Can Jeb Bush Win the GOP Nomination?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 7, 2015 · 12:42 PM EST

I was surprised at the steps that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has taken toward entering the GOP presidential race.

I expected family considerations and his aversion to a nasty and prolonged race for the nomination to keep him out of the contest. Certainly, he’d like to be president, and there are plenty of reasons to believe he could be a thoughtful leader. But does he really want to put himself and his family through the meat grinder of a presidential campaign? I was skeptical.

While the former governor hasn’t announced his candidacy, he now sounds so serious that almost everyone expects him to become a candidate. His decision to resign from all corporate and nonprofit boards should convince even those remaining doubters.

Much of the initial reaction to Bush’s moves toward entering the race portrayed him as the front-runner in the contest, though wisely most observers hedged on the label and noted Bush also has some significant liabilities. (See here, here and here.)

Bush’s obvious advantages include his well-known name, the many GOP activists who worked for his father and brother and feel an allegiance to the family, his fundraising ability, his support within the party establishment and his perceived strength in a general election.

His liabilities include some fatigue with all things Bush, his positioning as an establishment insider, questions about whether his campaign skills have rusted and how he’ll perform in what’s likely to be a nasty political contest. Even more problematic is his ideological positioning, especially on immigration and Common Core education standards, in a party that appears to be substantially to his ideological right.

Let me be clear: If the question is whether Bush has any chance, some chance or even a reasonable chance to be nominated in 2016, the only possible answer is yes. But I don’t regard him or any other potential candidate in the race as the current front-runner, or even the favorite for the nomination. At least, not at this point.

While it is true that Republicans have nominated the party establishment’s preferred candidate since 1984 or, depending on your definition, going all of the way back to 1968, it’s a mistake to see the past couple of contests as predictive for 2016.

As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post noted in a spot-on Dec. 18 piece, the Republican Party has changed significantly over the past few election cycles.

There is still a very substantial “establishment” wing in the party that is both conservative and pragmatic. But it certainly isn’t what it once was, and the party’s tea party, evangelical and libertarian wings constitute a formidable force within the GOP as well.

The fields in both 2008 and 2012 were quite weak. In 2008, Mike Huckabee’s appeal was limited to evangelicals and downscale Southerners. Mitt Romney, a Mormon who could not attract evangelical support, was seen as no more conservative than John McCain, the eventual nominee.

Prior to 2012, Romney spent the better part of four years moving unabashedly to the right (on immigration and health care, for example), and skeptical conservatives never found a suitable alternative for the former Massachusetts governor, though they certainly tried anyone and everyone they could find.

Romney’s 2012 campaign was particularly odd. Conservatives never believed he was as conservative as he asserted, so they didn’t rally behind him until the general election. And pragmatists and establishment types within the GOP didn’t believe him either, since they stuck with him in spite of his increasingly conservative rhetoric.

Romney’s campaign did many things right, but he was nominated almost by default. He won his party’s 2012 nomination not only because of his massive resource advantage over his anti-establishment opponents, but also because of the other wannabes in the Republican field were such weak candidates.

Is it possible that Bush could do what Romney did? Of course. But we don’t yet know whether he will.

The 2016 GOP field is likely to include more substantial hopefuls, many of whom will be to Bush’s political right. He should benefit from the expectedly large field (I assume Romney won’t run again), but the important question is whether, after the race has boiled down to just a couple of serious contenders, his message and style will resonate with GOP primary voters and caucus attendees.

One question is whether Bush will move to the right in his bid for the Republican nomination.

Most top-tier candidates adjust some positions during a presidential bid as they look for the right tone and tack on issues. But what makes the former Florida governor so interesting is that while he is generally conservative on an array of issues, he has not kowtowed to anti-establishment types in the party, most notably the tea party.

The only thing we know now about a possible Bush bid is that he has terrific name ID among the party faithful, which translates into a strong showing in early polls. But as we also know, polls conducted this early show only where the candidates start, not where they will finish. The key for Bush is how he handles both his assets in the race and his liabilities.