Jeb Bush Faces The End Of The Road In South Carolina

More likely than not, South Carolina marks the end of the road for Jeb Bush's bid for the Presidency.


With less than twenty-four hours to go before voting begins, it appears as though the once seemingly formidable Jeb Bush campaign may be on its last legs:

SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — Some of Jeb Bush’s most steadfast allies think Saturday might be the end.

Donors, who poured millions into his campaign and super PAC, have stopped giving – one refusing a direct request to raise $1 million this week. Bush himself is hitting the phones, pleading for patience with his most influential supporters. And even some of his confidants are suddenly dejected after a dispiriting week capped off by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley rejecting Bush in favor of Marco Rubio.

“What a kick in the balls,” said one of Bush’s closest supporters and one of the more than a dozen major Bush donors interviewed for this story.

The Bush team had been banking on a strong week, believing their candidate’s first solid debate performance last weekend would move the numbers in South Carolina. They thought bringing in George W. Bush on Monday night would generate more enthusiasm and positive earned media than it did. They held out hope that the former president could convince Haley, who’d hedged on backing Rubio after his slip in New Hampshire, to support a fellow governor.

But none of it panned out.

“The Haley endorsement just hurt,” said a Florida-based fundraiser who is close to Bush and had up to now remained optimistic about his chances. “We felt we had some momentum after New Hampshire. And Jeb was feeling good about his brother. But it wasn’t as good as we thought it would be. Then this happened.”

“It’s bad for the staff, for morale,” that donor said. “People are working hard and it’s tough when this happens. But this stuff happens.”

But even before Haley’s endorsement, several long-time Bush donors were emailing each other Tuesday morning, expressing a collective readiness to intervene and tell Bush, depending on his finish here Saturday night, that his time is up.

“People are going to wait and see what the sequence is in South Carolina, but they’ve put all the players on the field at this point, including W,” one donor on the email chain said. “If he finishes significantly behind Rubio in South Carolina, I think a lot of the people who are personally close to him, including donors are going to say, don’t stay in until money runs out, don’t stay in just to be a spoiler. We’re thinking about legacy now.”

On a donor conference call Wednesday night hours after the Haley endorsement, the mood was even more grim. Bush himself wasn’t on the line when one donor asked about the cash situation. They were told that the Right to Rise super PAC has $15 million left in the bank. The implication, however, “was that the hard money is about used up,” said one donor.

At the beginning of the week, Jack Oliver, the Washington attorney heading up the campaign’s fundraising efforts, was calling campaign bundlers. The “ask” to one Texas bundler: Can you raise $1 million this week? The answer was no. “Every single person who can write a $2700 check has already written it,” one Florida-based Bush donor said. “I think they’d like to keep going, I just don’t think they can.”

Bush himself began working the phones immediately following his fourth place showing in New Hampshire 10 days ago, calling several of his most loyal and influential supporters, all of whom long ago maxed out to his campaign and most of whom who’ve been reluctant to keep writing checks to the super PAC. According to one source that received such a call, Bush was pleading for patience.

“Stay with me through Nevada,” is how one Washington, DC bundler paraphrased Bush’s message to him. “For a guy who’d built a campaign to go the distance, it was telling.” Bush may not even make it to Nevada. On Wednesday, a poll showed Bush drawing just 1 percent of likely Nevada caucus-goers


In private conversations, Oliver and two others close to Bush have been insisting that Bush will continue through Nevada and the Super Tuesday contests on March 1 unless he finishes a distant fifth or sixth in South Carolina. But the hard money situation, several sources close to the campaign acknowledge, is bleak. “The donors are not as giving as blindly this year as they did to [Mitt] Romney,” one longtime Bush ally said. “They learned to look at their investment and to assess if and where it might pay off. If the numbers in Nevada and Florida aren’t good, whatever happens in South Carolina, the reality is it’s going to be very hard to pick up delegates in the places he has to win.

“The fact of the matter is there isn’t strength anywhere.”

Bush is facing serious problems on the ground in South Carolina, where he’d been hoping to reinvigorate his campaign by beating a weakened Rubio in a second straight primary. But while Rubio has rebounded, Bush has remained stuck, his support somewhere around the 10 percent mark according to an average of the most recent polls. His close confidants and long-time friends are dejected. They know that finishing behind his former protégé here could be the deathblow.

