By Jonathan Easley - 10/11/15 06:00 AM EDT
On paper, Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign mirrors Mitt Romney’s 2012 efforts, but Bush faces a far steeper climb to the nomination, political watchers say.
With three popular outsider candidates leading the race, rising establishment contenders and the failure to lock down any of the early-voting states so far, Bush is beset by burdens that never weighed on Romney.
Bush and Romney both entered their races well-funded, with strong campaign organizations and deep support from the Republican establishment.
Their struggles are also similar.
Neither has been a favorite of grass-roots conservatives eager to see change in Washington come from a non-ordained candidate, and both have policy stances that are non-starters for some base voters. For Romney, the issue was RomneyCare; for Bush, it’s Common Core and immigration.
And Bush now faces serious challenges from a host of insurgent candidates, as Romney did on his way to the nomination in 2012. But this time around, Republican voters have shown no indication that they’ll be willing back someone with Bush’s pedigree for the nomination.
Many still believe Bush, the self-described "joyful tortoise," is well-positioned to ride out this year’s insurgent wave. Like Romney in 2012, some Republicans believe Bush’s institutional advantages will deliver a victory for him in a key early-voting state as others falter and Republicans flock behind a steady candidate with general election appeal.
But that’s where Bush’s path diverges from Romney.
Bush’s struggle starts in the polls, where the huge field of candidates has fractured support across a spectrum of alternatives.
Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on Trump wants big sports stadium for Cleveland acceptance speech In House GOP, Ryan endorsement of Trump seen as inevitable MORE and Ben Carson are in the top tier of candidates, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, while Bush is scrapping with Carly Fiorina, and Sens. Marco RubioMarco RubioSunday shows preview: Bernie soldiers on Fla. Senate candidate bashes Rubio The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE and Ted CruzTed CruzMeet the billionaire donor behind Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Party chairs see reversal of fortune McConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ MORE in the second tier.
In 2012, even as Romney had to beat back repeated challenges from upstart candidates, he always maintained a high floor of support and remained within reach of the top spot.
Romney had no competition for the establishment mantle, giving him an air of inevitability. Bush is in a dogfight just to win in his own lane.
He faces a threat from fellow Floridian Rubio, who has moved past him in many polls, and even former CEO Fiorina, who is picking up support from lawmakers, has drawn the attention of the Koch Brothers and is increasingly viewed by many as the most refined outsider candidate with potential to scoop up establishment support.
Bush’s struggle to maintain his grip amid this pack of contenders can be traced to a major fundamental difference between this cycle and the last.
In 2012, the insurgent candidates needed Romney, the establishment frontrunner, so they could play the foil: They were the “anyone but Romney” candidates.
In 2016, the insurgents are not Bush alternatives, said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. Worse, they’re indifferent to him.
“If there’s a sense that you’re the person that they need to pit someone against, that suggests you have a strong base of underlying support,” Murray said.
“But Donald Trump and Ben Carson aren’t ‘anyone but Bush’ candidates. They’re tapping into an entirely different mindset in which Bush is irrelevant. In 2012, it was always Romney and someone who is not Romney. We’re not having that conversation about Jeb, and that speaks volumes.”
And Romney always had an ace-in-the-hole.
“Romney had New Hampshire in his back pocket the whole time,” Robinson said.
Romney, from neighboring Massachusetts, held a double-digit lead in New Hampshire throughout. He was guaranteed at least one victory in a carve-out state.
Bush has no such guarantees. He is in sixth place in Iowa and fourth place in New Hampshire, which many believe is a must-win state for him. Even if he could wait it out to Florida’s primary on March 15, he’s behind in the polls Trump and Carson in his home state.
Still, Bush has considerable advantages over many in the field, and his advisers routinely say there’s no candidate they’d trade places with.
Bush’s campaign is likely to end the third quarter as one of the best-funded, along with Carson and Cruz. Bush’s supporting super-PAC, Right to Rise, is light-years ahead of every other outside group, thanks to an enormous early-year haul of over $100 million.
The campaign and super-PAC are blanketing the airwaves in early voting states with ads, and the next few weeks will be critical in assessing whether that spending contributes to lifting Bush out of his polling stagnation.
Bush also has one of the most comprehensive campaign infrastructures, including the biggest field operation of anyone in Iowa, where analysts say an establishment candidate can still win, as Romney nearly did in 2012. Bush also has scores of endorsements from key activists, and state and federal lawmakers, who will be working on his behalf.
That’s the profile of a winner, says Eric Fehrnstrom, a top adviser to Romney’s campaign in 2012.
“Romney won the nomination because of the discipline he showed on the campaign trail, the money he amassed through his impressive donor networks, and the strength of the organization he put together,” Fehrnstrom said. “Bush has those things too, so it would be a mistake to count him out. He has the ability to persevere.”