2016 Republicans

What Team Jeb Won’t Admit

September 29, 2015

Team Jeb has a narrative to push.  Slow and steady combined with massive ad buys wins the race.  Organization, ground game, policy papers, these are the things winning campaigns are made of.

Well, if that’s where your advantage is, guess you need to emphasize it.  The problem is they’re wrong.  There are two way more important things.

First, early victories (real or perceived).  Second, positive media exposure.  If you have those, adding the infrastructure is great.  For all the talk of how Obama’s national infrastructure beat Clinton’s, if he doesn’t win Iowa it doesn’t matter.

When candidates put all three of those things together, they win.  Almost no candidate begins with all three, so the trick is to pick up the missing elements before the clock runs out.  Pretending the one element you have is the only one that matters guarantees defeat.

It’s fine for a campaign to lie to the media or their donors.  Not the best approach, but once in a while better to fake it till you make it as the old saying goes.  The trouble is when the campaign believes its own bullshit.

The Bush campaign is boasting about their ability to compete in the SEC primary on March 1, when 9 states, many in the South vote in primaries and 3 others caucus.

Their PAC has the money to blanket the airwaves, they have the boots on the ground, yada, yada, yada.  Unfortunately, unless they plan to sublet this capacity to an actual viable candidate, it’s completely pointless.

Thinking the candidacy as currently constructed has any chance of surviving until March 1 is ludicrous.  Let’s go back to those missing items.

Early Victories

What is the definition of a political victory?  Beating expectations by a noticeable margin.

What are some things that qualify as victories if you accomplish this?  Poll results, debate performances, fundraising numbers, early primary results, key opponent matchup results.

Say what you want about Donald Trump, but he’s turned himself into a viable candidate on the strength of beating polling expectations.

It’s not just the raw numbers, it’s the way he’s brilliantly framing them.  As we know, Trump constantly brags about his poll numbers.  It’s one of his favorite topics of discussion.  If an interviewer cites the wrong poll (i.e. one where he has a smaller lead), he erupts.

To most of us, it appears Captain Braggadocio is at it again.  He is, but you’ll notice he never predicts they’ll go up, never says he should be higher in a particular state.  Instead he marvels at how amazing his performance is, how surprising his complete domination of state and national polls is.

He’s beating his own expectations.  Whether he’s at 30% or 20%, has a big lead or is within the margin of error, is gaining or falling, it’s all yuuuge.

Meanwhile, pundits, journalists, rival campaigns and people just having a beer constantly predict the end is near.  Surely this latest gaffe or bad debate performance spells the end.

In doing so we constantly give Trump a low floor of expectations to clear.  While he’s lost ground since the debate, it’s not a total free fall, so guess what, The Donald still beats expectations.  The game won’t work forever, if he isn’t regularly leading anymore, the fun stops, but each week he stays above water is a win.

Ever since it became clear Jeb was in he’s fought the opposite narrative.  Even when he led the polls, the question was why it wasn’t by more.  His team never acted as though 18% or 21% was an extra-special early surprise, that they were grateful to start off that well, but didn’t expect it to stick.

It’s not their fault.  You can’t build a fundraising colossus while acting like you would have been happy with 10%.  If Jeb was stuck with his brother’s presidency at least he could take advantage of his donors.

In retrospect, that decision doomed them.  Deciding to run a big, establishment, front runner campaign guaranteed Jeb wouldn’t make it.  As a wonky, insurgent candidate, somebody back after a decade-long hiatus to de-bug the ship of state, he might have had something.

That would have allowed him to leverage his regular awkwardness instead of getting buried by it.  When things don’t work anymore, you call the IT guy.

Very easy to say this now.  I can’t think of any candidate who would voluntarily turn their back on all that money and infrastructure (I’ll believe you Mr. Trump when you show us those $5 million checks you refused).

So front runners can’t win early polling victories.  Unfortunately, it also appears Jeb won’t win any debate victories.  He improved from the first debate to the second and isn’t awful or anything, but several people on the stage are clearly better.

One of Jeb’s many challenges is being a worse version of Mitt Romney.  By the time he took out Rick Perry in the fall of 2011, Mitt had plenty of practice.  He got roughed up a bit in the 2008 cycle, but by his second run was very solid.

