In the summer of 2007, the man whom many had seen as the presumed Republican nominee was in trouble. John McCain's popularity was falling in early primary state polls, his fundraising was falling short of its goals, and several top campaign officials had quit. Many political observers called on him to leave the field, and few would have blamed him if he had. Of course, those setbacks proved temporary, and McCain dominated the primaries and caucuses and clinched his party's nomination before the winter was over. This is no doubt a story that Jeb Bush is re-playing in his head this week.
By virtual media consensus, the big loser of last Wednesday's Republican presidential debate was Bush. Time certified him the loser, the Wall Street Journal pronounced him "not ready for prime time," and CNN claimed Bush was in a full existential crisis. NBC thinks Bush's campaign is on life support, and Nate Silver thinks the campaign is probably near its end. This may well be so, but there are a number of reasons why those obituaries may prove premature.
First, I'll happily concede that Bush's debate performance was weak—probably the weakest he's had so far, and that's saying something. (In a particularly bad moment, as Emily Bazelon noted, Bush was the only candidate who, when asked to name a personal weakness, actually named one: his difficulty feigning anger. And then for the very next question, he feigned anger at Marco Rubio, proving his earlier point.) And it's not like his other campaign appearances have been particularly strong.
If Bush does drop out, it won't be because he lacked the will or the enthusiasm, and it won't be because he gave a lousy answer to a debate question.
For the most part, though, Bush's problems have been about his public performances—his speeches, his debate demeanor, his lack of energy or joy, etc. These are not irrelevant to success in politics, but they're also hugely overrated, as the Bush family has made quite clear over the past few decades. Bush's father was a pretty bad campaigner, often mangling syntax, appearing insincere, and just saying goofy things. He nonetheless won the presidency in 1988. (He even beat Reagan in the 1980 Iowa Caucus, although he went on to lose that nomination handily.) Bush's older brother George had some strengths as a campaigner, but debating really wasn't one of them, and he was also prone to bizarre phrasing on the stump. None of this kept him from winning his party's nomination and two presidential races.
Despite his inadequacies as a campaigner, Bush still has some serious advantages in this race. Chief among these is his list of endorsers; more United States representatives and senators are backing him than are backing any other Republican presidential candidate. This is a far better predictor of nomination success than polling, funding, or anything else. Bush also has his pedigree; Republicans know that Bushes tend to win when nominated (although that reputation may be somewhat overrated). Being a Bush also means he has ties to lots of important people within the party who have money.
Now, none of this means that he actually has an easy road to the nomination. He hasn't received many endorsements recently, and he's running into some money problems, which doesn't typically happen for the party's anointed candidate. Party insiders are still largely playing a waiting game in this contest. Many likely feel that they would largely get what they want out of a Bush presidency; he'd advance the right proposals, he'd appoint the right people to office, and so forth. But insiders also need some assurance that their chosen candidate can actually beat the Democratic nominee, and Bush really hasn't given them anything there.
Given the resources Bush does have, he has the ability to sit for a bit and watch the other candidates tear each other apart. Some of them will drop out in the coming weeks, and Bush may make a play for their backers. The insider game is still very important, and Bush certainly hasn't lost that yet.
But at some point soon Bush will need to demonstrate to party insiders that he's good at some part of this job. If not, he'll find that the support he needs to continue this race just won't be there for him. If Bush does drop out, it won't be because he lacked the will or the enthusiasm, and it won't be because he gave a lousy answer to a debate question. It will be because he was denied the insider support one needs to become the nominee.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.