Jeb Bush is in danger of losing his base. The Washington Post, citing “numerous senior GOP fundraisers,” reports that Bush’s top donors have warned him that he “needs to demonstrate growth in the polls over the next month or face serious defections among supporters.”
That, to put it mildly, represents a serious problem for the one-time Republican front-runner. Every candidate needs money to keep the lights on, of course, but Bush’s fundraising prowess has afforded him top-tier status in the national conversation even as he’s repeatedly stumbled on the campaign trail and slipped in the polls. Given the massive war chest Bush has amassed, the former Florida governor can afford to lose the money coming from a few donors, but news of mass defections would eliminate what has been a rare symbolic strength in an otherwise lackluster campaign. If his family’s vast network of the rich and richer stops cutting big-dollar checks, Bush starts to look like any other establishment candidate in the race.
During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Jeb continued to downplay his campaign’s struggles and shrug off national polls as little more than a media obsession. “These polls don’t really matter,” he said, suggesting that he’s still well positioned to win in New Hampshire next year despite currently sitting in fifth in the Republican polls there. “We’ve got a great ground game in these early states,” he said.
His donors, though, have now made it clear that they are unwilling to wait that long to start seeing a return on their investment. And with more than four months until the first GOP nominating contest, polls are the only way for Jeb to put his backers’ minds at ease.
That is easier said than done. For starters, there’s the obvious: If boosting his standing in the polls was as easy as putting his mind to it, he’d have done it by now. But making matters more difficult is that Bush will need to sail into anti-establishment headwinds that will only grow stronger in the near term as congressional Republicans continue to threaten a government shutdown as part of the fight over Planned Parenthood funding.
It’s also unclear where exactly Bush can pick up a few polling points. Donald Trump may look weaker today than he has in months, but it’s hard to imagine his supporters switching their allegiance from a tough-talking nonpolitician to a soft-spoken presidential scion. Meanwhile, Bush will face even more competition for the national spotlight than normal. Carly Fiorina is still having her post-debate moment, Marco Rubio is starting to have one of his own, and this week’s congressional fight sets up Ted Cruz particularly well to thrust himself into the middle of the political conversation.
Bush, then, must find a way to turn himself into a different type of candidate, and to do it quickly. If he doesn’t, his deep-pocketed benefactors might just transform him themselves: into a noncandidate.