Answer: No, not really. But as a man whose blogging legacy will consist mainly of “Romney 2016?” posts, I’m not going to throw stones at Byron York for filling a slow news day with some creative horserace speculation.
The best I can come up with for a victory scenario is that the modern Republican donor class always gets who it wants as nominee. The day will come when that’s no longer true, but until Jeb is officially out of this race, you bet against the favored son at your peril. York’s victory scenario is more detailed. Assume that Trump fades, either because voters finally get tired of his shtick or because Jeb’s Super PAC finally succeeds in nuking him with attack ads. (In that case, wouldn’t Trump seek revenge by nuking Jeb back? Also, given what a protracted, unsolvable problem Trump has been for Jeb, assuming that he fades as a precondition to Jeb winning is the political version of assuming a can opener.) Assume further that Carson’s support is as soft as it appears and that his voters will eventually go elsewhere, likely to Cruz, once they reluctantly conclude that he’s a wonderful man who’s simply not qualified to be president.
That’s when things get interesting.
One good-for-Jeb scenario would be that Rubio and Cruz then engage in an internecine battle so vicious, bitter and bloody that Republican voters come to believe neither is suited for the presidency.
In that case, Republicans look around and see Carly Fiorina, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham, and ask: Now why was it we didn’t like Jeb?
The other good-for-Jeb scenario, JebWorld believes, is that Cruz slays Rubio. Despite Rubio’s solid progress in recent weeks, JebWorld believes he is all talk and is just beginning to face media scrutiny. Cruz — sharp, aggressive, a formidable debater — is coming up fast.
Even after that ruinous moment in Boulder, Bush is still taking shots at Rubio, but JebWorld would clearly be happy to have Cruz take up the fight. In the careful-what-you-wish-for category, JebWorld believes Bush would do well in a one-on-one against Cruz, and the Bush super PAC will still be there to carpet-bomb the last opponent standing.
The idea of Jeb somehow emerging from a death match between Rubio and Cruz feels like an underpants-gnomes plan. Phase one: Rubio and Cruz wage war over immigration and whether compromise is the right strategy in the Senate. Phase two: ?????? Phase three: The voters throw up their hands and turn to Jeb. I could sort of understand that if Jeb himself was an inoffensive low-key figure whom voters had no reason to dislike and might settle on as a compromise choice purely in the name of party unity, but he’s not that guy at all. He’s a Bush. He reeks of oligarchy. His favorable rating among Republicans is even lower than Trump’s in many polls. You could, in fact, argue that the race is only as unsettled as it is right now because Jeb decided to run in the first place:
I repeat:In many ways the R mess is Jeb!s fault. Zero demand for his candidacy, blocked out other establishment-y candidates, panicked base.
— Sean T at RCP (@SeanTrende) November 5, 2015
How is Bush the solution to the problem when he created the problem? And given how similar on policy he and Rubio are, why would anyone inclined to back Rubio against Cruz decide to abandon Rubio for Jeb instead? Bush is an inferior candidate in most important ways (especially now that Rubio’s lining up big bucks from mega-donors like Adelson and Singer); his only key advantage is executive experience, and even that’s diluted by the fact that he’s been out of office for nearly nine years. I suppose there’s some scenario where something like 60 percent of the vote splits evenly between Rubio and Cruz and then Jeb sneaks through to victory with the other 40 percent, but again, why wouldn’t that last group swing around behind Rubio in the name of stopping Cruz instead of suddenly gambling on Jeb? And why, as York suggests, would Bush believe that he can necessarily win a one-on-one death match with Cruz if they’re the last two men standing? Jeb’s got money in the bank and will doubtless get more from wary donors if they’re forced to choose between him and Senator Shutdown, but Cruz is much better funded than everyone expected he’d be and Team Jeb’s own ad spending has been conspicuously impotent so far. Check this out:
Despite $13M+ spent on the air over the past two months, Jeb has lost 6pts in national polls & 26pts in favorability pic.twitter.com/wCy0JuP1Eh
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) November 5, 2015
Given the strength of Republican support for outsiders this year, there’s at least as much reason to believe Cruz would win a head-to-head match with Jeb running an “Anyone But Bush” race as Jeb would win it running an “Anyone But Cruz” campaign. If you know of a single poll in the last few months that shows Jeb performing well in head-to-head hypotheticals against anyone, send it along. I can’t think of one offhand that suggests he’d win an either/or choice, even against Trump.
All right. Here’s a sort of plausible Jeb victory scenario for you. Trump’s numbers hold steady in the high 20s or low 30s; Rubio’s numbers climb further, to 20 percent or so; Carson fades and his supporters split between Trump and Cruz, pushing Cruz into the low to mid 20s as well. Meanwhile, Jeb continues to float along at eight percent but feels no pressure to get out of the race given how well funded his Super PAC is. Trump and Cruz, both nervous about Rubio given his polish, his mega-donor support, and his perceived electability, decide to band together and attack him simultaneously. They realize that if they divide the “outsider” vote between them, there’s enough left over among the rest of the party to let Rubio win easily. Rubio must be destroyed. So they go all in and destroy him — he’s an amnesty shill, he’s a corporate pawn, etc. Rubio’s numbers fade and a huge chunk of his supporters shift back to undecided. At that point, either Trump or Cruz (probably Trump) miscalculates and assumes that the race is now down to two men and one must destroy the other. Trump lights into Cruz and Cruz has no choice but to hit back. Jeb, sensing his opportunity, ramps up his “adult in the room” shtick. The ex-Rubio voters, never fans of Trump or Cruz to begin with and newly hostile to them because of their teardown of Rubio, take a second look at Jeb. So do other free-floating undecideds who don’t think Trump or Cruz can beat Hillary. Trump and Cruz gradually start attacking Jeb too, but now it’s a war of all against all. Jeb’s Super PAC, raking in dough now that he’s the donor class’s last best hope, goes nuclear on both of his opponents. Eventually Trump slips a bit and some Trump fans, many of whom are moderate in their politics and who’ve come to resent Cruz for wounding Trump, reluctantly back Jeb. Bush goes on to win a three-way race with the center-right behind him, aided by the fact that blue-state Republicans will likely have outsized influence over who the nominee is next year. I’d give it 100-to-one odds of happening, but those are probably also the odds Obama started with in 2007.