On the right, the return of Mitt Romney—which I prefer to call the Romneyssiance—has sparked fresh new debates about why Jeb Bush was ever the great 2016 GOP hope. Why does he inspire such skepticism, from the right and the center-right, when his brother didn't? In a column for The Week, Matt Lewis argues that "George W. got away with his apostasy because he had a Texas swagger and twang, no real conservative opponents, and a much less emboldened base," while Jeb Bush is more "cosmopolitan" and alienating.
In a response, RedState's Erick Erickson argues that conservatives preferred Jeb but "settled" for George, because he had two terms as governor of Texas to Jeb's half-term as governor of Florida. "George W. Bush was considered the conservative in the field in 2000 compared to McCain," adds Erickson.
This discussion excises a factor that was forgotten after the close 2000 election. At the start of the 2000 primaries, Bush was crushing the expected Democratic nominee, Al Gore. From a February 1999 report on the Washington Post's own poll:
In the presidential race, Vice President Gore continues to trail Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a potential GOP presidential hopeful. Bush was the choice of 50 percent of all registered voters, up from 46 percent in the pre-scandal poll in January 1998. Gore claimed 40 percent of the hypothetical vote in the latest poll compared to 41 percent from last year.
From a March 1999 Associated Press roundup:
The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll shows Gore 18 percentage points behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the early favorite for the Republican nomination... meanwhile, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll found Gore not only trailing Bush, 56 percent to 41 percent, but also [Elizabeth] Dole, 52 percent to 44 percent.
Stories like this shared space with stories about Gore down by as much as 18 points in Michigan, or struggling to win California, or unable to win back his party's base. Compare this to literally any poll testing Jeb Bush against Hillary Clinton. He has never led her—not once. In 1999, the conservatives being courted by Dan Quayle or Gary Bauer or Utah Senator Orrin Hatch braced that against numbers showing that Bush could win the presidency in a stroll.
He couldn't, as it turned out. Bush ended up losing the popular vote and taking the presidency thanks to a spoiler left bid by Ralph Nader and some other, more scandalous externalities. Gore ended up recovering the Democratic base vote in a way polls rarely suggested he could. Jeb Bush's advocates might argue that he, too, is being underestimated in polls that don't show the base coming home yet.
It might be true. It doesn't change the fact that Bush can't make an "electability" argument against his rivals based on available polling. In New Hampshire this week, I was struck by how many Republican state legislators were bearish on 2016, some even telling me they assumed Clinton would carry their state. To be fair, they were mostly advocates for Rand Paul, who's been arguing that he (well, some candidate, until he declares in a couple of months) can win by bringing new voters into the GOP. He's able to argue that because the disastrous end of the Bush presidency and the relative popularity of Clinton make Jeb Bush a far, far weaker establishment bench-clearer than his brother was 16 years ago.