Outside of the class of conservative activists, it is not hard to find political analysts and observers who are convinced that the Republican presidential primaries are essentially over, and Jeb Bush won.
The argument for why Bush has already sewn up the nomination is not particularly compelling, but it does have its devotees. The case centers on the fact that the former Florida governor has prohibitive access to a set of prolific Republican donors. It’s perhaps no surprise that those who believe American politics is hopelessly corrupt as a result of the fact that high-dollar donors can contribute to the campaigns and causes of their choosing also believe that Bush’s deep-pocketed backers will inevitably secure for him the GOP nomination.
“He’s got class, pedigree, political juice and a Mexican-born wife…assets the Republican Party desperately needs,” Andy Ostory wrote for The Huffington Post. “He’s an oasis of respectability and sanity in a sea of fringe madness.”
“He’s appealingly establishment and old-school against a backdrop of Tea Party Turks run amok,” he continued. “Conservative enough to appeal to the masses, but not too conservative to attract independents.”
It is, in fact, Bush’s apparent ability to appeal to moderates and centrists that puts him in the precarious position he presently occupies. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver quantified Bush’s centrist impulses and noted that the former Florida governor occupies a position on the conservative spectrum closer to his father than his brother. Silver also conceded, however, that Bush might have a “40 percent to 50 percent chance” of winning the nomination if he emerges from the “invisible primary” a prosperous candidate with the most effective organization.
“At the moment, he appears to have the establishment lane all to himself, much like Romney did in 2012,” Roll Call’s Stu Rothenberg observed. “New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is still in the race, of course, and both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have some establishment appeal. But Bush’s appeal and advantages in America’s boardrooms and country clubs aren’t really up for debate.” Rothenberg added that Bush’s financial advantage grants him an unmatched platform that allows him to respond to and issue attacks against his opponents. Moreover, Bush “starts off looking and sounding like a president,” and no other GOP candidate enjoys the same advantage.
And Bush may still be the favorite to win the nomination, but his appeal to Republican primary voters is moving in the wrong direction. Even the GOP voters in Bush’s home state are taking a critical look at the field of GOP prospects as more candidates jump into the race. According to a new Quinnipiac University survey released on Thursday, Bush’s standing in his home state has fallen a dramatic 8 points since early February.
Bush leads potential Republican contenders in Florida with 24 percent, a decrease from 32 percent in the same Quinnipiac poll from Feb. 4. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker follows with 15 percent, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is next at 12 percent.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson follows the top three in Florida, with 8 percent; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who announced his presidential bid in Virginia on March 23, grabbed 7 percent; and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee received 6 percent in the Sunshine State.
Cruz’s fourth place position in that Florida poll is likely due to the publicity he received after his presidential announcement, which suggests that there might be an even larger bounce in store for Rubio following what many believe will be his campaign roll-out on April 13.
Bush can still win the “invisible primary” and the “donor primary” and lose the actual primary if he fails to win the hearts and minds of Republican voters. In fact, a scenario in which Bush stumbles is not hard to envision.
Say Bush comes in a disappointing third or even fourth place in Iowa’s caucuses. While that fourth place finish might be unlikely, taking home the bronze from Iowa is not unthinkable. Bush would then need to rebound strongly in New Hampshire, which means that he needs to walk away from the Granite State with a first place showing. Given the New Hampshire GOP’s now fading interest in Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to serve as a potential anti-Bush, the apparent desire among this state’s Republicans for a viable alternative to the former Florida governor is strong enough to suggest that Bush’s Iowa loss could be followed by another loss, albeit a narrower one, in New Hampshire.
From the Granite State, the only early primary contest that could truly change the trajectory of the race will be in the Palmetto State (or, to a much lesser extent, Nevada’s caucuses). South Carolina had the honor of voting for the GOP’s eventual nominee in every cycle since 1980 until 2012 when the state’s Republicans shed their bellwether status with a vote for Newt Gingrich. That vote might have been an indicator that the South Carolina GOP electorate is today less inclined to vote for electability than they are for principles. If that is the prevailing sentiment in February of next year, Bush loses.
From there, the former Sunshine State governor heads into March hoping to be rescued by Southern state GOP voters like those in Florida and Texas. If Bush enters the early spring behind and clinging to the hope that Florida will rescue his ebbing political prospects – let’s call this maneuver “The Crazy Giuliani” – history suggests that Bush’s bid would officially qualify as a longshot. By this time, if the above events had come to pass, the party would likely already be rallying around the candidate who performed best in the early state contests.
This is not necessarily the likeliest scenario, but it is at least a plausible way in which Bush could fumble his early lead in the polls. They call it a campaign for a reason, and there will be many twists and turns before the first votes are cast in the winter of next year. To suggest that Bush has the nomination locked down today is more of a straight-line projection than an analysis. The Republican primary electorate doesn’t seem to have made up its collective mind just yet.