Though the RNC was probably smart to cut the preseason debates to one every 6 weeks or so, far better to make each one an event, it doesn’t help Jeb get his bearings.  It also raises the stakes for each shaky appearance.

While Trump and Ben Carson build momentum through better than expected polling and Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio gain traction through debates, Jeb languishes.

An early primary or caucus win can help, but winning Iowa or New Hampshire without polling or debate wins requires moving to the state pretty much full-time.

That’s who wins, surging national front-runners or temporary local residents.  There’s no third option.  Yesterday, Jeb did the kick-off for his new energy policy in Pennsylvania.  If you are Trump, Carson, Hillary or Bernie, you can do this.

Jeb could have done it in April, but not now.  Problem is he’s trapped.  Because his fundraising numbers were big in the second quarter, he’s spent much of September trying to salvage his quarter.  Expectations again.

Even if Jeb raises more than his opponents, if the margin shrinks, there’s another loss.  Meanwhile, if Rubio gets even slightly close, it’s a win.  Even more so with a more modest campaign with a much lower burn rate.

His donors signed up for a big national front running campaign, not Jeb’s version of John McCain circa fall 2007.  When McCain decided to Town Hall his way to the nomination he was out of money, not sitting on $100 million.

There is no indication Jeb has any plans to stop acting like a big shot national candidate and go debate John Kasich and Chris Christie up and down the Granite State.  He should, but it’s inconceivable he would and very possibly too late anyway.

Jeb won’t win Iowa and is an underdog in New Hampshire.  South Carolina isn’t looking real good, nor is Nevada (and I’m not sure that one is really thought of the same as the others anyway).

Kasich or Christie can claim finishing 2nd or 3rd in New Hampshire is a win, but Jeb can’t.  Those damn expectations.

Jeb faces a few mini-match ups in the first few contests.  He’s competing with Kasich and Christie in the relatively moderate governors bracket.  He’s also fighting Rubio as the big hope to keep the GOP out of outsider clutches, or risk nominating an overly conservative candidate (for those who worry about that).

In order for anyone to care about Jeb on March 1, he needs to have put Christie and Kasich away.  Tie goes to the upstart, so he needs to consistently finish ahead of both.  He’s right that he is better positioned to compete in several states at once than they are, but only if he’s not on a losing streak.

Jeb’s bigger problem is Rubio.  If Marco finishes ahead of him in 3 or 4 of the first 4 states, what are the odds an extra ad blitz or seven is enough for Jeb to hold him off, especially if mainstream conservatives are determined to rally around an alternative to Carson, Trump or Cruz.

Also, one of those 3/1 states is Texas.  Good news is he has a sibling who is still very popular there.  Bad news is if he beats Rubio it means nothing, if Rubio beats him…

You get the idea.  Jeb isn’t winning Georgia on 3/1 if he doesn’t do very well in South Carolina 10 days before.  He doesn’t do well in South Carolina unless he gets a good result in New Hampshire and/or Iowa, and he’s not setting himself up for that.

You can’t use money to leverage momentum that doesn’t exist.

Positive Media Exposure

Don’t confuse this with having the media say nice things about the candidate.  When that happens, like it did for Barack Obama in 2008, that’s a big plus, but it’s a lot to ask for.

The definition of positive media exposure is getting a free opportunity to push your agenda to a wide audience.  Sometimes it’s the result of great planning or strategy, sometimes it just happens and the campaign jumps on it.

You can generate this exposure by entering the Echo Chamber, the Lion’s Den, or choosing Neutral Turf.  Jeb struggles with all three.

For GOP candidates comfortable with conservative talk radio and the more opinion-based Fox News shows (O’Reilly, Hannity, et al), it’s a great way to get your message out.

Jeb is not going to spend a bunch of time with Rush Limbaugh.  He’ll talk to Hannity and O’Reilly but not as often as many of his competitors.  If he wants to move his favorability ratings among GOP voters back toward something that looks like a nominee, this would help.

Doing so would both require a change in strategy and message.  Bush has released a tax plan, energy plan and sundry other stuff, but none break from Republican convention.  They’re respectable, pro-growth proposals. Nice, but similar to what any GOP candidate would come up with.

Jeb is peddling the same things as his competitors but they didn’t actively promote Common Core.  Not sure how to get him out of this box.  This isn’t the audience for the most electable Republican argument, and both Rubio and Carson are running better in general election match ups anyway.

