Last fall, when Jeb Bush was still mulling a bid for the presidency, Bloomberg Politics reported on what was considered then—and is still considered now—Bush’s greatest advantage as a presidential candidate: His ability to separate wealthy donors from vast sums of money quickly. “Unlike his competitors,” the thinking went, “Bush could lure donors off the fence in a hurry, without undergoing a hazing trial to test skill and stability.”
That is precisely what happened. Instants after announcing over the winter that he was “seriously considering the possibility of running for president,” Bush and his team set up the Right to Rise PAC and super PAC to serve as cash receptacles for eager GOP establishment donors. The money rolled in, and by July the super PAC announced that it had met its goal of raising more than $100 million in the first six months of the year. The popular former governor of Florida, who hadn’t run for office since his 2002 re-election bid, was able to take it to the bank based on his family’s success at winning presidential nominations and his ability to flatter the right crowds at events like the Wall Street Journal CEO Council. And indeed, he was able to bypass a thorough vetting of his aptitude for a presidential run en route to this fortune.
Because it’s clear right now that “a hazing trial to test skill and stability” was exactly what wealthy establishment Republican donors should have subjected Bush to before opening their checkbooks. It’s not a matter of sunk costs. The very wealthy, by their standards, can still buy politics on the cheap: losing a million bucks on a lemon of a candidate won’t send them to the poor house. But by imbuing the Bush operation with more primary cash than has ever been seen, they have already ensured that the Bush campaign—even a clumsy, poll-trailing Bush campaign—can go deep into the 2016 primary calendar. Unless Bush can really turn his image around, that means that the process of settling on an establishment candidate will play out far longer than the party may prefer—and perhaps even throw the nomination to the dreaded “outsider” candidate of the establishment’s worst nightmares. Go ahead, fellas: Clutch those pearls.
Had Bush undergone the hazing trial from which over-exuberant donors exempted him, red flags would have been flying all over the place. He is gaffe-prone. He struggles to opine coherently on the most obvious question for which he’s had years to prepare. He speaks, in the words of his great foil Donald Trump, in a “low-energy” manner. His last name remains Bush, a problem for both his primary and general elections prospects.
All of these flaws are reflected in his polling numbers, which aren’t the most important metric to look at this early, as well as his fundamentals. Seemingly each new polling of favorability, a rough way of considering a candidate’s ceiling of support, shows Bush in horrendous shape. A Public Policy Polling national survey of Republican voters released Tuesday pins Bush near the middle of the pack in support (as in, 20 or so points behind Trump), and near the bottom of the pack in net favorability. His 39–42 negative favorability rating is among the worst in the field, surpassed in dislike only by candidates such as Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul whose viability was always limited. (Meanwhile Trump, whose unfavorables only a few months ago soared into the 60s or even 70s, now finds himself with a solid 56–30 rating.)
You know who is well liked? Sen. Marco Rubio, the notoriously amnesty-curious junior senator from Florida. While still low in overall support, Rubio’s slow-and-steady, mostly gaffe-free campaign has left him in prime position to surge once various other early flirtations have expired. PPP’s survey finds Rubio’s favorable-unfavorable at 58–24, the second best margin behind only Ben Carson, who will face extraordinary scrutiny if his nascent surge lasts much longer. This is only the latest survey in a long string of them that reflects the fond feelings Republican voters have for Rubio, a candidate who’s been through the wringer of conservative furor and lived not just to tell about it, but to thrive.
It’s almost like Rubio is shaping into a fine presidential candidate, acceptable to conservatives and moderates alike, who could compete gamely in a general election. It’s almost like Rubio … what’s a way of putting this? … has undergone a hazing trial to test his skill and stability and passed, with plenty of room to grow after the Summer of Trump and all of the silly, early dabbling that comes with that.
Rubio’s problem—and perhaps soon a problem for the GOP establishment and the Republican Party writ large—is that Bush will face no financial pressure to leave the scene. These donors made the mistake of paying the contractor in full before he’d begun the job. In no way can Bush be ruled out as the nominee. But we’re definitely at the point where he cannot simply wait for the other candidates to cancel each other out, McCain-style, and have their support matriculate to him as the only acceptable option. Bush will have to find some way to go from an unpopular politician to a moderately popular politician.
Let’s say that he’s unable to pull off that difficult task. He’d still be well-known and well-liked enough among a modest segment of party to retain 10 or 20 percent support—just enough to prevent Rubio (or the always-discussed, never-realized white knight) from reaching escape velocity. We race past Super Tuesday at the beginning of March and reach the latter end of the calendar when state primary rules switch from proportional to winner-take-all delegate allocation. Jeb and his super PAC still have bushels of money and figure they might as well stick around and hope something changes, because why not? He and Rubio split up the moderates. Trump either doesn’t blow up or retains enough support to take those winner-take-all states on his own, or he does blow up, and a figure like Cruz successfully coalesces the anti-establishment vote.
These are the problems that GOP establishment donors created by throwing million-dollar checks at Bush before seeing if anyone liked him or he was up to the task on the campaign trail. Thus far he has failed in both regards. But he still has all that loot and, much like his brother once said about the political capital he’d accumulated, he intends to spend it. Perhaps his Bush family WASP instincts will kick in and, like a gentleman, he’ll call it quits early if things aren’t working out, instructing his super PAC from then on to devote its resources to Rubio. Or maybe his Bush family “destroy everyone!” instincts will override the WASP side, and he’ll fight—and fight nasty—until the bitter end.
The establishment invested heavily in Bush early to avoid the lengthy, damaging primary fight of the 2012 cycle. In doing so, they may well have created a far longer process, with far more dangerous results.