The voter who passionately supports Jeb Bush’s campaign but hasn’t already written him a five-figure check is the Bigfoot of the 2016 election cycle: The species is rumored to roam the early battleground states, but confirmed sightings have been rare.
Bush’s initial strategy was not so much to try to build up that base of support, but to soak up enough money and talent to intimidate potential challengers out of the race.
At times, attempts to create the illusion of genuine enthusiasm have bordered on comical. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, an event dominated by young people and activists, the Bush campaign bused in supporters from K Street lobbying firms. At other events, the campaign’s engagement with the grassroots has been notably limp. A source familiar with the campaign says that, despite his significant war chest, Bush spent less than $100,000 pushing his June launch on social media. Bush already trails his challengers, particularly Texas senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky senator Rand Paul, when it comes to followers and fans on social-media platforms, which are important because they provide campaigns with data and allow supporters to engage with the candidates.
The Bush campaign, through a spokesman, said that it sees “growing excitement for his candidacy in all of the early states” and that interest and support have surpassed expectations. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average has Bush leading the pack in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but running fifth in Iowa. The significance of those numbers is an open question. Crack pollster Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, says early polls mostly measure name recognition. “Having said that,” he says, “since that’s what they do measure, you would think Bush would be outperforming early on since people think of Bush, they think of the president, they think of the family.” Instead, challengers are breathing down his neck.
Even those favorably inclined toward Bush say that, despite the enthusiastically punctuated “Jeb!” logo — revived from prior campaigns — there’s even a lack of excitement among his own staff. “To the degree that people are loyal to the campaign, it’s more out of a sense of fear than out of loyalty to the candidate,” says a person familiar with the Bush operation. “They’re not working for him because they love the candidate, but because they think he’s going to win or because they’re afraid of being on the other side.” Says another: “It’s a big campaign and they haven’t quite jelled yet into a team, but the announcement and subsequent weeks have really moved them forward.” Can you feel the love?
The question is whether any of this matters for a candidate with plenty of other assets, who has, indeed, made progress in improving his image among Republican primary voters over the last month or so. It’s possible that Bush, like Mitt Romney and John McCain before him, can win the nomination without significant support from the conservative grassroots. Romney, for example, may not have had a bevy of enthusiastic fans, but he had a ready-made constituency: those looking for the most competent general-election candidate. “Republicans were conflicted about John McCain, they were conflicted about Mitt Romney,” says Rothenberg. “There were lots of people who didn’t really like them who supported them because they looked at the rest of the field and didn’t find anybody they really liked.”
Jeb Bush has much more of his father in him than his brother, George W. Bush, did, and the father never inspired much enthusiasm either. He was honorable, well-mannered, and genteel, somebody who could generally be trusted to do the right thing. The country less chose him as a leader than defaulted to him after his opponent, Michael Dukakis, was deemed unacceptable.
Boring and steady as she goes can work if there’s no good alternative, but the 2016 race on the Republican side is already filled with top-notch candidates. Some have compared it to the 1980 GOP contest, in which eight Republican candidates, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bob Dole, duked it out into the spring, clashing over the party’s big questions. Many in the GOP, after two big presidential defeats in a row, are looking for another visionary.
That’s not natural terrain for Jeb Bush.
He may have a record in office as conservative as those of his new rivals. As chief executive of Florida, he signed laws to curb abortions, introduce school choice, cut taxes, and slash government jobs. But he last ran for election in 2002. “Whether you are an activist, a voter, a normal human being, we have very short memories,” says Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report. Bush, she says, “was a very conservative governor, but that was the equivalent of a hundred years ago.”
Since Bush’s time in office, the Obama administration has transformed the GOP. “The wilderness years and the years of opposition to Obama’s radical agenda have radicalized the grassroots,” says a top Republican operative. The Obama administration has fanned the flames of the Tea Party, but the fire really started over George W. Bush’s profligacy. And “the major sentiments of the Tea Party,” says Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist, were “incorporated” by the Republican party.
During these years, Jeb Bush was in the private sector, popping his head up now and then mostly to tut-tut his fellow Republicans for their insufficient sensitivity on issues ranging from illegal immigration to gay marriage.
