January 15, 2016
Lindsey Graham endorsed Jeb Bush today. Do we care? Yes, but not because it means Jeb is suddenly viable. He’s not. He still has a chance at the nomination, but it involves about 11 things falling into place. I’d set his over/under at 1%.
While endorsements are usually a good thing, and having the most “serious” national security person from this year’s field sing the praises of someone running as the most “serious” candidate, makes sense, it’s not like Graham has a national base.
He’s also not particularly popular inside the GOP. Despite being quick witted at times, he never made it out of the undercard debates and exited the contest having failed to clear 1% in the polls.
Graham is the most visible member of the McCain wing of the Republican Party, one that is now in full retreat. This reinforces the idea that Jeb isn’t suitable to those who might like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Of course, his favorability ratings with those voters are abysmal. In most polling, Trump and Cruz combine for at least a solid half of the total support. The most common second choice is the other one. Failing at that, Marco Rubio, and especially for Trump voters, even Chris Christie is way more acceptable than Jeb.
If half the voters won’t consider you unless the other option is Hillary Clinton, you’re not likely to win the nomination. The Graham endorsement, which would have harmed Rubio with those voters, some of whom like him quite a bit, doesn’t negatively impact Jeb. Nothing to lose.
The gain is to grab a little more of that establishment-friendly support. For those who are weighing the three governors in New Hampshire, it’s a vote of confidence for Jeb’s experience. Graham took a moment to mention Rubio isn’t ready yet. He said he thinks he’d be great in the future, but 44 is too young.
Given the combined poll shares of Cruz and Rubio, many voters disagree, but again, those voters aren’t readily available for Jeb. Might as well go all-in.
If you do the math, it shows why Jeb’s odds are so poor. His campaign narrative pushes the path of first eliminating Kasich and Christie, then eventually running down Rubio. Meanwhile, Cruz and Trump slug it out, with Trump eventually squishing him. Finally, the race narrows to two, and less than 50% of GOP voters would pick Trump.
There are multiple problems with this scenario. To begin with, it appears there’s plenty of room for both Trump and Cruz. At best, Jeb would get to act as a third option. Then there’s the defeating Rubio part. As much as Marco hasn’t fully asserted himself yet, he is ahead of the others on his side of the board.
Oh, and Kasich and Christie are both ahead of him in New Hampshire at the moment. Hence the bad odds. But Bush persists. In fairness, if Kasich doesn’t finish first among the governors, probably ahead of Rubio too, he’s done. The same is true of Christie.
That guarantees, at least one, possibly two of the governors don’t make it to South Carolina. At this point, Jeb is counting on the power of not quitting. This is where the Graham endorsement is an important signal.
I’m assuming he wouldn’t have endorsed a candidate who might not even stay in the race long enough to participate in the South Carolina primary. This means Jeb guaranteed him he would go on, even if he finishes 6th in New Hampshire (his current poll average).
When asked about this type of thing post-debate, Bush mentioned a couple of things. First, that he did not think he needed to win New Hampshire (or place or show) to remain viable. Second, that he liked his chances in Florida (which doesn’t vote until March 15).
That Sunshine State hope was based on the large amount of endorsements he’s received, far more than fellow Floridian Rubio. So far, their home state voters like Marco better, though dangerously for both, Trump and Cruz are running first/second.
Jeb has to talk up his chances to give New Hampshire voters any hope. Of course he’s going to say he’ll continue regardless. The Graham endorsement indicates he really means it. While some of his donors are apparently waiting for a chance to back Marco without backstabbing Jeb, he’s not planning on going anywhere.
This raises the stakes for Christie, who would face more pressure to finish no worse than second in New Hampshire. If finishing ahead of Jeb isn’t enough to force him out, he could find himself splitting a smallish pool of South Carolina voters with the candidate who just won’t go away.
For Rubio, it’s a difference, but not necessarily a negative. I’ve long figured it’s in his interests to have Jeb stick around longer. Being criticized by Bush may help him with some of the Cruz voters he needs to attract in order to win the nomination. Marco won’t have an easy time winning most of the early states anyway. Without Jeb around, he has less of an excuse.
This endorsement only matters for what it tells us. There are two crucial endorsements in South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott. Neither have said they would definitely endorse before the primary and either or both may choose to remain quiet.
Each are very popular. During the debate, Trump passed up a chance to say anything negative about Haley when her comments during and after the State of the Union response were noted by moderators. Scott is arguably even more well thought of.
If either have interest in the VP nomination, they may decide to stay quiet to avoid offending someone who could choose them. Both are first tier presidential possibilities for 2020 or 2024.
It’s time to start turning our focus to South Carolina, which will show up before we know it on February 20. Regardless of his current position or future prospects, Jeb Bush still has Carolina on his mind.