Saturday, January 2, 2016

Jeb's Hail Mary

There was a time when Jeb Bush was regarded as the Republican Party's front–runner for the 2016 nomination — a prospect that elicited groans across the political spectrum. No one, it seemed, relished the idea of another Bush–Clinton campaign — even though, to be old enough merely to remember the first one, never mind the issues of the campaign, I imagine one would have to be at least 30 years old.

Nor, for that matter, did many people seem to be enthusiastic about the prospect of a third Bush presidency.

But that was before Donald Trump came along, seized the lead and held on to it for months, defying gravity in a political environment that has long been accustomed to seeing a front–runner of the week in races for the Republican nomination.

Meanwhile Jeb has been sinking like a stone in a pond. The former front–runner has been mired in single digits in the polls for weeks now.

I continue to believe, as I always have, that polls conducted in the early stages of presidential nominating contests mean little. I have seen too many front–runners falter. Most of the time, the front–runner winds up winning ... but not always. That is why early polls mean little to me. They're usually about name recognition and little else (which makes it telling, I suppose, that so many Democrats choose someone other than Hillary Clinton, who was first lady for eight years, senator for another eight and secretary of state for four, or continue to say they are undecided when asked their preference in 2016).

It's what people do when they are in the privacy of the voting booth that matters.

So I prefer to wait until people actually start voting before I begin the process of deciding for whom I will vote. And, being an independent, I don't tend to vote in primaries, anyway. So I can wait until the parties have made their decisions before I choose a candidate to support — if I do.

But I'm in the minority on that one, I suppose. It never fails to amaze me — the faith that people place in polls conducted more than a year before an election is to be held and how so many things — chiefly financial and popular support — ride on something that can be as imprecise as public opinion polling.

Bush's latest move should come as no surprise. He is redeploying his resources away from ad buys and boots on the ground in Iowa and South Carolina and focusing on New Hampshire (where recent polls conducted by American Research Group and CBS News/YouGov show Bush in single digits) and some other early primaries.

(That's another thing about presidential politics that I have always found troubling — how something as important as a major party's nomination for the presidency of the greatest nation on earth can hinge on the electoral whims of the voters in a state — New Hampshire — with a total population that is only slightly larger and much less diverse than the city in which I live — Dallas. But that is another subject for another day.)

Bush's decision is a desperation move. You can call it that, or you can use other names for it — a "Hail Mary" or a by–the–seat–of–your–pants strategy. Whatever you call it, the Bush campaign is struggling and needs something to give it some juice. That will be easier said than done.

"The decision will keep Bush from paying for roughly $3 million of reserved TV time in January," explains Ed O'Keefe in the Washington Post, "a little more than $1 million in Iowa, just under $2 million in South Carolina."

See? It's a dollars–and–cents thing, pure and simple.

But South Carolina will be the second primary on the Republican calendar. New Hampshire votes in its first–in–the–nation primary on Feb. 9 a week after the caucuses in Iowa (where a Gravis Marketing poll shows Bush with only 4%); South Carolina (where the most recent CBS News/YouGov poll has Bush at 7%, far behind Trump and Ted Cruz) votes two weeks later. I presume that, if Bush rallies and wins in New Hampshire, he will re–redeploy resources to South Carolina.

That is the essence of the "Hail Mary" strategy. You do it, and, if it succeeds, you will probably have to do it again — and perhaps again. Football teams that have to go to the "Hail Mary" often need to make up more than one score. The romanticized vision of the "Hail Mary" is a single long pass, like the one Roger Staubach threw in the playoffs 40 years ago, but the realistic one is that it is more like the "domino theory" of presidential politics

That will be Bush's last chance to establish some momentum before the March 1 "Super Tuesday" primaries in 10 states — Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. That is the big day, and my guess is that several campaigns will come to an end within days of Super Tuesday — unless each state votes for someone different, and that doesn't seem likely to happen.

But that suggests faith that the polls are right, and they may not be. They may be overstating Donald Trump's support (which may be made apparent as we move into the post–holiday phase when, per the conventional wisdom, voters start paying closer attention to the candidates), or they may be, as I wrote recently, understating it.

Even if Bush survives until Super Tuesday, he has other problems that he has to hope stronger–than–expected showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina will help to resolve. Polls in Super Tuesday states don't have good news for the Bush campaign — if they voted today. In Massachusetts, a Boston Globe/Suffolk poll has Bush in fourth place with 7%, 25 points behind Trump. In Oklahoma, the most recent Sooner Poll has Bush at 2%.

There are, of course, still three states that have not chosen dates for their primaries — Maine, North Dakota and Wyoming — but even if they schedule their primaries on one of the other days when multiple primaries will be held, there still will be no other day when as many states vote as Super Tuesday.

That will be the real Hail Mary for those who win — as well as those who survive — in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

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