Jeb Bush Can Win but Party Splits Won't Make It Easy

by Perry Bacon Jr. /  / Updated 

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Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has an obvious route to the GOP nomination: get the more moderate Republicans who voted for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 behind him this time.

Bush, like McCain and Romney, is the kind of wealthy, establishment, conservative-but-not-too conservative figure the Republican Party traditionally nominates.

Bush’s father and brother also both won the party’s nomination, but those are not great analogies to 2016. George H. Bush was the obvious heir apparent, as the sitting vice-president in 1988. During George W. Bush’s 2000 primary, the GOP was not as divided as it is today between its traditional and Tea Party wings.

McCain and Romney are much different men, but they won in the same way. Each lost in the deeply-conservative Iowa caucuses, but carried moderate New Hampshire. They lost in states full of evangelicals and very conservative voters like Alabama and Georgia but offset those defeats with wins in blue states like Illinois and Florida.

Eventually, McCain in 2008 and then Romney in 2012 got into a one-on-one race against an underfunded and more conservative opponent who they then outlasted. (McCain beat Mike Huckabee, while Romney won over Rick Santorum.)

Eventually, McCain in 2008 and then Romney in 2012 got into a one-on-one race against an underfunded and more conservative opponent who they then outlasted. (McCain beat Mike Huckabee, while Romney won over Rick Santorum.)

So can Bush win the way Romney and McCain did? Maybe not. Bush, who formally announced his candidacy Monday, has three unique challenges.

The first is that both McCain and in particular Romney were willing to move sharply to the right to secure the nomination, and Bush seems unwilling to do so. Romney reversed himself on a number of issues to take more conservative stands, particularly on immigration.

Romney was criticized as being unprincipled and willing to say anything to win. But his strategy worked.

It may have seemed odd and therefore politically impossible for Bush -- who lives in heavily-Latino Miami, is married to a Mexican-American woman and speaks Spanish -- to become a strongly anti-immigrant voice. But he has done something very risky: announced over and over again he favors a pathway to legalization for the undocumented and that others in his party are wrong for not taking the same stance.

In December, Bush essentially announced he would try to win the primary by ignoring and shunning some conservatives. In his words, a successful GOP candidate has to "lose the primary to win the general" and capture Republican voters "without violating your principles."

On immigration and issues like the Common Core education standards, Bush wants to lead the Republican Party to his positions, not adopt the party's views. One of Bush's top rivals, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, has taken the Romney approach of moving to the right.

Bush's challenge is his policy positions but also his persona. He at times veers close to how McCain campaigned in 2000 and ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman ran in 2012, being a strong critic of the people he is purporting to lead. Both of those candidates of course lost to rivals who were more willing to hew to party orthodoxy.

Secondly, Bush may be facing a stronger group of rivals than McCain or Romney. Walker is a conservative hero nationally for having weakened unions in Wisconsin. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has many of Bush's policy views, but is a much more talented public speaker and has a more compelling biography, as he could be the first Latino president.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is now expected to enter the race next month, has a track record of winning in a key swing state and a long, deep resume in politics.

Bush has tougher competition in part because of structural changes in the political process, most importantly the rise of Super PAC's. George W. Bush was able to secure the backing of many of the party's key fundraisers in 1999, effectively blocking other candidates from running.

Rubio has won the support of a few mega-donors who are bankrolling his candidacy by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions to his Super PAC, allowing him to run without the support of the party’s traditional fundraisers.

Third, Jeb Bush has a Bush problem. Some Republicans, particularly on the party's right, felt Jeb's father and brother were insufficiently conservative. Others are simply wary of having a third person from the same family leading the party, as if the GOP is run by the Bush clan.

But the most important way Bush's last name is a barrier is among those Romney and McCain backers. They are not opposed to Bush for ideological reasons. They too support immigration reform. Many of them backed Bush’s father and brother.

But the McCain-Romney bloc is most obsessed with a candidate who can win the party back the White House. And at least right now, polls show voters associate Jeb Bush closely with George W. Bush, who left office with very low approval ratings.

So Jeb Bush is trailing Hillary Clinton significantly in head-to-head polling.

For these Republican elites, Bush must show he can win the general election before they support him in the primary.

These challenges should not obscure that Bush is one of the Republicans most likely to win the nomination.

The former Florida governor isn’t running on a lark.Two years ago, it seemed Bush would not a be a candidate. He was doing little to prepare for 2016.

But then Rubio, who looked like he would unite the Tea Party and the GOP establishment, co-wrote a bill that created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Tea Party activists were furious with him, and Rubio is still trying to woo them back.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed like he could replace Rubio as the favorite of the Republican establishment, but then the Bridgegate scandal emerged, making the party wary of him.

With those two weakened, key figures in the Republican Party, including House Speaker John Boehner, started begging Bush to run last year. In the view of many in the party’s establishment, Bush has more experience than Rubio, a stronger knowledge of policy issues than Walker and is better positioned to win the general election than candidates like Huckabee because of his connections to Florida and the Latino community.

In the first five months of 2015, Bush locked down the support of many key donors and other figures in the party, such as former Secretary of State James Baker. Seeing Bush's strength, Romney, who was considering a third run, opted against it.

Bush is expected to announce he has raised tens of millions of dollars through his Super PAC. Having the most money does not guarantee victory, but means Bush’s backers will have lots of opportunities to change voters' perceptions of him.

So what does the path to the nomination look like for Bush? First, Bush almost certainly must win New Hampshire. Winning there would help establish him as the candidate of more moderate Republicans. The other early primary states (Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina) all could be difficult for Bush, because the voters in those races may be very conservative. But Bush can win the nomination by carrying states like Florida, Michigan and New Hampshire, as Romney did.

But if Bush does not win in Iowa and South Carolina, which of his rivals carries those states will influence his chances of winning. It would help Bush greatly if a deeply-conservative candidate, like Huckabee or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, won in Iowa and became his top rival.

Cruz and Huckabee will struggle in states like Michigan with fewer evangelical and very conservative voters. Bush could easily beat either of them in a one-on-one race.

But if Kasich, Rubio or Walker win Iowa and some of the early primaries, this will be a huge challenge for Bush. Those three men are moderate enough to be a threat to Bush in New Hampshire, and a defeat in the Granite State would cripple his candidacy.

In a one-on-one contest with Bush, Rubio and Walker in particular could not only consolidate Tea Party but also eat into Bush’s support among more moderate Republicans. If Rubio appears strong, he could win Florida, another must-win for Bush.

Kasich or Walker could win in states in the Midwest like Wisconsin and Illinois.

If he emerges from the primary, Bush will have a couple of advantages in the general election. Clinton will be trying to win the third term for her party, which is historically difficult. Bush, if he wins the GOP primary while emphasizing his commitment to immigration reform, will have a stronger appeal to Latinos than other GOP candidates might. He will be formidable in Florida, where Bush’s brother won in 2000 and 2004 but was carried by Obama in 2008 and 2012.

At the same time, a general election could become a race between the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And Jeb Bush would likely lose that contest.

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