Friday, March 8, 2013

What's the Matter With Jeb Bush? The Moderate 'Kiss of Death'

Chris Christie and Condi Rice are two other possible 2016 candidates that find their largest base of support stemming from self-identified moderate/liberal GOP primary voters. Photos courtesy of Donkeyhotey.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush set off a firestorm yesterday after making clear on NBC News he was NOT ruling out a 2016 presidential bid, despite definitively ruling out a 2012 run early in that process. Reaction from a large portion of Conservative Republicans was...well...brutal.

Obviously, the above tweet was one of the more tame responses.

But why all the Jeb Bush hate, from Republicans no less? He's the brother of the once beloved George W. Bush (who still maintains a 45/46% favorability rating with ALL voters, 79/15% with Republicans). He was also a popular two-term Governor of the nation's fourth most populous state from 1998-2006. He is widely viewed as the most thoughtful, articulate, and appealing of the entire Bush clan. But unfortunately for anyone associated with the Bush presidency, Republicans want to win now more than ever. And after two devastating defeats in a row at the ballot box, they seem to want to do it with a fresh face. Just look at the names being tossed around for the 2016 GOP nomination: Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Susana Martinez, Bobby Jindal, etc. The average age of these guys is 46. Compare that to 2012, when familiar faces like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul were the major GOP contenders. Their average age makes the 2016 crew look like they came straight out of an episode of Glee. No amount of articulation or methodicalness on the part of Jeb can change the fact that Bush is an old name associated with an old political dynasty.

Further hindering a potential Jeb 2016 run is a perception from the Republican base that he is insufficiently conservative; a bit wobbly on issues, especially immigration. In other words, he's a moderate in a conservative party. And the fact that he's quite conservative on a large majority of issues is irrelevant if he is not perceived as such. Consider where Jeb Bush draws the majority of his support. The chart below documents all of the potential GOP candidates' share of moderate/liberal voters in the 4 national 2016 GOP primary polls conducted by Public Policy Polling since last year:

 As you can see, Jeb is most dominant among the moderate/liberal block of GOP primary voters, especially when compared to his overall percentage. He attracts anywhere from 17-24% of this group, while only garnering 8-13% of "very conservative" voters, and 13-19% of "somewhat conservative" voters.

"Wait, wait," some might say, "the GOP just nominated two big squishy moderates: Mitt Romney in 2012, and John McCain in 2008. So what's the problem with being the pick of moderate primary voters?" In a Republican Party that is identifying as increasingly conservative, it could create some real obstacles down the road. As evidence of the trajectory of GOP voters' ideological identification, consider the chart below:

As you can see, the short and simple of it is: the GOP is moving rightward, at least in terms of how the primary electorate views their own ideological leanings. Since 1996 (the year Pat Buchanan gave Bob Dole a run for his money), the number of "very conservative" voters has jumped from 22% to 34%, while the number of moderates/moderates has dropped from 40% to 33%. These are worrisome numbers for a Jeb Bush candidacy if the trend of garnering weak support from conservatives and strong support from moderates/liberals continues.

To illustrate the affect of a decreasing number of moderate/liberal GOP primary voters on Jeb's candidacy, consider the ideological identity findings of the most recent PPP national GOP primary poll. In that survey, 41% of respondents identified themselves as "very conservative," 41% identified as "somewhat conservative," and just 17% identified as moderate/liberal. Under such a scenario, Jeb Bush finds himself in 4th place in a pack of 9 contenders, with 13% support from GOP primary voters, nearly 10 points behind poll leader Marco Rubio.

But what happens to Jeb's numbers in a considerably less conservative environment, such as the 2000 Republican primary electorate? Then, just 21% of voters identified as "very conservative" (down from PPP's 41% finding), and 40% identified as moderate/liberal (down from PPP's 17% finding). See the table below:

If the PPP survey is reweighted to a primary electorate resembling that of the battle between George W. Bush and John McCain, Jeb jumps from 13 to 16%. But more significantly, Marco Rubio falls 4 points to 18%. The more moderate/liberal primary electorate allowed Jeb to leapfrog Paul Ryan and Chris Christie for 2nd place overall. So the good news for Bush is the fact that PPP's ideological findings are quite a bit more conservative than anything we've seen in recent GOP primary history. The bad news is: we're very unlikely to see a 2000-like primary electorate in 2016, or anytime soon.

So does all this mean Jeb should hang it up because he has no chance at the 2016 nomination? Of course not. Weirder things have happened in politics. But in a primary where he's likely competing against  a conservative primary electorate, as well as competing with the likes of Chris Christie for moderates, and Rubio/Ryan/Paul for conservatives, Jeb has his work cut out for him. But who knows? Perhaps Washington Republican's capitulation to the President on the fiscal cliff, immigration, and gun control is just a reflection of their constituents changing values. I just wouldn't bet on that.

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