Hillary and Jeb: Destined to Play the Long Game?

by Stuart Rothenberg January 28, 2016 · 2:57 PM EST

In a previous election cycle, or maybe a previous decade, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush might, at this point, be coasting to their parties’ nominations. This cycle, however, both resemble tragic heroes — politicians who have worked hard to prepare themselves for the presidency yet face possible rejection by voters.

Some Clinton and Bush supporters hope their candidates have an advantage that is still being underestimated: their ability to remain in their respective presidential nominating contests until voters decide to turn to them.

And at least one of them may even be right.

Clinton and Bush have been in and around government for years. Both are mature, thoughtful, somewhat cautious political figures who understand how complicated the political system is and how difficult many of the nation’s problems are. Both are pragmatic, even though each has his or her preferences, priorities, goals and beliefs about government.

For some, those are the qualities of a president. But for many others, that makes Clinton and Bush professional politicians and knee-jerk defenders of the status-quo. Their pragmatism reflects a lack of principle and a willingness to play political games. They are stale and untrustworthy.

Clinton, however, has been through this game before, and her advisers surely learned something from her 2008 effort, when her campaign failed to prioritize caucus states, probably costing her the Democratic nomination.

Clinton’s momentum that year was also hurt by the Democratic National Committee’s decision to punish two large, pro-Clinton states, Michigan and Florida, for failing to honor the committee’s primary calendar, which set restrictions on when states could hold their contests.

This year, the former first lady once again benefits from her gender, her continued strength in the minority community and the sheer size and reach of her campaign, which should serve her well on crowded primary days (such as March 1 and March 15).

Of course, Clinton’s team must be concerned that early primary and caucus victories by Sanders could create considerable momentum for him, which would add to his already robust fundraising and earn him the reputation as a giant killer.

Still, Clinton has reason to believe in her ability to fight a lengthy war, if she must. Sanders’ profile simply can’t match Clinton’s (while Barack Obama’s could and did), and the Vermont senator’s reliance on younger voters raises questions. Moreover, Iowa is not exactly a microcosm of the Democratic Party nationally, or of the country.

In addition, for all the former secretary of State’s alleged shortcomings, Democratic voters generally like her and believe that she agrees with them on the issues, and according to the Jan. 9-13, 2016 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by highly regarded Hart Research Strategies and Public Opinion Strategies.

And one more thing: Clinton has been through this meat grinder before. She knows that Iowa and New Hampshire are the beginning, not the end.

While Clinton’s team has put together a campaign that could either deliver a quick knockout blow to the opposition or win a long, drawn-out fight, Bush has no such luxury.

The former Florida governor has been sitting in fifth or sixth place in the mid-single digits in Iowa for months. Most New Hampshire polling has him doing a bit better, drawing 7 to 10 points, and fighting to “win” the pragmatists’ primary.

A quick knockout surely is not in the cards for Bush, unless of course he is the one getting knocked out.

So the real question is whether Bush is both capable and willing to wage a long, nasty race, surviving until the GOP field thins out and there are just a few candidates standing. Would the former Florida governor really stay in the race if he suffers two or three embarrassing showings?

A stunning 55 percent of registered voters in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal national survey who said that they planned to vote in a GOP primary said that they could not see themselves supporting Jeb Bush.

That number could change, of course, but Bush has spent millions of dollars in the early states so far and has little to show for it. There is no reason to believe that new ads or another debate will change that. Voters think that they know Jeb Bush, and they show no signs that they will embrace his candidacy anytime soon.

Without a shot of adrenaline from one of the early contests, Bush will be short of cash and, just as important, out of the conversation. The GOP establishment will by then have turned to a different hopeful to try to stop Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

Talk that Bush can win a long, drawn out fight for the GOP nomination is not persuasive unless he can defeat the other pragmatic conservatives. He needs victories (even if it is only within the “establishment” lane) to produce other victories. Fifth place showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire – a possible outcome – would not be enough for the former Florida governor.

Clinton is able to wage a long war if she needs to. Bush, in spite of his early financial muscle, isn’t, unless he revives his prospects by outperforming expectations in an early state. That is why the two political veterans, who have much in common, have such different prospects as Iowa approaches.