Like many younger siblings, Jeb Bush is trying to live up to his brother’s example. Using a similar playbook (such as a focus on raising a ton of money) and a similar message (some form of reform conservatism), Jeb Bush is trying to re-create George W. Bush’s dominating primary campaign in 2000. A look at the numbers suggests, however, that the closest 2016 analog to George W. Bush in 2000 isn’t Jeb — it’s Hillary Clinton.
Lack of competition
George W. Bush, like Clinton, was so formidable in 1999 and 2000 that few top-tier candidates were in the race to challenge him by the time actual voting began. By the Iowa caucus, Bush faced only two Republicans who held elected office at the time (Orrin Hatch and John McCain). Clinton is looking at a field that is similarly less than daunting. Vice President Joe Biden could change that, however, if he enters the fray. Jeb Bush may face eight or more current statewide office holders.
The invisible primary
One reason that George W. Bush didn’t have much competition — and it looks like Clinton won’t — is that he locked up support from the party elite. The candidate who wins the competition for establishment endorsements and support usually wins the nomination. By early 1999, Bush had picked up endorsements from half his fellow Republican governors. In the U.S. Senate, where Clinton formerly represented New York, she has already scored the endorsements of 27 of the 46 Democratic senators (59 percent). Jeb Bush has received considerably fewer endorsements.
An early polling lead
Although early polling in a presidential election cycle isn’t very predictive, Bush at this point in the 2000 season enjoyed big leads — as Clinton does now. Bush led his nearest competitor, Elizabeth Dole, 53 percent to 18 percent in an early March 1999 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Clinton is up 60 percent to 15 percent over Biden in the most recent CNN poll. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, is trailing Mike Huckabee in that CNN survey.
Like George W. Bush’s did in 1999, Clinton’s ideological profile appeals to most of her party. In a March 1999 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 83 percent of Republicans said Bush’s views on the issues were “about right” (rather than “too conservative” or “too liberal”). In a Fox News survey last year, 78 percent of Democrats said Clinton’s stances were about right. Fox found that only 51 percent of Republicans said the same about Jeb Bush.
What made George W. Bush close to invincible, though, is that he combined this ideological fit with electability. Not only does that make party leaders more likely to support a candidate, but it also makes voters more likely to back someone.
Bush led Al Gore by 10 to 15 percentage points in numerous surveys even as a “generic Republican” trailed the “generic Democrat” by 12 percentage points in a January 1999 CNN/Time poll. Now, the generic Democrat and generic Republican are tied in YouGov surveys, yet Clinton holds advantages of 5 to 15 percentage points over possible Republicans, including Jeb Bush.