This weekend, with the first voting in the Republican presidential contest just 100 days away, the Bush universe is gathering in Houston to reboot Jeb’s struggling campaign for the White House. What began with a “shock and awe” bang risks ending in a whimper.
The confab with donors in Houston is probably not how Bush envisioned preparing for the final 100-day sprint to the Iowa Caucuses. Bush began his campaign with the often repeated phrase that he was “his own man,” yet his father and brother, both former Presidents, are assuming a large role reassuring donors this weekend.
The Bush campaign also fed several media outlets with stories about steps it was taking to reign in expenses. The campaign even prepared a memo outlining changes in the campaign and promoting what it calls a strong field organization. The campaign said it was cutting staff at its Miami headquarters, cutting travel expenses and shifting some staff to the early voting states.
While the Bush campaign did its best to portray the campaign restructuring in a positive light, the math behind the moves looks terrible. According to the campaign’s memo, it has just under 40 paid staffers in the first four voting states; Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Yet, the campaign has more than 134 full-time staff.
The campaign may claim it has a strong operation in the early voting states, but with less than 30 percent of its staff deployed there, it isn’t organized that way. In Iowa, for example, the campaign says it has two offices and 10 paid staffers. Even if this is more than other campaigns, it isn’t exactly an order of magnitude larger. By contrast, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders has more than 15 offices and 50 paid staff in the Hawkeye State.
Only now, in fact, with the campaign’s advertised reorganization, is the Bush team building an operation prepared to meet the likely campaign ahead.
The road to the GOP nomination looks likely to be a tight slog through dozens of states between now and early Spring. After the first four states vote, with relatively few delegates at stake, a number of contests in the South, clustered around a March 1 “SEC primary” follows.
After that, big states like Florida and Illinois vote on March 15. Those two states are the first where winner-take-all rules apply to delegates. Prior to March 15, all delegates at stake are awarded proportionally. Florida, where Bush is currently polling fourth, behind Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio, could easily become a last stand for Jeb’s campaign.
The oddest aspect of the Bush campaign memo released late last week is that it reads like the campaign has only just realized that votes begin in just over 3 months. All campaigns ought to have already been shifting staff to early states and pruning unnecessary expenses.
The inconvenient truth for Jeb Bush, however, is that most other campaigns haven’t been spending money at the rate his campaign has. They are organically building their campaigns, not restructuring them. Jeb’s campaign, however, has already spent around $10 million advertising in the early states, far more than all other campaigns combined. His campaign has spent almost $2 million on payroll and another $2 million on consultants.
In New Hampshire, where Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise, has spent millions on advertising, Jeb is third in the polls, but far behind the frontrunners Trump and Carson. In Iowa, Jeb is mired in 5th or 6th place. In South Carolina, which rescued his brother’s campaign against an insurgent John McCain in 2000, Bush is a distant fifth in the polls.
His poll positions aren’t from a lack of trying on Bush’s part. He has kept an aggressive schedule, crisscrossing the country and the early voting states. His campaign has spent almost $1 million on private charter flights so far. Few candidates have spent as much time on the campaign trail as Bush.
This may actually be hurting him. According to a recent ABC/Washinton Post poll, Jeb Bush was the only Republican candidate who lost support as voters learned more about him. His personal favorability ratings are among the lowest of all Republican candidate.
The real trouble for Bush is that his drop in national and state-level polling has come after the impact of his “shock and awe” fundraising was supposed to have been felt. While his Super PAC, Right to Rise, banked an impressive $100 million at his campaign launch, his individual campaign’s fundraising has been unimpressive.
Bush actually begins the critical 4th quarter campaign period, when campaigns make many final decisions about the early voting contests, with the same amount of resources as many of his competitors. The “shock and awe” many expected from his fundraising has long ago worn off.
While his overall revenue itself has been modest, trailing, most recently both Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, the more worrying factor for Bush is his dependence on deep-pocketed donors. In both fundraising cycles, around 80 percent of his donations have come from supporters who have contributed the maximum allowed by the FEC.
Small donors, of which the Bush campaign has precious few, are important for two reasons. One, they can contribute more as the campaign progresses, providing critical support as spending increases. More importantly, though, they signal support from rank-and-file members of the party who provide the overwhelming bulk of the primary votes.
As Bush huddles with his biggest donors and members of his dynastic family, the real work he needs to do lies far beyond Houston. Bush built a national-level Presidential campaign, with staff, consultants, budgets and ambitions for a general election campaign. It looks increasingly likely he won’t get that far, though. His problems aren’t in Houston, but in the precincts and coffee shops where voters live.
He and his advisors built a campaign, but the voters haven’t come. It is unlikely this new campaign will fare any better.