This also explains why the $25 million in ads his PAC is in the process of running in early voting states isn’t working yet.  He’s yet to come up with a reason why he’s a better choice than any of several other choices.

Building a strong media exposure campaign, free, paid, or a combination, requires some distinguishing positives.  Trump and Carson have distinct brands.  Fiorina is the fighter.  Marco talks good.  Cruz hates his fellow senators (this isn’t working yet).  What makes Jeb better than Kasich again?

If you can’t hang out in the Echo Chamber, there’s always the Lion’s Den.  Fiorina did this last Sunday when she went on Meet the Press.  These shows are not always combative.  Sometimes a candidate is taking a victory lap.  This wasn’t that.  Chuck Todd, fresh from grilling Hillary Clinton on email servers, was ready to skewer Carly.

Two issues.  Planned Parenthood video and HP.  Fiorina was supposed to admit she exaggerated the video content during the debate and apologize.  Guess again.  Every day she spends talking about a government-funded entity taking fetuses apart to sell their parts is a win.  If Todd gets exasperated, even better.

She didn’t back down on her HP record either, but the greater point is Carly was able to reinforce the message she’s trying to send GOP primary voters.  While Jeb has fought with Trump (after considerable goading), he’s yet to really take on anyone most Republicans detest.

Again, it’s understandable why Jeb hasn’t done this, it’s not his thing.  Fiorina is tremendously quick on her feet and mixing it up is her thing.  Ben Carson can let everyone go crazy trying to interpret what he said about Muslim presidential candidates knowing it will probably help his numbers.

Unlike the outsiders, Jeb tries to quickly explain himself when his words cause trouble, rather than doubling down.  That is perfectly normal, but it makes him look like he’s always explaining himself.

What about Neutral Turf?  Now a staple of campaigning, Bill Clinton may have invented this when he played the sax on Arsenio back in the day.  Jeb gave this a try, appearing on Stephen Colbert’s debut episode.

He did ok, but didn’t really get any buzz.  While it was a huge deal in Clinton’s day, we’re used to seeing politicians on late night talk shows now.  Bush had to settle for second billing behind George Clooney.

When Trump went on several days later, he was the main event.  This is another area where The Donald has lapped the field, appearing anywhere and everywhere, getting interviewed by Rolling Stone (where he made the Fiorina insult) and whatnot.

Jeb just isn’t as comfortable in these settings, and as Trump has shown, there’s always the risk of getting yourself in trouble. Since Bush isn’t going to want to double down on misstatements, he needs to speak carefully.

This makes him a less interesting and marketable interview or guest.  Vicious circle.  He’s losing because the front running candidates are getting more out of free media than he will from paid.  This also makes it more difficult to hit them with attack ads later.

These candidates are building much stronger public personas than in previous cycles.  Plus, a large percentage of viewers rarely watch ads anymore, having switched to Netflix, Hulu and DVR for most of their TV.

Side Note: This is why Fiorina will have an easier time with HP-based attack ads than she did running in California in 2010.  Many more people watched ads several years ago.

More importantly a senate candidate doesn’t get the same free exposure a presidential candidate does.  By the time the ads fly, many voters will have formed an impression of her and listened to her defend her record many times.  In California, many voters got their first introduction from the attack ad.

Anyway, Jeb is completely screwed.  He bought a large, expensive SUV, just in time for gas prices to spike.  Plus he’s a bad driver.  Other candidates have more efficient vehicles and are far more skilled operators.

He may not realize this and truly believe things can turn out ok.  His campaign team is in a difficult spot.  Their guy isn’t going to win.  They want to get jobs again in the future.  If they do something radical, like having him move to New Hampshire, it probably still won’t work.

At the moment, his chances are well under 5%.  If they completely shook things up, maybe his odds jump to 7-10%.  In a vacuum you suggest that.  Doubling your odds is nothing to sneeze at.

However, there’s at least a 90% chance of ultimate failure, and you don’t want to be remembered as the guy or gal who ditched the national operation when you still had money left.

So they’ll lie to themselves and/or the candidate and say some combination of “it just wasn’t our year” and “Jeb was a worse candidate than we ever imagined” when Kasich or Christie effectively end his campaign by finishing well ahead of him in New Hampshire after Rubio beats him in Iowa.

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