“People would love to get Jeb all the way through the convention, but I’m not sure given where things stand, that’s not realistic,” said a Florida Bush supporter who’s been close to the family for the better part of three decades. “The question is: Will Jeb Bush do what’s best for the country, especially with Trump in a position to run away with it? Or is too personal for him to quit. This is a gut check moment Saturday, depending on the outcome. “

As things stand, the situation seems rather bleak for Bush at this point. While he entered the race in a seemingly dominant position thanks to a combination of name recognition, native support among big-time Republican donors, fundraising, and, yes, residual support for the Bush family among mainline Republicans, Bush’s fortunes quickly began to slip as the campaign went on. On both the national level and in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, first Scott Walker and then Donald Trump quickly overtook the former Florida Governor in the polls and the campaign seemed flummoxed about how to respond to the fact that their candidate was being rejected by such a wide swath of the GOP electorate. Bush didn’t do much to help himself when the debates started, turning in performances that were fair at best and positively horrible at worst. On several occasions, Donald Trump in particular has gone after Bush with a seeming glee that makes it seem as though he enjoys attacking the younger Bush brother more than any of the other candidates in the race, and the attacks have stuck with Bush throughout the campaign, particularly the charge that Bush was “low energy.” In turn, Bush attempted to push back at Trump but all that accomplished was to make it appear that he could not play at Trump’s level. In later debates, Bush would turn his cites on his protegee and, at least at one point, friend Marco Rubio in a series of attacks regarding Rubio’s Senate voting record that seemed to hurt Bush more than Rubio. By October, Bush donors were voicing concern about the course of the campaign, Bush’s own performance as a candidate, and the future of the campaign. It would be at the end of that month that Bush would lose three of his top fundraisers and rumors about the campaign running short of funds would begin.

To some degree, Bush was able to move past that crisis and return to the field a seemingly stronger candidate. His debate performances improved markedly, for example, polling in New Hampshire in particular seemed to show Bush becoming a stronger candidate, and he seemed to have more energy on the campaign trail. Since voting started at the beginning of the month, though, things have not gone well for Bush at all. He came in sixth place in Iowa with just 2.8% of the vote, for example. His performance in New Hampshire was, not surprisingly, much better but still disappointing at fourth place with 11% of the vote. In the polls, meanwhile, Bush is in last place in the RealClearPolitics national poll average with 5.4% and barely in fourth place in South Carolina with an average of 10.5% while John Kasich is on Bush’s heels at 10.0%. In many respects, it has been South Carolina where the Bush campaign seems to have decided to make a stand, with both former President George W. Bush and family matriarch Barbara Bush making campaign appearances on Jeb’s behalf. So far, though, there are few indications that it’s helping Bush’s campaign very much, and every indication that a disappointing performance tomorrow night could mark the end of Bush’s campaign entirely.

Under the rules of conventional politics, of course, Jeb Bush should not be suffering this fate. The history of Republican campaigns going back at least a generation suggested from the beginning that he was in many respects the Republican heir apparent and the ‘establishment’ candidate most likely to have the resources and the financing necessary to actually carry out a Presidential campaign. Bush also had a resume that would seem to have appealed to the conservative wing of the party, and a record of real accomplishment as Governor of Florida that, along with what he has learned as a member of one of America’s most active political families, suggests that he may well be the candidate in the 2016 Republican field best prepared to be President. In any other year, one suspects, Bush would have been the prohibitive favorite in the race in much the same way his brother was in 2000 and Mitt Romney was in 2012. The fact that this didn’t happen, and that his campaign went nowhere while the efforts of candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz rose to the top of the field is something that few people, if any, anticipated, and something the political pundits are likely to be puzzling over for years to come.

Bush’s failure to connect seems to be a combination his own shortcomings as a candidate and the fact that the Republican Party has apparently changed so much that the old rules don’t apply anymore. As I noted above, Bush has hardly been a firebrand on the campaign trail and, in many ways, that was apparent in the joint appearance he did with his brother earlier this week. Where George W. Bush was the same combination of folksy and forceful that proved successful for him in 2000 and 2004, Jeb was more cerebral and much lower-key than his brother. Obviously, this is a campaign style that has worked for Bush in the past and it likely suits his personality but it doesn’t seem to be enough to succeed on the national stage. Second, the rise of candidates such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is a strong indication of just how much the Republican Party has changed in recent years. Even four years ago, it seems unlikely that candidates like this would resonate so strongly with the base of the GOP, but resonating they are nonetheless. In this kind of Republican Party, a candidate like Bush arguably never stood a chance. Finally, the issue of general public disdain for dynastic politics should not be underestimated. Over in the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton is finding that long standing roots in the party aren’t necessarily worth what they used to be, and Jeb Bush seems to be learning the same lesson notwithstanding the fact that he is, by far, much more conservative in nearly every policy area than either his father or his brother. Add all of this together, and the seeming advantages that Bush had heading into this race don’t really amount to much.

