Jeb Bush Can Be Beaten

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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On the same Chicago trip where he gave his “I am my own man” foreign policy speech, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was set to raise “north of $4 million.”

That’s in one day.

Jeb Bush’s team denied reports they planned to raise $100 million in the first quarter to scare other potential candidates out of the 2016 Republican primaries. But there is no denying that they are raising money and snapping up staff at a fevered clip. They seem to have only gathered steam since muscling Mitt Romney out of the presidential race.

Now Jeb is setting himself up nicely to be the Republican Party’s inevitable nominee, according to the conventional wisdom.

Don’t believe it. Jeb Bush certainly can win, but he’s arguably the weakest Republican frontrunner since Nelson Rockfeller in 1964 — the year Barry Goldwater won the nomination.

The latest CNN poll of national Republican voters doesn’t even have Bush in first place. Mike Huckabee leads with 17 percent of the vote, Bush is in second at 12 percent, Scott Walker and Rand Paul each get 11 percent and Ben Carson takes 9 percent.

Jeb Bush is essentially a rounding error away from Ben Carson.

Obviously, the state-level polling in the early caucuses and primaries is more important than the national polling. It just doesn’t look much different. Bush has a three-point lead in the NBC/Marist poll of New Hampshire and is a point behind Huckabee in their Iowa survey.

Look more closely: Bush is basically bunched together with Huckabee, Walker and Chris Christie in Iowa; Walker, Christie and Paul in New Hampshire.

The Des Moines Register probably has the best track record of Iowa polling. Their late January survey had Bush trailing Walker, Paul, Huckabee and Carson.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s early! It’s barely 2015! That’s true. But Bush, the brother and son of recent past Republican presidents, has the highest name recognition. If there was ever a time he should be leading handsomely, it is now.

In September 1999, George W. Bush was leading in a CNN/WMUR poll of New Hampshire GOP primary voters with 45 percent of the vote to Elizabeth Dole’s 15 percent, John McCain’s 12 percent and Steve Forbes’ 10 percent.

Bush didn’t even win that primary. He ended up losing to McCain. Dole had already dropped out.

In 2007, Hillary Clinton was 15 points ahead of Barack Obama in a CNN poll — with Al Gore listed as an option. A poll taken later that year found that Hillary was expanding her lead over Obama based on her strong support from black voters.

How did that work out for her?

At the same time Hillary was the odds-on favorite for the Democratic nomination, Rudy Giuliani was leading among Republicans. A March 2007 Gallup poll found that America’s Mayor had the support of 44 percent of Republicans, compared to just 20 percent who were backing McCain, the eventual nominee. CNN’s polling yielded similar results.

In early 2007, we read headlines like, “Giuliani’s lead widens” and “Clinton, Giuliani still in front.” It took until September to start reading headlines like “Giuliani tumbles, GOP race tightens.” And Giuliani was still leading that late.

Doesn’t that just prove that anything can happen? Maybe Jeb will improve.

Maybe. But front-runners usually enjoy their strongest leads early, and Jeb is clearly banking on a certain amount of “shock and awe” before the other candidates get their acts together. He’s not trying to patiently outlast a field of mostly unelectable opponents like past weak frontrunners Romney and McCain.

Although he’s his own man, Jeb’s best path to the nomination is the one his brother followed in 2000. Consolidate enough conservative support to prevent the emergence of a viable challenger from the right. That probably requires winning Iowa. Then position yourself to the right of the strongest candidate remaining — McCain in Dubya’s case, possibly Christie in Jeb’s.

Failing that, Jeb has to hope that someone who lacks money and organization (say Carson or Rick Santorum) captures Iowans’ imaginations and someone like Walker, Paul or Marco Rubio does not. Or hope that conservatives fragment, with Huckabee taking evangelicals, Paul winning libertarians, Walker or Ted Cruz getting their share of tea party support.

There are three steps to disrupting the coronation. Don’t be intimidated by Bush’s money; win the informal conservative primary before the actual Republican primaries; get Bush one-on-one.

Yes, all three steps are much easier said than done. But consider the stakes.

If Fred Thompson and Rick Perry had avoided debilitating mistakes, McCain and Romney may well have lost. This time around, Jeb Bush isn’t any stronger but the conservative alternatives are.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.