ally as­so­ci­ate him with his broth­er,” said one Bush op­er­at­ive. They be­lieve most voters aren’t fa­mil­i­ar with his deeply con­ser­vat­ive, re­form-ori­ented re­cord as gov­ernor of Flor­ida, and they be­lieve that re­cord will be read­ily ap­par­ent when he par­ti­cip­ates in New Hamp­shire town halls and Iowa cam­paign for­ums.

But it’s equally plaus­ible to see Bush strug­gling to make in­roads with early-state voters. Iowa has been tra­di­tion­ally in­hos­pit­able for es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates, and there are many can­did­ates who have a stronger ap­peal to the GOP caucuses’ siz­able evan­gel­ic­al elect­or­ate, in­clud­ing Scott Walk­er, Mike Hucka­bee, and Ted Cruz. Bush may not be ex­pec­ted to win the caucuses, but giv­en how crowded the field is, he’s at risk of not pla­cing in the top three.

That would put a lot of pres­sure on his per­form­ance in New Hamp­shire—a state that has been no­tori­ously un­friendly to the Bush fam­ily. In a mem­or­able up­set, John Mc­Cain de­cis­ively de­feated George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primar­ies, while Pat Buchanan fore­shad­owed George H.W. Bush’s in­tra­party struggles by win­ning 37 per­cent of the primary vote against the sit­ting pres­id­ent in 1992. Bush’s num­bers among Re­pub­lic­ans are much stronger in New Hamp­shire than in Iowa, but voters there are fam­ously res­ist­ant to back­ing front-run­ners, priz­ing their role as the ar­bit­er of GOP nom­in­a­tion battles. Jeb Bush is plan­ning to do many town halls, but it’s an open ques­tion wheth­er a can­did­ate more com­fort­able in the board­room can be­come a crowd fa­vor­ite.

(RE­LATED: Jeb Bush’s Head­winds)

And what if Bush un­der­whelms in both Iowa and New Hamp­shire? South Car­o­lina is no safe bet for Bush, giv­en the pres­ence of Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham as a home-state spoil­er. Many of the key in-state ad­visers who helped George W. Bush to vic­tory aren’t work­ing with Jeb Bush, as Politico re­por­ted. If Marco Ru­bio ex­ceeds ex­pect­a­tions in the early states, while Bush un­der­per­forms, the Flor­ida primary could also be­come a lot more com­pet­it­ive than it looks right now.

The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that Bush’s deep pock­et­books would sus­tain him through March no mat­ter what, al­low­ing him to fo­cus on lar­ger states where re­tail cam­paign­ing isn’t as ef­fi­cient as non­stop, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar tele­vi­sion ad buys. It’s how suc­cess­ful es­tab­lish­ment can­did­ates have over­come set­backs—from Mitt Rom­ney’s sig­na­ture Flor­ida vic­tory after los­ing in South Car­o­lina to George W. Bush se­cur­ing the nom­in­a­tion in 2000 with a Su­per Tues­day romp against Mc­Cain.

But next year, the ex­pect­a­tions game could be Jeb Bush’s worst en­emy. If the vaunted, well-fun­ded Bush or­gan­iz­a­tion sput­ters through the early states, it would cre­ate a huge va­cu­um that the op­pos­i­tion would be po­si­tioned to ex­ploit. The roster of es­tab­lish­ment al­tern­at­ives is much deep­er than in past GOP primar­ies. If Bush looks like a weak­er can­did­ate than ex­pec­ted, oth­er chal­lengers with com­pel­ling cre­den­tials—Walk­er and Ru­bio be­ing the best-po­si­tioned—will fill the void.

Bush’s main chal­lenge is bio­graph­ic­al, not ideo­lo­gic­al. The no­tion of nom­in­at­ing yet an­oth­er Bush to be pres­id­ent—no mat­ter his qual­i­fic­a­tions—is already strik­ing Re­pub­lic­an voters as a bit far-fetched. Giv­en that the GOP’s strongest as­set is its ar­gu­ment for change, voters will be think­ing closely about wheth­er they want to nom­in­ate a can­did­ate from the past to run against Clin­ton. If Bush can over­come that cred­ib­il­ity test with voters, he’s bound to be a strong con­tender. But if Re­pub­lic­an voters con­tin­ue to res­ist the pro­spect of a Bush fam­ily dyn­asty, he could find him­self strug­gling to get past the start­ing line.

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