Time was, the first quarter of this year would have almost conclusively sewn up the GOP primary for Jeb Bush. It used to be that locking up a ton of money and early endorsements and setting yourself up as the inevitable front runner mattered a lot. Maybe it wasn’t dispositive, but it was very close to it. In every contested GOP primary since at least 1968 (yes, including 1980, when Reagan was the money and endorsement favorite by this point of the race, contrary to the narrative that has coalesced in the intervening years), Jeb Bush would have won the nomination just based on what he accomplished prior to May of this year.
However, the last two election cycles have shown that things have changed, probably permanently, in Republican politics. No longer is it enough to prove that you have locked up all the big money donors and early endorsements from major party figures – in fact, that might well be a drawback. Even though Mitt Romney faced competition in 2012 that was mostly non-serious (by way of comparison, Rick Santorum mounted the most serious challenge to Romney’s supremacy, and he can’t even make the debate stage in 2016), he still found himself periodically trailing a cavalcade candidates who raised almost no money and were favored by almost no party insiders.
Truthfully, Romney’s struggles in 2012 were probably in no small part related to his “early favorite” status. The electorate in 2012 was in no mood to be told by the party apparatus who the “reasonable” or “smart” choice was, even if that choice was in the very previous election the most serious conservative alternative to either of the party apparatus choices (Rudy and McCain).
The Jeb Bush 2016 campaign has faced this exact same mood from the primary electorate, only now it is much, much worse. Problematically (for Bush), he has failed to adapt to the simmering anger in the Republican base or to craft his message in such a way that he even acknowledges that it exists. His struggles in the polls have now caused his fundraising numbers to flag, leading to massive cuts in his campaign operation.
Now more than ever, the money race simply isn’t as important as it used to be. Voters don’t depend on yard signs or television commercials to tell them what to think or who to vote for. Sure they might matter at the margins, but for the most part, the modern Republican voter gets their news direct from the source. They pride themselves on ignoring the media filter and watching the candidates for themselves and making their own decisions.
It has always been true that there is absolutely no substitute for a good candidate – but in this environment, that truism is magnified tenfold. Every statement will be analyzed to death and discussed on social media and twitter; every gaffe will be captured to YouTube and shared virally. Every awkward moment that embarrasses a candidate will be converted to a .gif for repeated and interminable use.
This, essentially, is the problem with Jeb Bush: he’s a walking, talking, awkward moment. Whether or not he was a good and competent governor with great ideas and access to a ton of money is beside the point in the modern environment; he is a bad candidate and he is heading for quick oblivion once the votes start counting in January. The last people to realize it are the television commentators who think he still has a chance just because he has money and the remaining old money dinosaurs who are keeping his (increasingly denuded) campaign operation afloat.
No amount of money can change Jeb Bush, as a candidate, into something he is not. No amount of old guard endorsements will help him; in fact, they may well hurt. Right now, it’s just a matter of running out the clock for this campaign and waiting for the donor class to draw all the wrong lessons from his defeat.