What coalition?

Photographer: David Becker/Getty Images

Bush's Support Is All in the Family

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

A lot of pundits contend that Jeb Bush’s candidacy is on the line in Wednesday night's debate. Presidential elections scholar John Sides at the Monkey Cage believes Bush still has plenty of time left. I rarely disagree with Sides, but he may be wrong on this one. 

The obstacle for the Jeb Bush candidacy so far hasn't been Donald Trump. It has been Jeb Bush, and specifically his failure to expand his appeal beyond those who signed up last winter.

Part of the problem might be that Bush is campaigning, in a way, as a factional candidate -- one who appeals mainly to a particular group within the party, rather than as a coalition-builder who can unite many groups. We expect such factionalism to appear at the ideological extremes or around unusual positions on specific issues. But sometimes a moderate candidate can try to win the nomination by rallying a narrow group.  

If Jeb Bush is running such a campaign, his faction is Bush family loyalists. The candidate with "Bush" in his first and last names has often gotten mired in topics related to his family's political legacy, such as the Iraq war. His list of endorsements is heavy with those who served in his brother's or father's administration, or were close allies of one of them. He has refused to reach out to those in the party who might not be inclined to automatically support him or his family. 

In this, he’s different from his brother. George W. had little trouble with publicly separating himself from his father, who, as a real moderate, was more legitimately a problem for George W. than George W. should be for his younger brother. And even as he ran as a “compassionate conservative,” George W. never hesitated to find ways to show other types of conservatives that he was sympathetic to them.

Does Jeb Bush have time to shift from running a factional campaign to a coalition-style one? He won’t run out of money soon, as Sides points out. But Bush will only have as much time as the party actors give him.

Marco Rubio has ascended to an odd “front-runner” status that isn’t supported by anything tangible, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times has observed. Rubio scores well only in prediction markets (that is, in betting pools on election results, which have had some success at forecasting outcomes). This only tells us that conventional wisdom is moving toward Rubio. No objective reason -- such as polling results, endorsements, organizational strength or fundraising -- tells us he is the man to beat.

Yet it isn't hard to imagine Republican party actors quickly reaching a consensus. If one Republican governor declares for Rubio, I might consider him to be ahead of Bush. If five do, that could signal a clear endorsement from the party, and he might never look back. If not Rubio, some other candidate capable of being a coalition-style candidate may have a polling surge (perhaps after winning a debate?), and party actors could move in that direction. 

We don’t know what the Republicans involved in their party are waiting for, only that so far few of them have made any choices. Maybe they’ll wait until receiving voter input in Iowa, or even later. But a strong debate performance by Rubio (or a weak one by Bush) might be the key. 

Yes, it’s easy to overhype debates. But something is going to spark influential Republicans to get off their hands and choose. It could be Wednesday night's event.

  1. Jimmy Carter in 1976 was a successful example, as the political scientist Nelson W. Polsby wrote in "Consequences of Party Reform" (1983). Carter rallied what Polsby described as a personal faction -- that is, a group within the party that simply liked Carter. Beginning in the 1980s, however, factional candidates have repeatedly failed to capture presidential nominations.

  2. "Jeb" is an acronym for his full name, John Ellis Bush. 

  3. Perhaps it is harder to bridge the differences in the party now than it was in 1999, but there were plenty of RINO hunters back then, too.

  4. Other candidates have, including George H.W. Bush, who ran as the candidate of the moderates in 1980 but sought broad support in 1988.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net