In assessing the wide-open, volatile Republican presidential field, the most important question isn’t whether Donald Trump’s support collapses before the Iowa caucuses. It’s whether the GOP establishment consolidates behind one electable candidate after the New Hampshire primary. And if Jeb Bush can’t turn around his sagging poll numbers before then, the answer to that consequential question will be largely under his control.
On the trail and in polls, Bush hasn’t looked at all like the front-runner many expected last December when he announced that he would explore running for president. And the void left by Bush’s letdown has splintered pragmatic Republican primary voters in many different directions. The Pew Research Center found that college-educated Republican voters—the demographic group least supportive of Trump—haven’t coalesced behind anyone.
Ben Carson, surprisingly, wins much of their support, as do Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Carly Fiorina. Bush himself polls only at 5 percent among his erstwhile supposed base, but his campaign has the financial resources to air more ads and organize in more states. Meanwhile, the endless Donald Trump media coverage has also deprived promising alternative candidates from getting much public attention.
The lack of any true front-runner has widespread consequences. It magnifies the one-quarter of the vote Donald Trump consistently gets in polls, even though that’s close to his ceiling of support within the Republican Party. That, in turn, keeps Trump’s effective hype machine alive. The splintered field keeps many big donors on the sidelines, waiting to make a safer investment with their valuable cash. And it complicates campaigns’ strategies, incentivizing the more electable ones to attack each other instead of the front-runners in the polls, as campaigns traditionally do.
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Make no mistake: The GOP electorate’s disdain for political insiders is real, and it is fueling the demand for Trump, Carson, and, to a lesser extent, Fiorina and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. But it’s foolish to add up their vote share and assume that a majority of Republican voters are locked into voting for a nonpolitician. The real story is a lot more complicated than that.
Carson is polling strongly among the same demographic groups that once seemed like natural supporters of Bush, particularly women and affluent Republicans. To assume that Carson’s backers would be natural Trump voters is highly misleading. Many of his supporters could easily switch to more establishment-oriented campaigns. At several rallies for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in New Hampshire that I reported on in September, numerous self-described moderate voters said that Carson was one of their top choices.
Fiorina, who also gets lumped into the “outsider” bracket, is as establishment as it gets. She was a Fortune 50 CEO for one of the country’s largest Silicon Valley companies, ran for the Senate in California as a centrist against two more-conservative primary challengers, and advised John McCain on his 2008 presidential campaign. Her profile is about as ideologically distinct as possible from Trump, which her sparring with him demonstrates.
There’s a better way to divide the GOP candidates into two groups: Donald Trump and everyone else. Trump’s support is predominantly from voters who aren’t Republican rank-and-file voters. His supporters have an ideologically distinct profile, according to Pew’s analysis: more moderate, more secular, more blue-collar. They’re also less reliable caucus and primary voters. These voters are not new to the Republican Party. They used to be called Reagan Democrats; they voted for Pat Buchanan in the 1992 and 1996 Republican primaries, and they comprised much of Mitt Romney’s opposition in the 2012 nomination battle. They’re growing as a share of the GOP electorate: Bob Dole and George W. Bush won about 60 percent of the overall GOP primary vote; Romney only won 52 percent in 2012.
There’s good reason why Trump has run on a nontraditional Republican platform, one that’s skeptical of military intervention, hostile to illegal immigration, and opposed to free trade deals. Last week, he even attacked former President George W. Bush for not anticipating the 9/11 attacks. Trump has been advocating hiking taxes on wealthy corporations and individuals. His past support of abortion rights, and admission that he hasn’t sought forgiveness from God, don’t endear him to evangelicals. But these positions match the ideological profile of his supporters. Trump is no dummy; he’s running a campaign geared towards voters that many Republican candidates, with their emphases on tax cuts, free trade, and immigration reform, have perennially ignored.
But there’s a limit to how successful such a populist campaign can be. Trump is still catering to a minority of the GOP electorate. His main path to success is a win by default if the rest of the Republican field continues to be so splintered. This is the reverse of what usually happens in a Republican primary, when the party establishment rallies behind a well-financed front-runner and the conservative grassroots splinter behind different long-shot candidacies.
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That’s why the result of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination is in Jeb Bush’s hands, whether he succeeds or fails. If Bush belatedly surges, he’d be well-positioned to dispatch his establishment rivals to win the nomination. But if he struggles, his decision-making process would also be consequential to who becomes the Republican nominee.
Bush is as establishment as Republicans come, and he cares deeply about the future of his party. But what happens if he disappoints in New Hampshire and Iowa, and is left with limited political options but plenty of leftover campaign cash? Does he drop out of the race and try to unite the fractured establishment behind the strongest alternative? Or does he fight on, knowing that his organization still trumps all the remaining candidates?
The same would be true for any of the other establishment alternatives if they were to lose to Bush—Rubio, Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—but embarrassing early setbacks would likely leave all of them without the resources to continue campaigning.
A struggling Bush would still have the luxury of fighting on, but he would risk handing the nomination to Trump.
With Rubio emerging as the leading alternative to Bush—and running ahead of his mentor in many polls—such a decision would be all the more wrenching. Why not wait until the March 15 Florida primary to spark a winner-take-all showdown between the two home-state rivals? But if Trump starts winning early-state primaries and caucuses, time will not be Bush’s friend. Trump, ironically, could become the biggest beneficiary of a go-for-broke Bush campaign.