With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s exit from the 2016 Republican primary race, conservative voters will be surprised to learn that the fight for the GOP’s presidential nomination is virtually over. There will be some twists and turns along the way, The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty and Matea Gold noted in a Sunday dispatch, but former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is now the prohibitive favorite to face Hillary Clinton.
The Post piece spends quite a bit of time quoting former Romney donors and fundraisers who are enthusiastic about Bush’s candidacy, suggesting that the GOP’s moneyed class is falling in line behind the new “frontrunner.” Analysts like MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki have noted that this strategy of sewing up the loyalty of much of the donor class early in the race is precisely how Bush’s brother, the 43rd President of the United States, secured his party’s nomination over 15 years ago. By the release of 1999’s second quarter financial disclosure filing, it was clear to nearly all the “also-rans” in the 2000 cycle that George W. Bush had already won the donor primary. Jeb Bush will likely try to replicate his brother’s successes on the donor front, but, as WaPo observed, the modern media environment and the Republican Party Jeb Bush seeks to lead are widely different from those of the last century.
What’s more, the 2016 field is a crowded one and suffers no shortage of talent:
Bush’s biggest challenge — and now, arguably, his most urgent — is to define himself for an electorate whose impression of him has been shaped largely by the last name that he shares with two former presidents, his father and his brother.
That is not an unalloyed asset at a moment when many Republicans are looking to turn the page politically and are intrigued by relative newcomers. Walker, who was a big hit at a conservative gathering in Iowa last weekend, led a tight field in a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll of that state’s caucusgoers released Saturday night. Christie can boast of a landslide 2013 re-election in a heavily Democratic state. Another potential candidate is Bush’s fellow Floridian, the charismatic Sen. Marco Rubio.
The former governor also does not have a strong connection with elements of the grass-roots base of his party, as do such figures as tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), libertarian Paul, or social-issue warriors such as former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
One could justify calling Bush the frontrunner by consulting national primary polls, all of which indicate that the former Sunshine State governor enjoys a lead of between 2 and 10 points over his nearest competitors. The only other Republican figures to secure double-digit support in any poll of the national GOP primary electorate since November are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Dr. Ben Carson. There’s just one problem: There is no such thing as a national Republican primary electorate.
As Jazz noted, the highly reputable Des Moines Register poll suggests that Jeb Bush is not especially competitive in Iowa. Without Romney in the race, Bush polls in fifth place behind Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Paul, Huckabee, and Carson. While Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers have a horrendous track record of backing the candidate that ultimately emerges the party’s nominee (since 1980, only Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 won both the caucuses and the party’s nod), the ultimate nominee must at least be competitive in Iowa. In 2012, Mitt Romney very narrowly lost to the caucus’s victor, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. In 2008, John McCain came in less than three-tenths of a point behind Fred Thompson to secure fourth place in Iowa behind Romney and Huckabee.
New Hampshire, the second contest of the Republican primary season and the first true ballot test of the GOP field, is at best a tossup at this stage. The last poll of the New Hampshire GOP electorate taken in November by Bloomberg found Bush trailing both Paul and Christie. A New England College survey of the Granite State Republican electorate conducted in late October found Bush leading Christie within the survey’s margin of error by only 2 points.
Prior to 2012, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich emerged from South Carolina victorious, the winner of the Palmetto State primary reliably went on to take the party’s nomination. The only recent survey of South Carolina, conducted in late January by the Republican firm Gravis Marketing, found Bush leading the field by 7 points but with just 18 percent support. After Gravis, the most recent survey of the field in South Carolina was taken in May of 2014.
In short, there is simply not enough polling of the early primary states to dub any of the many candidates in the 2016 race for the GOP nomination a “frontrunner.”
But polling strength is not the only quality that led WaPo to christen Bush the party’s leading candidate for the nomination. “Republicans have a tradition of picking an anointed one early,” the reporters noted. “That establishment candidate almost always ends up with the nomination, although not without a fight and some speed bumps along the way.”
That’s true, but Bush does not meet this criterion. The party does have a tradition of falling in line behind a candidate with a claim to primogeniture. But Jeb Bush has never run for president before as had figures like Romney or Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) who utilized their claim to the right of succession to their advantage. What’s more, the party’s last three vice presidential nominees (Dick Cheney, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)) abdicated their status as heir apparent. With those decisions, what would have been coronations became contests. The supposed rule that the establishment candidate always emerges victorious after a rocky primary process is supported by only a handful of data points. It is a “rule” made to be broken.
So, to claim Bush is the obvious frontrunner is slightly premature at this point. To even suggest that he is the “establishment Republican” favorite in the race is a hasty judgment; the field needs to settle and those who would challenge Bush for that title have not yet even declared their intentions to run. WaPo is out on a limb on this one, and Bush faces many more hurdles in his quest for the nomination than did his “establishment” predecessors. It will be many months before it is safe to crown a Republican candidate with frontrunner’s laurels.