December 3, 2015
This is not an if, it’s a when. Jeb Bush will exit the 2016 Republican primary race long before the convention meets in Cleveland next summer. The odds were long against him for several weeks, but he’s about as likely a nominee as Rand Paul or Mike Huckabee at this point.
There are three possibilities. Before Iowa, before New Hampshire, before South Carolina. When Jeb exits, who he endorses (if anyone), along with what his mega PAC decides to do with many millions in excess funds and valuable ad slots already booked, will impact the chances of an establishment-friendly candidate winning the nomination, and who that Great Establishment Hope is.In case some persuasion is necessary, here’s why Jeb has advanced from definite underdog to total political corpse…
There are five candidates who might be someone the establishment could rally around:
For the purposes of this exercise, I’m defining the establishment as the majority of Republican senators, representatives, governors in light red, purple or blue states, national RNC officials and donors, along with RNC figures and elected officials in light red, purple or blue states.
These are the folks who were willing to do just about anything to help Mitt Romney get past Newt Gingrich this time four years ago. Good ole Newt bombed pretty well on his own, with just a shove from Mitt and the boys, but there’s quite a bit more to deal with this year.
Besides Ben Carson, who while still a very improbable nominee, isn’t totally dead yet, there’s the more clear and present danger of Donald Trump, or even more likely and potentially even more scary to some, Ted Cruz.
As we know, this isn’t what they bargained for. 24 months ago, Christie looked like a very solid option. 12 months ago, Jeb was a very possible nominee, with Scott Walker as a more conservative backup in case the natives were restless. Worst case, if they needed someone else, Rubio was potentially ready for the big stage, though they were thinking a governor would make a better Obama antidote.
When Kasich entered the fray and got off to a decent start, they had yet another backup. Six months ago, there were several options ahead of Rubio, Trump was a temporary curiosity, and Cruz looked like an also-ran. That was then.
In the new Quinnipiac national poll, these non-Rubio choices totaled 9%.
Walker (long gone)
As mentioned above, Fiorina is potentially acceptable if the alternative is Trump or Cruz. She’s broadly popular with GOP voters, averaging about a 2:1 favorability ratio. When matched up with Hillary Clinton in pseudo-matchups, she does about as well as the average Republican contender.
Carly is playing the outsider angle well enough to appeal to Cruz and Trump advocates (newly released data in New Hampshire from PPP proves this), but also is liked by Rubio and Christie supporters. Only Rubio and the detested Cruz have more width of favor (none of the three totally overlap).
Having run a Fortune 50 company, done consulting for government agencies/cabinet departments and run as the GOP senate nominee in California, she’s more of an insider than she sounds, so had things broken differently and Cruz and Rubio not taken a polling step forward over the past couple months, pulling her support away, Fiorina was a legit option.
But they did and she’s not. Barring unforeseen changes in the contest, Carly will not have enough of her own voters for the establishment to have the option to rally around her. While she’s doing better in New Hampshire (AKA the Establishment’s Last Stand) than nationally, that means 6% instead of 3%, at least this week.
So, we’ll set her aside as an option. It also won’t help Team E very much to attempt to convince her to exit. Not only would Fiorina likely resist giving up before New Hampshire, but her voters would be at least as likely to go to someone like Cruz or Trump as Rubio or Christie.
Kasich is a problem. He is not presently viable on the national level. His tone is getting progressively further from what a large amount of GOP primary voters can accept. In general, he’s not registering with voters at all. According to Quinnipiac, more national Republican voters don’t have an opinion on him than do. All in on New Hampshire, scoring poorly in Iowa won’t be enough to force him out before the Granite State.
But he does have 8% of current support in New Hampshire (PPP). The second choice for a majority of those voters is either Rubio, Christie or Jeb, so removing him would really help consolidation.
Kasich is only the second choice of 7% of voters and is behind where he was after blitzing the airwaves over the summer, so even if you think he could get enough conservatives to stomach him eventually, he’s not in position to win or place in New Hampshire first. No path.
The lowest winning percentage in New Hampshire Republican primary history is Pat Buchanan with 27% in 1996 in a fairly large field. Conveniently, that’s where Trump sits in the new poll. If an establishment candidate is going to beat him, they at least need to get to the mid-20s. Trump’s voters are the most likely to say they have made a firm decision. Expecting him to drop below the low 20s is pushing it.
Finishing a strong second, with 20-24% would probably suffice too, but it’s hard to develop a scenario where finishing third behind Trump and Cruz (for example) would give anyone any momentum heading into South Carolina. That’s a recipe for Nominee Ted. So is Trump losing more ground than estimated above and transferring it to Cruz.
Speaking of Cruz, he’s at 13% via PPP’s poll, and if anything that’s conservative based on the underlying data. He’s the second choice of another 14%, slightly more than any other candidate. Beyond that, Carson supporters like him by a 71/17 margin, Fiorina 70/14, Rubio 66/16, so he has plenty of opportunity to do better, especially if he wins Iowa and picks up momentum.
Cruz is the floor the top establishment candidate needs to exceed, and Trump is the ceiling they need to at least get close to. The total support held by the 5 establishment approved candidates is 40%. Even if you expect this number to increase a little as voters get more serious, one candidate needs to grab half.
Rubio at 11% and Christie at 10% are the two best bets to accomplish this. Remarkably, given his standing in August (net -11%), Christie is now the most popular candidate among New Hampshire GOP voters (+39%). He’s followed by Rubio (+28%), Fiorina (+27%) and Cruz (+25%). For reference, Kasich is +3%.
