On Tuesday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced that he will “actively explore” a bid for the White House. While Bush has not yet formed a presidential exploratory committee, he’s “running” for president by any practical definition of the term. If he proves to perform poorly in the “invisible primary,” failing to gather support among donors and influential Republicans, he could withdraw later on, before the first votes are cast in Iowa.
What might those influential Republicans think of Bush? He has sometimes been critical of his fellow Republicans, havingquestioned the GOP’s partisanship and lack of tolerance for dissenting viewpoints. He has also staked out moderate policy positions on some issues, particularly immigration and education reform.
But is Bush in the mold of Jon Huntsman and Rudy Giuliani — candidates who generated lots of buzz among the East Coast media elite but proved too moderate for the Republican base? Or is he more like the past two Republican nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain, who also were accused of being too moderate but won their party’s nomination?
The short answer: We’ll see, and we’ll want to watch for news of Republicans who endorse Bush’s candidacy or criticize it. But he’s probably more like Romney or McCain than like Huntsman or Giuliani.
Last year, we constructed ideological scores for a set of plausible 2016 Republican candidates based on a combination of three statistical indices: DW-Nominate scores (which are based on a candidate’s voting record in Congress), CFscores (based on who donates to a candidate) and OnTheIssues.org scores (based on public statements made by the candidate). None of these methods is perfect — they disagree on how to classify the libertarian-leaning Republican Rand Paul, for example — but they give us some empirical basis to make comparisons. The closer a candidate’s score is to zero under this method, the more moderate he is. And the closer he is to 100, the more conservative. (Liberal candidates would be listed with negative scores.) Here’s how Bush compares:
Bush scores at a 37 on this scale, similar to Romney and McCain, each of whom scored a 39. He’s much more conservative than Huntsman, who rates at a 17.
Still, Bush is more like his father, George H.W. Bush, who rates as a 33, than his brother George W. Bush, who scores a 46. And the Republican Party has moved to the right since both Poppy and Dubya were elected. The average Republican member in the 2013-14 Congress rated a 51 on this scale, more in line with potential candidates Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Mike Huckabee.
So as a rough cut, Bush is not especially moderate by the standard of recent GOP nominees. But the gap has nevertheless widened between Bush and the rest of his party.
On the two issues where he has most outspokenly deviated from his party, immigration and education, his policy positions are not far removed from those Republican voters declare in polls. But these issues may also take on symbolic significance beyond their immediate policy implications, signaling to Republican voters that a candidate is too moderate or too much a part of the establishment. Earlier this year, my colleague Harry Enten found Republican senators who have adopted Bush’s moderate stance on immigration have been especially likely to receive primary challenges.
And Bush has been more like Hunstman than Romney in explicitly critiquing the direction of his party. That may appeal to general-election voters, but it probably isn’t helpful to him in a Republican primary.
Still, parties have shown some historical tendency to nominate successively more moderate candidates the longer they’ve been out of the White House. That could help Bush. While he’s somewhat to the left of the average Republican politician, there’s also less competition on that side of the GOP spectrum; most Republican senators and governors first elected during the past several election cycles have been quite conservative.
That’s not to say he has the field all to himself. Romney has sometimes been considered a 2016 candidate. So has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who rates as being far more moderate than Bush on our scale). New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez has less of a national profile, but also overlaps ideologically with Bush.
Perhaps more important is the relatively early date of Bush’s announcement. If he builds an early advantage in the “invisible primary,” he could deter some of these candidates from running and make it harder for them to gain momentum if they do. The early announcement will also give Bush more time to calibrate his positions while under comparatively little scrutiny.
There will almost certainly be some credible candidates to Bush’s right, like Ryan or Rubio or Bobby Jindal or Scott Walker. Roughly 31 percent of Republican primary voters describe themselves as moderate or liberal, potentially enough to leave Bush as one of two or three remaining viable nominees after the first few states vote in 2016. That’s when he’d have to do his best campaigning — by pivoting to his right, or by convincing Republicans that his electability outweighs ideological purity. Bush may face more vigorous competition on his right in 2016 than Romney did in the likes of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012. And to the extent that Republican voters have shifted slightly further to the right over the past four to eight years, that could make his task harder at the margins.
Betting markets put Bush’s chances of winning the Republican nomination at 20 percent to 25 percent, which seems as reasonable an estimate as any. You can get there by assuming there’s a 50 percent chance that he survives the “invisible primary” and the early-voting states intact and a 40 percent to 50 percent chance that he wins the nomination if he does. It’s a strategy that worked well enough for McCain and Romney.
