Why the Next Month Is Critical for Bush

by Stuart Rothenberg October 28, 2015 · 10:10 AM EDT

It’s still more than three months before the Iowa caucuses, but the next four weeks are crucial for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who started with the kinds of political assets that led many to regard him as the front-runner in the GOP race.

More than 10 months after Bush announced he would be forming a political action committee to explore a presidential run, and more than four months after he announced his candidacy, he has not yet rallied pragmatic conservatives and establishment voters behind his bid, let alone started to broaden his appeal among a wide swath of Republican voters.

Polls show Bush sitting anywhere from the mid-single digits to the low double digits in the two earliest states, as well as in national surveys.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll, conducted Oct. 15-18, found the former Florida governor sitting fifth with 8 percent, behind businessman/celebrity Donald Trump (25 percent), retired surgeon Ben Carson (22 percent), Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (13 percent) and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (9 percent). Former corporate CEO Carly Fiorina sat right behind Bush at 7 percent.

The Sept. 23-30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll in Iowa found Bush at 7 percent, a point behind Fiorina and a point ahead of Rubio, Cruz and Jindal. An even more recent Oct. 16-19 Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics survey conducted by Selzer & Co. found Bush tied for fifth place (behind both Cruz and Rubio) and the first choice of only 5 percent of likely caucus attendees.  Trump and Carson were comfortably ahead of the rest of the pack in both surveys.

In New Hampshire, the Sept. 23-30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found Bush in third, with 11 percent, behind Trump (21 percent) and Fiorina (16 percent) and virtually tied with Rubio and Carson, who were at 10 percent.

The good news for the Bush campaign is that nobody else competing for the support of establishment Republicans has yet to lock up those voters in the early states or nationally. Still, Rubio — Bush’s main competitor for establishment voters — has shown some strength in national surveys, and he is increasingly being regarded as the Republican Party’s most likely nominee. Even more worrisome for Bush is surveys generally show Rubio is a far more acceptable alternative for Republicans across the ideological spectrum.

Bush’s super PAC is spending tens of millions of dollars on television ads in the early states — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — to improve his appeal among caucus-goers and primary voters, and if that can’t generate some excitement for the former governor among Republicans, it will raise questions about his ultimate appeal, as well as about the usefulness of his one great advantage in the race: his money.

The campaign has announced it is realigning its resources, which will inevitably lead some to see the beginning of the end for Bush. But those observers must not remember John McCain’s trajectory in 2007.  The Arizona senator, who started as the favorite for the 2008 Republican nomination, saw his presidential campaign implode before he eventually rallied to win his party’s nomination.

Rubio’s campaign is not writing off Bush yet, since resources certainly matter. Having said that, one savvy strategist who is working for another candidate argues that “Bush doesn’t have a marketing problem; he has a product problem.” If that is the case, TV ads may not be enough to change Republican voters’ views of the former Florida governor.

If Bush doesn’t show some strength after his ads have aired for a couple of months, he must hope GOP voters completely reassess the race in the weeks leading up to the early February contests. If they put aside their anger then, they could take another look at the former Florida governor and see the same assets that his current supporters see.

Most insiders wonder how Bush’s donors and supporters will behave if he fares poorly in the first month’s contests — and even more how the campaign can possibly survive if he struggles on March 1, when many southern and southeastern states have contests.

Every Republican nominee has won either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary going back to 1968, but the size and nature of this cycle’s GOP field may not make that necessary this time.

Still, even if Bush does not have to win any of the early contests, he surely must show donors and influential media voices that he remains a very viable contender for the nomination to guarantee that supporters don’t flee his campaign for another establishment candidate — assuming that there is another obvious campaign to flee to.

The danger for Bush, and super PAC strategist Mike Murphy, of course, is that by then, Rubio may well have established himself as the establishment favorite (even if he also has the support of some anti-establishment voters), making it virtually impossible for Bush’s campaign to take off.