Politics & Policy

Jeb’s Sudden Free Fall

Bush after a campaign event in Miami, September 1, 2015. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
The former Florida governor's poll numbers are in a tailspin. Can he come back?

The bottom has fallen out for Jeb Bush. The newest poll of Iowa has Bush at 5 percent. He’s at 7 percent in New Hampshire and 9 percent in South Carolina. As recently as mid-July, Bush sat atop the Real Clear Politics national average, eight points ahead of his nearest competitor at 17.8 percent. Now, he trails Donald Trump and Ben Carson, in third at 9.7 percent.

Bush’s well-documented weaknesses as a candidate — perceived conservative heresies on immigration and Common Core, a politically inconvenient last name – didn’t seem to be hurting him when he was on top seven weeks ago. So what explains his sudden slide?

Alex Castellanos, a former ad-man for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign and a CNN commentator, suggests that frontrunner Donald Trump is making Bush look small.

“Americans are afraid their nation is in decline; they are going to lose the country they love,” Castellanos says. “They want a leader as big as their fears. Right now, a lot of Republicans see that big leader as Trump, and no else is at the big boys’ table with him.”

Castellanos contends that until a candidate proves he is “big enough” to do the job, nothing else matters — not being a conservative, not being a loyal Republican, not even major policy differences. “What good is policy or ideology if you aren’t big enough to get anything done anyway?”

RELATED: How Jeb’s Rivals Hope to Blunt His Massive Cash Advantage

A GOP strategist who worked on presidential campaigns in previous cycles looks at the Bush campaign and sees a lot of out-of-date arguments.

“He keeps relying on his record in Florida to persuade people he’s the right guy for the job, and that was a long time ago,” the strategist says. “Does anybody particularly care? I mean, in some cases, we’re talking about bills signed into law literally in the last century. I know it matters to him, but does it matter to Republicans today? How he handled hurricanes back then? Really?”

The strategist, who describes himself as a fan of Bush, isn’t sure he’ll win any of the early primaries or even whether he’ll still be around when Florida votes.

#share#The idea of a candidate who raised $114 million in six months dropping out before his home state’s primary seems implausible. But fantastic fundraising isn’t going to mean much if Bush can’t connect with voters on the stump, command attention in debates, and score points in the feisty back-and-forth of the hyper-speed news cycle.

‘They want a leader as big as their fears. Right now, a lot of Republicans see that big leader as Trump, and no else is at the big boys’ table with him.’

Could a huge fundraising and organizational advantage carry Bush over the finish line anyway? Perhaps. At this point in 2011, Mitt Romney trailed Rick Perry by ten points in the national polls. As late as December of that year, he trailed Newt Gingrich by even more, before ultimately winning the nomination. But Romney didn’t face anyone remotely like Trump, not to mention the deep field of other competitors Bush must contend with.

It’s fair to ask how accurately Bush and his team assessed the mission before them when they began the campaign. Put aside the Trump tsunami; no other GOP campaign saw that wave coming, either. Bush’s gigantic fundraising blitz didn’t deter any other candidate (besides Romney, perhaps). His mediocre performance in the first Republican presidential debate was called “underperforming”, “stilted,” “just not that interesting” and “the worst” by pundits. And he’s emphasizing his long record in office at a time when the GOP electorate is most enthusiastic about the candidates with the least experience — Trump, Carson, and Carly Fiorina.

RELATED: Jeb’s Cave-In to Black Lives Matter Protesters Doesn’t Inspire Confidence

In December, Bush famously contended that the Republican nominee must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general [election].” But the notion that GOP presidential nominees lose nationwide when they position themselves too far to the Right during primaries isn’t borne out by the data, and primary voters aren’t frightened of Trump’s lackluster showing in general election polls — at least, not yet.

#related#If Bush’s poll numbers remain lousy and his debate performances fail to improve, people may wonder where his campaign is going. The Jeb we’ve seen in recent weeks — soporific in his body language and unable to muster a response to Trump’s rise — isn’t going to climb back to the front of the field. To win the nomination, he’ll to have to become a better candidate between now and when Republicans start casting primary votes.

“Trump has put all other GOP candidates in the same blender — they are all indistinguishably small,” concludes Castellanos. “At some point, one of these boys or girls is going to have to step up, have a big alpha-dog battle with Trump and seize this race by the throat. Kill the king, become the king. The next debate seems as good a time as any to me.”

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

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