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With an impressive $114 million fundraising haul for Jeb Bush and his supporters in the first half of the year, a big question now looms: Is his fundraising success a sign of broad, deep support within the Republican Party? Or does it illustrate Bush’s backing by moderate, wealthy, big-city Republicans who liked his father and his brother but do not reflect the broader GOP?
Raising the most money early in a presidential campaign is not a guarantee of victory. In the first six months of 2007, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised more than Arizona Sen. John McCain, who eventually won the GOP primary.
In this race, Jeb Bush’s winning of the early fundraising contest was expected. Many of the fundraisers who supported his father and brother joined Jeb Bush’s campaign, with some citing that history and loyalty as the reason. Bush, unlike other candidates, attended fundraisers almost daily in the first three months of the year. And Republican donors, particularly in New York City, California and Washington, D.C., tend to be more moderate conservatives like Bush.
The Republican donor class is largely composed of people who either support gay marriage or don’t want the party to talk about the issue, while many conservative activists in states like Iowa remain passionately opposed to same-sex unions.
And because super PACs can accept unlimited donations, it’s not totally clear how broad of a group of people gave Bush money. Right to Rise said that more than 9,900 people donated. Compare that to longshot Democratic candidate and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who cited 250,000 individual donors. (Bush’s PAC, to be sure, was targeting big contributions, not trying to get a large number of individual contributors like Sanders’ official campaign.)
More than 500 people donated more than $25,000 to Bush, an indication of deep support from some very wealthy individuals who likely don’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire.
The best predictor of the eventual nominee of a party, according to political scientists, is endorsements, particularly from key party leaders. And by that measure, Bush is not particularly strong, as few members of Congress or governors have formally backed him. His brother George W. was a clear front-runner in 2000, leading rivals in both endorsements and campaign cash, as is Hillary Clinton in the Democratic 2016 race.
But if Bush is not a juggernaut, the money gives him the chance to become one. In a Republican race without any clear front-runner, Bush in the first six months appears to have raised double that of any of his rivals. (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has not yet formally released his totals, but his aides floated the number $20 million to the Washington Post this week. Cruz aides have suggested the campaign and his multiple super PACs have raised more about $51 million in total).
With more than $100 million to spend, Bush and his team can start running lots of commercials in key states, hire staffers and outspend other candidates.
Bush, like Obama did in defeating Clinton in 2008, can start organizing for what many Republicans think will be a long campaign. This is a key advantage.
Just as significantly, by signing up those 500 big-donors, people like New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, Bush is denying other candidates the ability to match his fundraising. It’s unlikely people who have donated $25,000 or $100,000 to Bush will defect to one of his rivals.
And donors like to back a winner, so it will hard for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is entering the race next month, to convince wealthy Republicans he can overcome Bush.
Even Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate who is rumored to favor Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has to determine if he wants to pump millions into Rubio’s campaign if that money is unlikely to defeat Bush.
Now, with his fundraising strong, Bush needs to start winning both party elites and ultimately voters. His aides have suggested that Bush will rise in the polls sharply once his campaign starts running commercials and taking other steps to illustrate he was a true conservative in Florida, not the moderate he is often portrayed to be. And some Republican governors and senators already like Bush and are holding back their endorsements in part because they aren’t sure how strong of a candidate he is with actual voters.
Bush’s campaign had focused much of its early strategy on raising money, and his aides argue that his lackluster polling in the early stages of the race reflects that focus on fundraisers. Bush aides say the candidate so far has largely been defined by his family’s background and commentary from both the media and his Republican rivals about Bush’s more moderate stands on immigration and Common Core.
Bush has now executed successfully the first phrase of his campaign: vastly outraising his rivals. Now comes actually winning.