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.