What makes presidential primary races different from other elections – what makes them less like conventional wars and more like counter-insurgencies – is that so much of the dynamics of the race turns not just on when candidates are beaten, but when they admit to themselves that they are beaten. Of course, the psychological process of admitting defeat can be helped along by actual defeats at the ballot box, and for many campaigns the “time to go” speech is delivered by the campaign’s donors cutting off the money.
But the psychology still matters. Most presidential candidates have little experience losing elections and even less abandoning them. Scott Walker, one of the few to drop out early, had advanced his own career by giving up on the 2006 Wisconsin Governor’s race and saving himself for a winning run in 2010. Ted Cruz bailed on the 2010 Texas Attorney General race, but only because his whole campaign was premised on Greg Abbott leaving the job to run for Lieutenant Governor (a chain reaction that never happened because Rick Perry beat back Kay Bailey Hutchison’s primary challenge). Marco Rubio has written in his autobiography American Son about how he was almost ready to drop out of his Senate race against Charlie Crist, back when he was in single digits in the polls, and had discussed the possibility with close friends, but hardened his resolve to stay in when one of his campaign aides got a call spreading a rumor that Rubio was about to drop out:
I felt certain the call had come from someone in Governor Crist’s campaign who decided to disclose the sensitive information to force my hand. They were trying to muscle me out of the race again, and I didn’t like it. I turned to Brendan, and with a firm resolve I did not actually feel, categorically denied I would be dropping out of the race, not now or ever. I crossed that bridge and burned it behind me. There was no way back and no way out but forward.
So the last thing campaigns want to do is give flagging candidates a reason to react the way Rubio did. A number of the candidates who have dropped out so far, like Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie, have gone out of their way to not call on any other candidates to follow their lead, noting how much they resented being told that themselves. It’s also why many of them take some down time before endorsing anyone else, so they don’t look as if a single opponent pushed them out or bought them off. It may be why Ben Carson decided to stay in the race after Iowa following rumors that his retreat to Florida was a prelude to quitting.
The desire to go out on a high note, or at least to feel like you gave it everything you had and didn’t walk away prematurely, can lead to some counterintuitive dynamics. It can be easier to walk away after a vaguely respectable showing than a terrible one – thus, Christie and Rand Paul were a bit quicker to let go after New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively, than were Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum. Santorum followed Iowa by announcing a bus tour of South Carolina, which was then scrapped a few days later; Fiorina was insisting she was in it for the long haul only hours before dropping out.
This is also part of why we see candidates make a big showing of a “last stand,” like Christie’s belligerent finale at the last New Hampshire debate. Christie could tell himself that he had put everything he had in the hands of the New Hampshire voters; that was a theme of his closing statement – “New Hampshire, I spent 70 days here with you. You’ve gotten to know my heart.”
Watching Jeb Bush finally bring George W. Bush out on the campaign trail this week in South Carolina really feels like that kind of moment. Jeb turned 63 last week; he’s been thinking about a presidential run for a long time, wait his turn behind his older brother, and entered the race with great fanfare and huge resources; he knows that if he walks away, this was his last shot. The Bushes have not faced this sort of decision in a long time: in 1980, George H.W. Bush didn’t drop out until May 26, after South Carolina started a string of losing 15 out of 19 states to Ronald Reagan – and H.W. Bush went out on a high note of his own, quitting after a thumping 25-point win in Michigan. But since then, South Carolina has been good to the Bushes, swinging the momentum decisively in their favor in 1988 and 2000. Bringing in W now, in this state, seems like a way of signalling that Jeb’s leaving it all on the field there.
He has reason to. After finishing sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire – Jeb has won a total of 7.8 percent of the popular vote so far – Jeb really needs to finish in the top three somewhere, and he’s running out of places to do it. More to the point, neither he nor Marco Rubio has a path forward until one of them drops out, and if Rubio finishes ahead of Jeb in South Carolina, he has no reason to go; Rubio has more money and better poll standing than Jeb. Even then, Jeb’s path forward is cloudy. His national favorability rating is 25 points underwater, and it’s in bad shape even with Republicans: a January Gallup poll showed him the only candidate in the field with net negative favorability among Republicans, and more recent national polls are mixed at best: a PPP poll after Iowa had him at -10 (37/47), the worst in the field; the latest from Quinnipiac after New Hampshire had him at +23 (55/32), but still with the highest unfavorables in the field. Monmouth’s latest South Carolina poll tells a similar story, with Jeb’s favorability rating at 43/43, again the worst in the field. Head to head polls routinely show Jeb having a much harder time beating Trump than Cruz or Rubio would.
The conventional wisdom is that Jeb’s money gives him the means to soldier on, polls be damned. But that too is in doubt if he can’t take out Rubio in South Carolina. His Right to Rise SuperPAC has cancelled a third of its planned spending for March 1, and between the astronomical burn rate of Right to Rise and the nearly exhausted “hard money” on hand for the campaign itself ($7.5 million as of December 31 and being spent faster than money was coming in), it is simply not sustainable for the Bush campaign to keep up its resource-intensive ways into March unless it does something to revive its fundraising soon. A top 3 finish in South Carolina seems like the only thing now that could do that.
And so Jeb’s campaign shakes its fist at the sun, the way every campaign rages against the dying of the light. But the raging is part of the dying. If the voters of South Carolina don’t rescue him, he may be setting himself up to face the end of the road at last.