Jeb Bush Can’t Be Nominated. Or Can He?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 2, 2015 · 11:20 AM EDT

There are plenty of reasons to believe Jeb Bush, the former two-term governor of Florida, son of a former president and brother of another former president, cannot win the 2016 Republican nomination.

The problem for those of us who report on and analyze elections dispassionately is there are also plenty of reasons why Bush can and will win the GOP nomination. The tricky part is trying to figure out how decisive and predictive is each reason, positive and negative.

The former governor’s negatives are obvious and hard to ignore.

Bush is the face of the establishment at a time when the party seems overrun by angry outsiders who are frustrated and want change. Even many Republicans don’t like the idea of their party becoming a monarchy, and another Bush at the top of the ticket would seem the ultimate example of a party relying on hereditary succession.

The former governor’s support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul and Common Core places him at odds with a majority in his party, and he has shown little, if any, inclination to pander to the most vocal in his party or tweak his positions to please his critics.

The mountain of cash Bush will raise will only confirm the worst fears of those in his party that Wall Street and country club types are trying to buy the nomination for him. And as the de facto front-runner in the GOP race, Bush is particularly vulnerable to early upsets. His lack of grass-roots support — the early polls don’t show him in a commanding position even with all of his name recognition — demonstrates his candidacy is very fragile.

So, while Bush is popular with his party’s establishment, he isn’t very popular with the actual caucus attendees or primary voters who will select delegates to the next Republican National Convention. That same equation did not stop Mitt Romney from being nominated in 2012 because the rest of the field was so weak, but it won’t be good enough for Bush this cycle.

Case closed. Bush cannot be nominated.

But if you are certain Bush is too far out of step with his party to be nominated, you are too far out on a limb for my liking. Sure, I’m willing to assert that Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum won’t be nominated in 2016, but Bush is an entirely different animal.

At the moment, he appears to have the establishment lane all to himself, much like Romney did in 2012. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is still in the race, of course, and both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have some establishment appeal. But Bush’s appeal and advantages in America’s boardrooms and country clubs aren’t really up for debate.

It’s easy to dismiss Bush’s likely financial advantage, but it is also unwise. As Romney showed last time, a large war chest can allow a candidate to compete everywhere, and TV ads can still be effective, particularly if the opposition is fundraising from week to week and from contest to contest.

Bush’s resources will allow him to answer all attacks and deliver messages (positive and negative) of his own.

The former Florida governor’s positions on Common Core and immigration will continue to put him on the defensive, but, like any candidate, he won’t run on his weaknesses. Instead, he will seek to run on his strength — on issues such as taxes and spending, where he believes his record in Florida and his rhetoric about government’s role will resonate with primary voters.

Many GOP primary voters who supported legal abortion voted for Romney even though he allegedly held a different position on the issue, and the former Massachusetts governor won the GOP nomination in spite of pushing an Obama-like health care plan in the Bay State. Remember, there are plenty of GOP primary voters in blue states that will send delegates to the Republican National Convention next year.

On many issues, including high-profile cultural issues such as abortion and affirmative action, Bush seems very much in sync with mainstream Republican views.

Most importantly — and ideologues don’t seem able to understand this — issues are only one consideration for many voters, who also look at personality, style, experience, maturity, stature and other personal qualities when deciding how they will vote. They understand they are choosing someone who will make decisions about issues that have not yet emerged or events that have not yet occurred. They are choosing a leader, not merely a list of issue positions.

More than a decade ago, a thoughtful Democratic consultant reminded me that for caucus and primary participants in the early states, “There is a point … when [voters] start evaluating these [candidates] as a president.”

Eventually, voters evaluate potential presidents differently than they do hopefuls for other offices because the presidency is so powerful and so important in the nation’s health and safety. Issues certainly aren’t irrelevant, but there are other considerations as well.

Bush starts off looking and sounding like a president. Few of the other GOP hopefuls can say that. He seems thoughtful, reasoned and serious. He has the stature many of them lack, the quiet toughness difficult to imitate.

Of course, the campaign will give other hopefuls an opportunity to demonstrate the qualities Bush already has. And if they do, they will have the opportunity to overtake him. But dismissing Jeb Bush now because of his establishment support and his positions on two issues, albeit important ones, is a mistake.