Politics & Policy

Jeb’s Fundraising Plan Has Gone from ‘Shock & Awe’ to ‘Shock & Uh-Oh’ in a Matter of Months

Bush speaks to voters in Cedar Rapids, Ia., in March. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Will Jeb Bush’s first campaign fundraising numbers inspire “shock and awe” or not? After some early, unattributed bragging, the Bush team isn’t eager to talk about fundraising now.

The term “shock and awe” was never officially touted by Bush or his people, but the Wall Street Journal reported in January about Bush’s 60-event tour “which Mr. Bush’s team has dubbed a ‘shock and awe’ campaign.” It was a vivid metaphor, referring to the military doctrine of using overwhelming force early on to destroy an opponent’s will to fight. (It was also, perhaps, politically awkward for Bush: The Pentagon used the phrase before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.) Then a February Politico piece declared that the “‘shock and awe’ campaign . . . could raise between $50 million and $100 million by the end of the first quarter of the year,” lending the phrase a powerful numerical heft.

With his family’s connections and two successful gubernatorial campaigns in Florida, Bush always enjoyed the guarantee of a serious, deep fundraising base. But “shock and awe” — a promise to fans, a threat to rivals — suggested the Bush team was preparing to dramatically alter presidential politics, ushering in an era when a top candidate could create a nearly insurmountable financial advantage right out of the gate, making the nomination fight a foregone conclusion.

Months later, that hasn’t happened. Bush remains neck-and-neck with several other candidates in the polls. The significant number of GOP voters who remain opposed to his candidacy have shown themselves willing to open their wallets for his competitors. And even if Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC does somehow reach his astronomical fundraising goals by June 30, when it’s first required to disclose numbers to the FEC, his competitors will be left with some obvious populist lines of attack.

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Right now, his team would rather talk about anything other than “shock and awe.”

After some early, unattributed bragging, the Bush team isn’t eager to talk about fundraising now.

“What Governor Bush is focused on right now is traveling the country and talking about positive conservative reforms,” says Bush spokesman Matt Gorman. “He’s been encouraged by the support and is in the final stages of deciding to move forward. If he does, we believe that any number of candidates will have the resources to compete.”

Even if the not-quite-an-official-campaign team doesn’t want to boast, the candidate sometimes lets slip that fundraising is going well. In April, Bush told about 350 donors to his super PAC that it “raised more money in its first 100 days than any other Republican operation in modern history.”

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But “shock and awe” has proved to be a double-edged sword for the early Bush effort. It is surely helpful to be perceived as a well-funded giant upon the political landscape, capable of airing as many ads as necessary, wherever and whenever the campaign needs them. But with that perception come jaw-dropping expectations, meaning that anything short of the promised numbers — say $45 million, which would be a flabbergasting sum for any other campaign — would be treated as a disappointment or even a sign of trouble. Some within the Bush camp even suggest their rivals are floating wildly unrealistic numbers — $500 million! — to create a “Bush’s disappointing fundraising” narrative later.

Of course, in politics, as in life, the problems that come with having a lot of money are generally better than the problems of not having enough money. But there are undeniably significant challenges that will come with Bush’s first reported fundraising sum, whether it meets the previously promised “shock and awe” threshold or not.

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A significant number of Republicans remain vehemently opposed to nominating Bush; an April Bloomberg poll found 23 percent of Republicans said they would never vote for him. When Texas senator Ted Cruz raised $4.3 million in his first week — with pro-Cruz super PACs on pace for another $31 million — he demonstrated that there’s no shortage of GOP donors eager to give to non-Bush options, which could blunt whatever natural fundraising advantage Bush enjoys.

With American politics in a populist moment when tea-party protesters and Occupy radicals alike agree that powerful financial elites and powerful political elites protect each other’s interests, other rivals are likely to try to turn Bush’s fundraising advantage into a liability, suggesting he and a few deep-pocketed supporters are attempting to buy the nomination.

#related#More than once, when reporters asked Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal about whether he can compete with better-funded rivals, he replied, “We’re running a primary, not an auction.” Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, perhaps Bush’s most serious rival, brags in appearances that he shops for suits at Jos. A Bank for its discount deals — a playful boast of frugality and fiscal conservatism designed to show he’s still in touch with the financial realities of the middle class. And Florida senator Marco Rubio constantly emphasizes the hard work and modest earnings of his bartender father and housekeeper mother when he was growing up.

Bush obviously can’t play the modest upbringing card, and Republicans may have the nagging fear that nominating him would bring a rerun of all of the out-of-touch-rich-guy attacks that plagued Romney in 2012. Hugely successful fundraising events only exacerbate that problem.

And even if Bush does meet his own astronomical fundraising expectations, he won’t be guaranteed squat. He only need ask Steve Forbes, Rudy Giuliani, and 2008’s Mitt Romney whether spending a ton of money guarantees the GOP nomination. Lack of money can hurt a good candidate for president, but a ton of money can’t save a bad one. If Bush wins the nomination, it won’t just be because he raised the most. And if he loses, it won’t be because he didn’t have enough money.

—​ Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.

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