Don’t assume Jeb Bush will be the Republican nominee in 2016
By Chris Cillizza
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush hands out holiday food baskets to those in need outside the Little Havana offices of CAMACOL, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, on Dec. 17 in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The New York Times tweeted this on Wednesday night:
The piece it linked to — by Nate Cohn, a great talent, who I once tried to hire! –is somewhat more circumspect than the tweet about Jeb Bush’s chances at the Republican presidential nomination but does make the case that, if past is prologue, there is a proven blueprint for Bush to be the nominee. Here’s the key graph:
It’s a path that starts by consolidating the establishment wing of the party in the invisible primary. It ends by winning a protracted fight against an underfunded conservative opponent who can’t break through in the delegate-rich blue states that are often needed to win the party’s nomination, even though the party struggles to win them in presidential elections.
Cohn is absolutely right. A look back at recent contested Republican presidential primary fights suggests that the race typically boils down to one candidate from the establishment lane and one from the tea party/activist conservative lane — with the establishment candidate winning. As he notes, in 2012 Mitt Romney was the clear establishment favorite — especially after Chris Christie said “no,” again, in the fall of 2011 — and wound up beating back a challenge from surprise conservative lane pick Rick Santorum. Four years earlier, John McCain beat out Romney for the establishment mantle and then bested conservative lane pick Mike Huckabee for the nomination. In 2000, the establishment pick also was a sort-of conservative pick (George W. Bush) and he wound up beating McCain, running as sort of the un-candidate, for the nomination.
(Worth noting: The Republican Party of 2000 is not the Republican Party of today or anything close to it. Back then, the tea party didn’t exist and social conservatives were far more powerful. Also, there was a path to a tonal moderate to win the nomination. That is no longer possible — see Rudy Giuliani in 2008. Much more on that below.)
One thing that I think Cohn undervalues in his calculations regarding Jeb Bush’s chances are a) how much the other candidates running matter to the final outcome and b) how much the GOP has changed even from four years ago.
On the first point, I think that the potential 2016 field is significantly stronger — in both the establishment and conservative lanes — than it was in 2008 or 2012. Ted Cruz, say what you will about him, is a gifted speaker and debater who has proven over the past two years an ability to build a national following. The establishment lane is chock full (or could be chock full) of talented and well-known pols: Bush, Christie, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, to name four. Neither the 2008 mor 2012 field had as much talent.
You might notice I left Rand Paul off that list. That was on purpose. Because the senator from Kentucky is the bridge between points number one and two. He is a candidate who is unlike anyone in either the 2008 or 2012 field in that he is a sort of “cause” candidate — people believe deeply in his libertarian message the same way they did for his father in each of the past two races — and also a plausible winner in that he probably can raise the more than $100 million necessary for the primary and doesn’t scare the hell out of the establishment the way his dad did or Cruz does.
Which gets me to how the Republican Party has changed — and why simply casting the race as the establishment vs. the tea party may be an oversimplification. Yes, the “establishment” lane still very much exists — composed, primarily, of the professional political class, major donors — especially on the East Coast — and fiscal conservatives. But assuming that the “other” lane is the tea party misses some of the nuance that exists within the party. Cruz is a tea partyer, for sure, and one who unites the fiscal and social ends of that movement. But, while Paul is identified at times with the tea party (and has embraced such labeling when it’s politically beneficial) he actually is far more closely aligned with the growing libertarian strain within the GOP.
The GOP is less bifurcated — establishment/social conservatives, establishment/tea party — than in any of the past four presidential campaigns, largely because of the rise of these libertarians but also the result, in some measure, to the waning influence of the tea party. (Its influence may wax again but for the moment, not.)
That reality creates what I think is the most likely scenario in the fight for the GOP nomination in 2016: It won’t be a battle between, say, Bush and whoever the tea party puts up. It is more likely to be a battle between whoever the establishment nominates and Paul, whose hybrid appeal to libertarians, tea partyers and a slice of the fiscally conservative establishment is unlike anyone else in the potential field. And, unlike past conservative lane choices who have never had the fundraising or organization heft to challenge the establishment pick, Paul just might. His activity in the 2016 race suggests he is not Huckabee or Santorum on those fronts.
That’s not to say Paul will be the nominee. But it is to say that the idea that Bush can unite the establishment and, as a result, be the odds-on favorite as the nominee is based on an outdated read of the current state of the party.