Mike Murphy, head of Jeb Bush’s Super-PAC “Right to Rise USA,” had an interesting interview with Bloomberg Politics, published in two parts on Tuesday and Wednesday. Murphy is totally committed to the narrative that Bush – who was once presented as the inevitable frontrunner who would demolish all opposition with a “shock and awe” campaign launch – is still the heavyweight champ-in-waiting, merely biding his time while Donald Trump keeps primary voters entertained through the holiday season.
His faith in Bush’s ability to slowly and steadily build support and win a hare-vs.-tortoise race remains unshaken.
The Murphy interview is said to have been conducted “earlier this month,” so his analysis of the race is probably missing a few recent developments. In broad strokes, he dismissed Trump as a “false zombie front-runner” who is “dead politically,” “totally unelectable,” and will “never be President of the United States, ever.” He faulted Trump for devouring media oxygen that better candidates could have used, mentioning Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as one of the asphyxiation victims.
He’s serenely confident Bush would crush Trump in a two-man home-stretch, but thinks Trump’s support will eventually disperse or slip into the hands of a more electable contender, probably Senator Ted Cruz.
Murphy was sharply critical of the poll-driven media culture driving Trump’s candidacy.
One can readily imagine Trump’s response: “Yeah, that’s easy for you to say when your guy is at 7 percent, and I’m at 33!” Nevertheless, Murphy’s prediction for how state-by-state voting will begin shifting the poll numbers once it gets under way is interesting, although as Bloomberg Politics interviewer Sasha Issenberg points out, it’s a bit of a stretch to suppose Bush could get clobbered in all of the early states – and weather the accompanying “Jeb is toast” media ice storm – but come back halfway through the primary voting to become the surprise winner.
Murphy’s most intriguing critique of polling culture comes early in the interview, when he compares the early stages of the primary to casino gambling:
Well, no, I think our supporters are on board and actually excited about it. What I find is we’re in this funny casino of the pre-season now where the complete sum of pundit knowledge in this race, with a few rare exceptions, is based on national polling that in my view is completely meaningless. Every debate, for a week I hear, “This is the most important debate of the campaign,” until the next debate. And there are going to be 11 of them. Every poll is the most important, everything is do-or-die. And while that hyperventilating analysis has some impact in the donor world—witness the Walker campaign—our strategy is to actually peak on the voter’s timetable. And so we always make sure we want to get our theory of the race out there so people understand how we see it. We don’t even do national polling, we’ve done one national poll in our whole history here. We think it’s a total waste.
That’s the critique of poll-driven news in a nutshell: it magnifies the importance of transitory events, undermining slow-but-steady political strategies to favor whichever candidate can grab the headlines, as few have done with more gusto than Trump.
Later in the interview, Murphy concedes the enormous narrative-shaping power of the polls, saying “nothing changes like momentum from polling”:
I often joke that if I ever had the horrible, malicious job of being Head of the PRC’s Intelligence Service and they said, “All right, here’s $20 billion, screw around with the U.S,” one of the first things I’d go do is bribe media pollsters. because you totally control the thinking of the D.C. press corps based on polls. Right now, if four polls had come out saying Trump at seven and Jeb at 29, all the media commentary—without either guy changing a thing they’re doing—would be the exact opposite.Well, Jeb’s low-key style is clearly resonating with voters, it’s exactly what people are looking for, I can just hear it now. Well, Trump’s bombastic style clearly has backfired, we could see…And by the way, the same people would be totally comfortable completely switching their opinions in a minute because most of them are lemmings to these, in my view, completely meaningless national polls. Because there’s no test to be a pundit. You know, it’s not a certified business.
It’s not a very good sign when a political technician dismisses his own primary voters as “lemmings.” The underlying dynamic of this primary is grassroots Republican voters expressing their dissatisfaction with an elite that views them with contempt. Confirmation that the GOP Establishment does indeed hold this mindset won’t improve the fortunes of its candidates.
Trump, Ben Carson, and other outsider candidates did not conjure the wave of discontent they are riding on. Their success is as much a reflection of popular mood as a testament to their early-stage campaign prowess. This is the same Donald Trump who went nowhere in the 2012 primary. The Republican electorate is what changed.
Dark suspicions about poll manipulation are a perennial element of political analysis, but as a matter of fact, the People’s Republic of China is not spending $20 billion to manufacture Trump’s poll dominance. It should be possible to contend with the outsize influence of polls without dismissing them as “completely meaningless.” That seems like a serious strategic error, and it’s one Republican campaigns have made before.
As Murphy concedes, polling does matter, in very concrete ways.
How else could the participants in presidential debates be selected? How else would early donors know where to place their bets? Perhaps debate participation could be determined by choosing the candidates who pulled in the most small donations from individual donors, instead of those notoriously fickle, small-sample, “registered voter” polls. Would such a procedure have significantly changed the roster on the stage at the first Republican debates… and without such high-profile events, how could small donors decide which candidate they wanted to support?
Criticism of polling is really a subset of criticism about America’s very long political campaigns, which is an intriguing subject, but there seems to be little enthusiasm among the political class for making them shorter. Without the warm-up polling horse race and jockeying for early-state positions, we would probably be left with very little national political news until the last weeks before the first votes… and it’s a safe bet most of that news would be bad. On the Republican side, nothing would capture political coverage for candidates in a poll-free world like a self-destructing gaffe, or something that could be made to sound like a gaffe.
The media uses polls to shape narratives, yes… but those polls are also the only way for Republican voters to shape the media narrative in turn. Thus far, they have not shaped it to Jeb Bush’s liking. One would not have expected the candidate noted for his connections, immense war chest, and famous presidential family name to be running a submarine campaign, designed to surface at just the right moment, halfway through the primary voting.