While it may seem premature to write a postmortem for the Bush campaign while it is technically still active, it seems clear at this point where things are headed. Absent an unlikely miracle, Bush is unlikely to finish in the top three in South Carolina, nor is he likely to do very well in the Nevada Caucuses on Tuesday given that he is currently polling in last place in the Silver State. nor is there much indication that he has much hope of a breakout performance in the contests on March 1st, March 5th, or March 8th. As a matter of personal pride, Bush will perhaps seek to stay in the race until the Florida Primary on March 15th, but even there he has sunk into fourth place in the poll average after previously leading in the polls in that state for a long period of time. Whether South Carolina marks the end of the Bush campaign or not, it seems as though the writing is on the wall and the timing of his withdrawal is really just a matter of time.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Rafer Janders says:

    suggests that he may well be the candidate in the 2016 Republican field best prepared to be President.

    High praise indeed.

  2. jukeboxgrad says:

    The perfect epitaph for Jeb’s campaign: “please clap.”

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    Rather than the end of the road I’m not sure Jeb was actually ever on the road. He is both a horrible politician and stuck with a toxic last name. While refusing to criticize his brothers misadventure in Iraq may be an admiral example of defending your family it was political suicide when even many if not most Republicans think it was a huge mistake.

  4. J-Dub says:

    I don’t think the Republican base is in the mood to vote for vanilla pudding.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Kinda feel bad for him. He’s the victim of the most retarded campaigns in history being waged in the Republican primaries. He’s going to be seeing orange comb-overs in his nightmares for years.
    I’m not sold on his credentials; like his brother, he benefited from a housing bubble – unlike his brother, he was lucky enough to get out before it burst.
    But if I had to choose…I’d vote for him over any of the other passengers in the clown car. But that’s a really friggin’ low bar.
    Not one of these people has any business pretending they are qualified for the office.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    JEB! has the meh-overwarmed-pablum attraction of all the country-club Republicans, with the added toxicity of his last name.

    And his continued support of his brother, saying “he kept us safe” has been the straw that broke the camel’s back for at least one Republican (mentioned in a WP article, am too lazy to Google.)

    Look, if you can’t even admit that your sainted brother effed up and made a huge mess out of the entire Mideast, why should we expect you able to admit anything else important about reality?

  7. Pch101 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    if you can’t even admit that your sainted brother effed up and made a huge mess out of the entire Mideast, why should we expect you able to admit anything else important about reality?

    A lot of right-wingers believe that the US won the Iraq War until Obama came along. So Jeb’s rhetoric was well-aligned with their thinking.

    One of Bush’s major problems was his stance on immigration. The Republican populist base that makes much of the noise these days is in a xenophobic mood, and Bush made himself appear to be a RINO by failing to beat the drum against brown people.

  8. Gustopher says:

    After the Schiavo fiasco, and in keeping with his commitment that women be forced to carry unwanted fetuses to term, I think he should have to keep his campaign on life support and keep slogging along at least until he is mathematically eliminated, if not until the convention.

  9. grumpy realist says:

    @Pch101: If you’ve been following the articles over at TAC, Rod Dreher has been doing yeoman’s duty analyzing the appeal of Trump and the inability of the Republican Party (both country-club and Tea Party) to understand what’s going on. Quite a lot of the base (especially those with military experience) aren’t having any of this “we were succeeding in Iraq until that nasty Obama came along) and are almost as pissed off at the Neo-cons as they are at their official enemies, Teh Librulz. Yeah, they want to see the US militarily strong. But they want to keep the US out of wars and are ever-more-skeptical that they’re being used as cannon fodder by the Neocon/Beltway crowd.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @jukeboxgrad: I actually found the “please clap” to be endearing, and worried that he would find success by being the bumbling, well-meaning, likable candidate with a self-deprecating humor — a complete contrast to Trump. A Republican Joe Biden.

    I think Hillary Clinton has a likability problem which could hurt her in the general election if the Republicans weren’t so hell bent on nominating someone even more unlikable.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    Unfortunately, it appears like he missed his chance when the GOP went for his brother. Jeb may have what it takes for inside Florida state level campaigns, but thus far he has been a whole lot less than he was advertised to be.

    Others have said it; the current GOP is not in the mood for a non-hyperbolic normalcy oriented candidate like Jeb.

    That leaves Kasich and Rubio as the remaining “normal” establishment candidates. Both those two strike me as vice-presidential.

  12. Gustopher says:

    Comment in spam filter. So sad.

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    @al-Ameda: To give Kasich some credit, I don’t think he would ever accept a VP slot with Cruz or Trump. Young Marco? Maybe. Scott Walker? Oh yes.

  14. Pch101 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I wouldn’t hang my hat on comments on one website for gauging conservative sentiment.

    In May 2015, a Quinnipiac survey asked, “Do you think going to war with Iraq in 2003 was the right thing for the United States to do or the wrong thing?” Among Republicans, the results were 62% right thing/ 28% wrong thing/ 10% undecided vs 32/59/8 for the population at large.