He is not temperamentally at home in the post–Tea Party era, which has been defined largely by the ideological bomb-throwers who have bounded onto the national stage. And he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to endear himself to the post–Tea Party electorate, ardently backing Common Core and comprehensive immigration reform and even dissenting from the conservative consensus on smaller issues such as the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
The Tea Party produced two sorts of politicians who are now on the presidential stage, both of which Bush will have to overcome. There are the big personalities who instantly command press attention regardless of whether they merit it, like Paul and Cruz, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and public-relations guru Donald Trump. It is not hard to see Bush outlasting these candidates not only for financial reasons — he has more money to stay in the race — but also simply because his seriousness and sense of purpose, as they say, “wear better.”
The other group presents a bigger challenge. It’s composed of lesser-known personalities who have proved to be serious campaigners who can think on their feet and, like Bush, handle virtually any question hurled at them by the press. Count among them Florida senator Marco Rubio, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who not only match up well generationally against Hillary Clinton but also exude energy and gravitas.
Does Jeb match up as well? The other center-right candidates who have recently won the Republican nomination despite ideological qualms about them, McCain and Romney, had what seemed to be pretty compelling arguments in favor of their electability. Skeptics will say that Bush doesn’t, and not for outlandish reasons.
It has long been said that if Bush is the nominee, Republicans will cede the dynastic issue, which is true. But they’ll also potentially cede something else, which far fewer voters are talking about: that of crony capitalism. Over the past several months, as donations to the Clinton Foundation have been scrutinized and indexed against various entities seeking favorable treatment from the State Department, this charge has become perhaps the most damning indictment of Hillary Clinton.
Bush, whose connections to the upper echelons of political power extend back decades, is vulnerable to a similar charge, although on a smaller scale. He touts his business experience, but reporters are beginning to chatter about how Bush used his family’s political power to boost various businesses with which he was involved. In one case, when his father was in the White House, Bush traveled to Nigeria with executives from a Florida company, Moving Water Industries, leveraging his connections to help it secure an $80 million equipment deal.
In 2012 the Republicans had a nominee, Mitt Romney, who couldn’t make the GOP’s most powerful arguments against Obamacare because he had implemented a similar health-care plan as governor of Massachusetts. Many Republicans will be reluctant to nominate a candidate who may be unable to land the two most powerful punches against Hillary Clinton. The Bush campaign dismisses that idea, and spokesman Tim Miller says that, over the past seven years in particular, “Bush has made a successful career in business where he has gained perspective on how the Obama policies have hindered job creation across the country.”
Regardless, Bush will no doubt be a formidable contender. This is a family that plays to win. George H. W. Bush, now shrouded in the nostalgic appreciation of the Left, torpedoed Dukakis in 1988 with a barrage of negative ads over hot-button cultural issues. The Democrats cried bloody murder. Even as George W. Bush talked about compassionate conservatism, he did a political demolition job on John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary that left McCain and his supporters bruised for years afterward. During the Florida recount, Bush brought in family consigliere James Baker and outfought the forces of Al Gore (it helped that Bush had more votes).
Should we expect the same from the Bush clan this time around? “Everybody’s going to destroy everybody,” an insider says.
There is also the intangible issue of stature. “When I look at the candidates, there’s one who looks like a president and talks like a president and, frankly, it’s Jeb Bush,” says Rothenberg. This is where Bush’s stolidity pays dividends. By now, he has exposed himself to thousands of questions from the press over hundreds of hours on the campaign trail and has made unintended news just once, on the question of Iraq. His release of 33 years’ worth of tax returns — Romney and McCain released two years’ worth — underscores his commitment to honesty and transparency. He has approached the campaign like a president.
That may not excite people, but the importance of the sizzle factor may also diminish when primary voters get more serious. And in a matchup against Hillary Clinton, it’s not hard to see the country defaulting to another Bush: competent, ethical, and unexciting. If that’s the case, the general-election matchup may very well resemble the 1988 battle between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, one in which neither party is enthused about its nominee, the campaign is all-out war, and the better man wins by the process of elimination.