Until recently, Christie was part of the pack of three underachieving governors, often polling worse than either Jeb or Kasich. His tone was sounding better, he was debating well, but was kicked to the JV in the last debate and seemingly overshadowed. Now, he’s the clear option of the three.
He sounds the best, debates the best and picked up the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsement. If any of the governors are going to break out, it’s him. You can actually argue he’s equally or more likely to win the primary than Rubio.
He’s spent significantly more time in state, doing town hall meetings, basically the Full McCain. If Granite State voters still care about candidates showing them love, advantage Christie.
Christie is the second choice of 12%, Rubio 13%. That’s a wash. Combining first and second choice is 22% for Christie, 24% for Rubio. Safely inside the margin of error.
Christie is the second choice for a number of Trump voters, so each vote moving that way closes the gap from both directions, raising him and lowering the ceiling. Rubio is the most popular second choice for Cruz voters, so similar positive effect.
Rubio could finish pretty high up the ladder in Iowa, giving him momentum. He could also finish a clear fourth, costing him momentum. Wash. Christie isn’t likely to register there, but isn’t expected to. If he somehow finishes 5th (which wouldn’t take that much), that’s a moral victory.
You can see how a strategic voter or party influencer who is mostly ok with both would have a difficult time choosing. Rubio is presently more appealing to the national electorate, both primary and general election.
He’s at +9% among all voters, Christie -20%. That’s a huge gap. Nobody is polling Christie/Hillary matchups, so we don’t know how that looks, but it’s likely Rubio does better today.
However, Christie has improved his favorability tremendously in New Hampshire over the past few months, going from one of the least popular to most popular as they saw and heard more of him. Given how relatively moderate by GOP standards Granite State primary voters are, they are a good proxy for the 55 to 57 percent of general election voters who would at least consider the right Republican candidate.
Going all in on one or the other risks making a premature decision. Rubio looks stronger overall today, Christie is arguably more tested. The whole idea of this lengthy overwrought process is to let early state primary voters figure stuff like this out. But as we know, they don’t have as much time this cycle to find an establishmentarian.
Rubio is likely at a funding and ground game disadvantage against Cruz in the states to follow. Christie would need the entire establishment to get behind him, lock, stock and barrel, to even have a hope from South Carolina forward.
Rubio is not going to drop out when he’s far and away the polling leader among establishment friendly candidates. Christie isn’t going to drop out when he’s surging in New Hampshire and has the Union Leader endorsement and new endorsements from important local figures.
He’s at 5% in New Hampshire. That puts him 5th among the 5 establishment possibilities. After moving his primary focus to the state, he’s dropped further in the polls. After running plenty of positive PAC ads, he’s dropped further in the polls.
New Hampshire voters prefer Trump 54/38 in a head-to-head matchup, and Jeb’s in-state GOP favorability rating is -7%. In a four-way matchup with Trump, Cruz and Rubio, he finishes fourth. Given three choices (Jeb, Cruz, Rubio), he finishes third. Keep in mind, these GOP voters are more moderate than most other states. Imagine what this looks like in Alabama.
Increased focus on terror, ISIS, the Middle East, Islam, et al, reinforces the baggage of his surname. There isn’t anything particularly unique about his foreign policy ideas. As a governor, he doesn’t have any direct experience in the field, beyond his familiarity with Bush 41 or 43 administration figures.
His national favorability rating is -22% and not improving. In Florida, site of the governorship he uses as reason to vote for him, Jeb trails Rubio significantly, as well as Cruz, Carson and Trump.
Iowa won’t provide momentum. Bush has dropped to 5% (at best) there too and isn’t likely to spend much time campaigning there. Given the similarity between his New Hampshire, Iowa and national numbers, there’s evidence it doesn’t help him to spend time in a state, a horrible sign. The departed Bobby Jindal managed to make more progress in Iowa than Jeb has in New Hampshire.
Getting back to the original questions, when does he leave and how does he do it? Quitting before Iowa is extremely unlikely. Say whatever you want about the Bush family, but they aren’t quitters. Raising 100+ million and dropping out before a single vote is caucused is poor form.
He’s not harming anyone in Iowa by sticking around. The voters who would leave him for Rubio have. There aren’t many left. If he takes anyone back from him, that means Marco is struggling and not likely to do better than fourth in the Hawkeye State anyway. Having the chance to pass a couple percent to Christie isn’t reason to vacate.
Choosing out after Iowa but before New Hampshire is more possible, as he could finish 6th behind Christie, or even 7th with Paul slotting ahead of him. If his poll numbers continue where they are in New Hampshire and he got 3% or so in Iowa, you couldn’t blame him.
If his 5-6% in New Hampshire could be the difference between Christie or Rubio winding up where they need to or not, would he bail, either out of a sense of duty, or dislike for Trump and/or Cruz? If so, would he endorse anyone? Would that even help? Would his donors immediately decide where to go next, and if so, in concert?
The cleanest and most likely scenario is an exit between New Hampshire and South Carolina, with donors and infrastructure going quickly to Christie if Rubio is struggling and Christie does very well in New Hampshire (finishing ahead of Marco and no worse than second overall).
If Rubio does well (3rd or better) in Iowa, and wins or finishes second in New Hampshire, many donors go to him, and he grabs selected Bush campaign personnel, but nowhere near the whole architecture.
The tricky part is if Rubio finishes 4th in Iowa and Christie finishes a distant 3rd in New Hampshire with Rubio 4th. Then nobody looks good. A 5th place Fiorina might get another look. This is the establishment nightmare.
It’s also really possible. Jeb Bush is dead candidate walking. Helping him decide how and when to unwind things is suddenly an important establishment project.