State of the 2016 Race
A weekly column for The Hill analyzing the current state of the 2016 presidential race.
The Republican Race: Why Jeb Bush is polling so badly — and why the GOP donors and bundlers are crazy to get out ahead of the race.
1. The 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination is off and running — but already, the race has seen some bad decisions which will negatively impact the outcome 18 months from now.
2. The withdrawal of 2012 nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyGOP anger with Fauci rises No deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions MORE has unleashed a stampede of GOP donors and bundlers, most of them to former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.).
3. This is despite the fact that Bush is a surprisingly desultory candidate. His performance in Detroit last week — in what was billed as his first national campaign appearance — was weak and lackluster. He does not connect well — at least so far — with GOP primary voters.
4. The GOP donor class meets with Bush in their offices, houses, clubs or in small groups. He may, in fact, do well in those settings. But they are in effect investing in "Jeb Bush, the Political Candidate" — not in Jeb Bush, the next-in-line Bush who can tell stories in private about his father's and older brother's times in the White House. Yeah, sure, these donors come away charmed in person; but many of them were already George W. Bush donors so they are predisposed to support Jeb. (And these very same donors were equally charmed — twice — by Romney, and how'd that work out?)
5. But this decision will greatly impact the overall GOP race.
6. Why? Because the money is going to someone who is not a good candidate and who has not proven himself — at the expense of potentially excellent candidates out there who won't get the money when they need it.
7. For example, in last week's Bloomberg/St. Anselm poll of GOP primary voters in New Hampshire, Bush was leading with a paltry 16 percent of the vote. But the real kicker in this poll was hidden inside:
8. Asked this question: When it comes to Jeb Bush, do you think the strength of his potential candidacy is based more on his unique qualities and achievements, or his family connections to politics? — a whopping 58 percent answered that it was his family connections.
9. In other words, what the donors like about Bush — his family and his "insider-ism" — is precisely the opposite of what the voters think of him and his candidacy.
10. Bush is not polling well anywhere in the country — especially for someone with as much free publicity and family name as he has. For a Bush to do so poorly, in fact, is a gigantic red flag about his candidacy and weak candidate skills — and shows a healthy dose of Bush fatigue, too, even inside the GOP.
11. And then there are his positions on the issues, and his overall GOP primary campaign strategy.
12. It is almost as if Bush is channeling Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns GOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News MORE (R-Ariz.) and former New York Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiRudy Giuliani becomes grandfather after son welcomes child Press: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Former NYC police commissioner to testify before Jan. 6 committee, demands apology MORE (R) from 2008: Bush is for Common Core — a wildly unpopular new federalization of our educational system — and for a pathway to citizenship, a.k.a. amnesty. These two positions put him at odds with a majority of GOP primary voters.
13. But even more alarming from a political perspective is Bush's decision to run a general election campaign inside the GOP primaries. This means almost skipping Iowa (ask Giuliani how that worked for him in 2008) and several other conservative-leaning states.
14. This is a huge mistake. It's as if an NFL team — looking at the grueling 16-game regular season — announced they were forfeiting the three toughest of them to give their players a rest. Guess what? You don't win by deliberately losing.
15. Yet, despite all of the above, the GOP donors are falling all over themselves to hand checks over to Bush, instead of sitting back and saying to him and the other candidates, "Let's see you campaign for a while ... let's watch the debates ... let's find out who deserves our support. Earn it first — and then we'll give you the big money."
16. This current rush to judgement is a tragic mistake. These donors are financing the wrong candidate and the wrong campaign at the expense of other potentially worthier candidates.
17. Looking ahead, it is clear that Bush cannot win the nomination on his own. Even with hundreds of millions, he can't make it. Unless ...
18. Unless he uses this money to savage and destroy each GOP candidate who rises in the polls, just as Romney won the 2012 nomination. Thus Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) — who is now the hot candidate du jour — will be on the receiving end of a Bush barrage of private investigators, malicious leaks (remember what Jeb's brother did to McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter in the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary?), opposition research and any other technique to knock down a rising threat to Bush. And this will apply to the next rising candidate and the next after that. Remember how in 2012, each new GOP leader didn't last long? Then-Gov. Rick Perry (Texas), Herman Cain, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), etc. They all got whacked by the Romney Destruction Machine if they didn't already self-destruct on their own.
19. The problem with this I-will-crush-all-challengers strategy is that your own negatives become so high you are virtually unelectable in November. That is what happened to Romney in 2012 — oh, by the way, many of the same campaign strategists who ran the Romney campaign are now running the Jeb Bush campaign.
20. Conclusion: The GOP donor class needs to save some of its money and watch the race develop in 2015. Observe carefully the candidate skills of each of those running in 2016. It is analogous to a baseball scout looking for new talent: Would these scouts automatically give a multimillion-dollar signing bonus to a player because his father and brother were major leaguers? No. Instead, these scouts would all say, "Prove you can play in the big leagues before we sign you. Just because your dad and older brother made it doesn't mean you will. You have to prove your own skills to us."
21. This is exactly what these donors should be doing and saying. And they need to be open-minded about other, less-famous candidates, one of whom may be the gem — the future Hall of Famer — whom many scouts missed.
22. Count on one thing: The candidates who are "up" today and appear to be the hot ticket politically will not last. Their time will expire soon enough. By October, we will be talking about different people.
23. The GOP primary voter is restless. He or she is looking for the next inspirational leader. And, so far, no such person is in the race.
Former Rep. LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.) is the co-host of "Political Insiders" on Fox News channel, Sunday nights at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. He will be writing weekly pieces in the Contributors section on the "State of the 2016 Race."