    You’ll also find many polls that find Republican support for the war on ISIS, although it isn’t clear what that’s supposed to mean. (It would seem that they want a Republican to do the fighting and that they have a vague sense that they would like it to be bigger and better, whatever that’s supposed to mean.)

    Trump talks about Iraq being a mistake, but he also blames Obama for ISIS. Blaming Obama for the Middle East is the norm with the GOP.

    Acknowledging an Iraq defeat would not be smart GOP politics. But populist Republicans hate the establishment, and Bush represented an establishment that doesn’t hate Mexicans enough to pass their litmus test — hell, he married one.

  15. Jc says:

    I am betting he makes it to Super Tuesday and depending how bad that is he will be done.

  16. al-Ameda says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    @al-Ameda: To give Kasich some credit, I don’t think he would ever accept a VP slot with Cruz or Trump. Young Marco? Maybe. Scott Walker? Oh yes.

    I agree, I could definitely see Rubio or Scott Walker taking a VP slot.
    Not sure where I see Kasich going – once they hit normal populous states Kasich might actually do well, and so might Rubio if he can stop appearing to be too light to make the team.

  17. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Look, if you can’t even admit that your sainted brother effed up and made a huge mess out of the entire Mideast, why should we expect you able to admit anything else important about reality?

    It’s especially notable since W., when he ran in the 2000 election, did criticize part of his father’s record–specifically on taxes. He certainly benefited from his name and family connections, but there was no expectation that he had to be a clone of his dad on policy, and he was able to make this clear without seeming disloyal or disrespectful.

    The problem is that W. (or his handlers) correctly understood the direction of the GOP at that point. It had repudiated Bush Sr.’s record on taxes and become addicted to massive tax cuts targeting the rich. They got the politics right in exactly the way Jeb got it wrong.

    I admit even I was a little surprised at how quick his rivals were to admit Iraq was basically a mistake. I’d thought this was a position limited to Rand Paul. So I can sort of understand how Jeb got himself into this situation. He was living in a GOP elite bubble with a skewed view not just of the world at large, but even of where his own party was at. With all the neocon rhetoric coming from party leaders, and with polls showing W. continuing to hold high favorables among Republicans, Jeb probably thought his views were uncontroversial. And with all the elites and donors he surrounded himself with telling him he was the heir apparent, he probably expected it to be practically a coronation. He wasn’t prepared to fight for the prize because no one he was listening to told him he had to.

  18. Peterh says:

    Bush is in last place in the RealClearPolitics national poll average with 5.4% and barely in fourth place in South Carolina with an average of 10.5% while John Kasich is on Bush’s heels at 10.0%.

    I’m reminded of the heated debate that Ana Navarro had last week on the Bill Maher show stating that Jeb’s approval numbers are through the roof in South Carolina….she was the consummate lapdog for the Bush clan…..just another example of the disconnect between Republicans and reality….

  19. peter says:

    @Ron Beasley: i do not think it is the end of the line for Jeb , but it is certainly the end of the line for Ben Carson , look ,, now Donald Trump is in second place when he was in first place in the polls for a long time and he lost in Iowa . do not count Jeb out yet . i think Marco Rubio could be also out after his really bad performance against Chris Christie ,

  20. C. Clavin says:


    when he ran in the 2000 election, did criticize part of his father’s record–specifically on taxes.

    Of course Bush 41, along with Clinton, raised taxes and we enjoyed the longest recession-free economic run in recent history. Bush 43 slashed taxes for the rich, destroyed the economy, and managed to create only public sector jobs during his entire eight years in office. 43 was (is) an idiot who was simply parroting Republican orthodoxy…which was (is) dead wrong. Jeb and W’s dad is the very last Republican in elected office to take fiscal responsibility seriously.

  21. jukeboxgrad says:


    Comment in spam filter. So sad.

    Your comment came through in my email.

    There’s a bug in the Reply command here, and it’s somehow linked to my name. It’s been this way for a long time. Weird. So I suggest you post your comment again, except don’t use the Reply feature.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    I don’t think the Republican base is in the mood to vote for vanilla pudding.

    No…judging by who’s leading in the polls, the base is more in the mood for bubonic plague…

  23. solovaa says:

    Maybe Jeb! ran (since he’s been all but been killed by Michael Schiavo) solely to slip the Iraq debacle into the memory hole. It does insulate the rest of the field from any criticism about the war. 200 mil is a cheap price for a win in November. He’s not Fredo, he’s Santino. Although I think he’s been shot more than 56 times…

  24. Barry says:

    I think that his incredibly poor performance ($100 million + a massive network) proves my theory that the only reason that Dubya won in 2000 was that the entire MSM as in the tank for him.