After Lousy Debate, Time for Bush to Worry

Jeb Bush keeps failing to impress voters. That worries party actors who are looking for a candidate.

Jeb Bush’s uninspiring performance in Wednesday’s presidential debate is starting to call into question his ability to win the Republican nomination.

It’s not just this one debate. It’s that Bush — the brother and son of two former presidents — has failed to impress in all the televised debates so far. As a result, his poll numbers have barely moved. And as a consequence of that, party actors who are looking for a candidate to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 are wondering if Jeb really is their man.

This website has argued that the polls don’t matter much at this point and that the thing to watch for is rather what “the” Republican Party — broadly understood at the elected and party officials, donors and political insiders who are most involved in the nominating process — is doing.

Most ordinary voters aren’t paying attention. The ones that are may not be taking the contest to succeed Barack Obama very seriously yet.

In late October 2011, businessman Herman Cain was ahead in the polls. It wasn’t until the end of the year that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who wound up as the Republican nominee, start pulling ahead of his competitors. And even when the primaries got underway, the staunch social conservative Rick Santorum occasionally outpolled Romney in early 2012.

Party actors are paying attention, though, and judging by the paltry number of endorsements Bush has racked up so far, they haven’t made up their minds either.

Bloomberg View‘s Jonathan Bernstein — a big proponent of “the party decades” theory — argued as much earlier this month when he suggested that party actors might pick their preferred candidate in the next several weeks or wait until after the early voting voting contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in February have provided new evidence about who is electable.

The contest to win the establishment’s blessing seems down to Bush and fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. The former did himself no favors in that battle on Wednesday night when he took Rubio to task for missing votes in the United States Senate.

Rubio, who is ideologically more in sync with Republican primary voters than the centrist Bush, had his answer ready. The only reason the former governor attacked him, he said, is that “we’re running for the same position and someone has convinced you that it’s going to help you.” The audience cheered. The media consensus today is that Rubio won the debate.

He isn’t necessarily in a strong position to overtake Bush, or at least not yet. Politico reported earlier this month that Rubio has been raising far less money than Bush and is being outmanned in the early voting states. “His staff is largely concentrated in Washington,” according to the political news website, “with just a small umbrella of on-the-ground, early-state operatives.”

But Bush isn’t looking so strong either. The New York Times shows that his ability to outspend his rivals is waning. In the last quarter, Bush raised less than half the money Hillary Clinton did on the Democratic side. He even raised less than Ben Carson, a soft-spoken right-wing fanatic, and only slightly more than Ted Cruz, a loud right-wing fanatic.

Poor fundraising has forced Bush’s campaign to cut back on staff by as much as 40 percent.

The Washington Post reported earlier that top donors were warning Bush he needed to “demonstrate growth in the polls over the next month or face serious defections among supporters.”

It’s too soon to tell if Republican donors and officials will now decidedly shift their support to Rubio. The Florida senator has weaknesses of his own, not least his simplistic foreign policy. Despite his Cuban heritage, he also doesn’t appear more popular with Hispanic voters who overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2012. Rubio has always seemed a more probable vice presidential candidate, one who would be next in line for the top job in 2020 or 2024. The fact that he is nevertheless getting serious consideration right now has more to do with Bush’s failures than with Rubio’s successes.