Jeb Bush's Nightmare Scenario

Bush is expected to be a formidable contender for the GOP nomination. But there are signs that his biography will lead to struggles in the primary's early stages.

Talk to enough Republican insiders about the presidential primary field, and you'll get a common sentiment when it comes to Jeb Bush. Most strategists agree that Bush has to overcome serious hurdles to win the nomination, but they say he's a formidable candidate thanks to his deep political network and ability to dominate the competition in fundraising. "I can't see him dropping out before Florida," said one former GOP congressman well-connected to the field.

But there are signs that a worst-case, crash-and-burn scenario for Bush is more realistic than even his skeptics recognize. He's underperforming in early public polls and is receiving a frosty reception from Republican focus groups. His entitled biography is at odds with the Republican Party's increasing energy from working-class voters, who relate best with candidates who have struggled to make ends meet. The Bush name is a reminder of the past at a time when GOP voters are desperate for new faces. And after losing two straight presidential elections, Republican voters are thinking much more strategically—and aren't nearly as convinced as the political press that Bush is the strongest contender against Hillary Clinton.

It would be foolish to over-read the results of focus groups, but it's equally egregious to ignore their findings—especially given that they're paired with polls that show Bush's candidacy a tough sell among voters. Last week, Bloomberg and Purple Strategies cosponsored a New Hampshire panel of 10 Republicans, most of whom were hostile to a Bush presidential bid. "I know enough to know I don't need to keep voting for a Bush over and over again," one participant said. Several laughed at the notion that he's the front-runner. Not a single one said they'd support him for president.

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In January, a focus group in Colorado conducted by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center found similar findings of an electorate looking for a new generation of leadership. "I wouldn't be opposed to Congress saying, 'If your last name is Clinton or Bush, you don't even get to run,'" one GOP-leaning independent said. Most of the words tied to Bush in a free-association exercise were negative. Among them: "Joke," "No thank you," and "Don't need him." The Washington Post's Dan Balz wrote that the participants were "dismissive, sometimes harshly" in their assessment of Bush.

The focus group anecdotes match what polls have consistently found. Despite Bush's high profile and standing as a more-pragmatic Republican, his overall favorability ratings are surprisingly mediocre. In a March NBC/Wall Street Journal poll testing whether GOP voters would consider backing certain candidates, Bush's numbers were in the middle of the pack of the field. While 49 percent of Republicans said they'd consider backing Bush, 42 percent said they couldn't see themselves supporting him. That net +7 advantage badly trailed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (+36), Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (+30), and even was behind neurosurgeon Ben Carson (+23), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (+12), and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky (+9).

Meanwhile, this month's CNN/ORC survey found Bush's more-moderate and pragmatic message hasn't improved his image. His national favorability rating is at a surprisingly low 31/47 level, hampered by very weak numbers with independents and Democrats. In Iowa, a late-January Bloomberg/Des Moines Register poll found his favorables among Republicans barely positive, at 46/43, among the worst of the myriad candidates tested and on the decline from October 2014. In last month's Bloomberg/Saint Anselm poll in New Hampshire, Bush holds stronger numbers among Republicans (61/26 favorability), but it is still viewed unfavorably by the overall electorate (35/50).

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The Bush campaign's theory of the underwhelming polls is that most voters don't know much about him, and his numbers are more of a reflection of his last name than his myriad achievements in political life. "People hear the name 'Bush,' and they automatically associate him with his brother," said one Bush operative. They believe most voters aren't familiar with his deeply conservative, reform-oriented record as governor of Florida, and they believe that record will be readily apparent when he participates in New Hampshire town halls and Iowa campaign forums.

But it's equally plausible to see Bush struggling to make inroads with early-state voters. Iowa has been traditionally inhospitable for establishment candidates, and there are many candidates who have a stronger appeal to the GOP caucuses' sizable evangelical electorate, including Scott Walker, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz. Bush may not be expected to win the caucuses, but given how crowded the field is, he's at risk of not placing in the top three.

That would put a lot of pressure on his performance in New Hampshire—a state that has been notoriously unfriendly to the Bush family. In a memorable upset, John McCain decisively defeated George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries, while Pat Buchanan foreshadowed George H.W. Bush's intraparty struggles by winning 37 percent of the primary vote against the sitting president in 1992. Bush's numbers among Republicans are much stronger in New Hampshire than in Iowa, but voters there are famously resistant to backing front-runners, prizing their role as the arbiter of GOP nomination battles. Jeb Bush is planning to do many town halls, but it's an open question whether a candidate more comfortable in the boardroom can become a crowd favorite.

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And what if Bush underwhelms in both Iowa and New Hampshire? South Carolina is no safe bet for Bush, given the presence of Sen. Lindsey Graham as a home-state spoiler. Many of the key in-state advisers who helped George W. Bush to victory aren't working with Jeb Bush, as Politico reported. If Marco Rubio exceeds expectations in the early states, while Bush underperforms, the Florida primary could also become a lot more competitive than it looks right now.

The conventional wisdom is that Bush's deep pocketbooks would sustain him through March no matter what, allowing him to focus on larger states where retail campaigning isn't as efficient as nonstop, multimillion-dollar television ad buys. It's how successful establishment candidates have overcome setbacks—from Mitt Romney's signature Florida victory after losing in South Carolina to George W. Bush securing the nomination in 2000 with a Super Tuesday romp against McCain.

But next year, the expectations game could be Jeb Bush's worst enemy. If the vaunted, well-funded Bush organization sputters through the early states, it would create a huge vacuum that the opposition would be positioned to exploit. The roster of establishment alternatives is much deeper than in past GOP primaries. If Bush looks like a weaker candidate than expected, other challengers with compelling credentials—Walker and Rubio being the best-positioned—will fill the void.

Bush's main challenge is biographical, not ideological. The notion of nominating yet another Bush to be president—no matter his qualifications—is already striking Republican voters as a bit far-fetched. Given that the GOP's strongest asset is its argument for change, voters will be thinking closely about whether they want to nominate a candidate from the past to run against Clinton. If Bush can overcome that credibility test with voters, he's bound to be a strong contender. But if Republican voters continue to resist the prospect of a Bush family dynasty, he could find himself struggling to get past the starting line.