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Jeb Bush Has as Good a Shot as Anybody

Earlier this week, Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith wrote a piece about the presidential prospects of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been receiving more media attention since the dimming of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s star. Smith put it concisely — “Jeb Bush is a terrible candidate” — and argued that Bush is out of touch with the Republican base on such issues as education policy and immigration reform (although polling paints a muddy picture of how the majority of Republicans feel about immigration). He also compared Bush with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who flailed in his 2012 presidential run.

There’s no data set I know of that can predict with any reasonable confidence whether Bush is going to run or not. And if he does, Smith may end up being correct. Bush hasn’t run for office since 2002. He could be rusty or make too many statements out of line with the Republican mainstream, as Huntsman did.

Bush does have more going for him than Huntsman ever did. Besides not having worked for President Obama, Bush has more establishment support, a more conservative record and is affiliated with a brand that Republicans have voted for and still like. In a divided field, that means he has as good a chance as any Republican of winning the party’s nomination.

The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, who are well sourced among Republican insiders, wrote that the GOP “establishment” is encouraging Bush to run. Leaders in the financial sector and evangelical community have been doing the same. One of Rucker and Costa’s sources said that the “vast majority” of 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s top donors would back Bush in a competitive nomination.

In the GOP, establishment support has usually foretold who will win the party’s nod. When a Republican candidate has won the majority of endorsements from GOP public officials, he has also won the nomination, as discussed in the book “The Party Decides.” Romney, for instance, took the most endorsements in 2012.

It may be true, as Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz pointed out, that the tea party is the “most politically active segment of the GOP electoral base.” But since Barry Goldwater took the Republican nomination in 1964, politicians who have challenged the establishment candidate from the right have always lost: Rick Santorum in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Pat Buchanan in 1996 are some examples; Ronald Reagan won the nomination in 1980 after gathering establishment support, but not in 1976 when he challenged Gerald Ford.

Bush’s overall policy positions look like those of previous GOP nominees over the past 50 years. In an analysis of different ideological rating systems by FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver, Bush’s ideology was similar on a left-right scale to Romney’s and John McCain’s.

Voters who support less extreme candidates can still swing Republican nominations, according to Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group. (Just ask Romney and McCain.) And even very conservative Republicans are concerned about winning the White House: The ability to defeat Obama was the No. 1 most important quality for a candidate in 2012. The GOP insiders that Rucker and Costa cite have deemed Bush an electable candidate (for now).

2016 could be different if the tea party has its way. But — as “The Party Decides” found — the longer a party has been out of the White House, the more it tends to nominate more moderate candidates. That’s not to say that potential nominees won’t try to placate the tea party, or religious conservatives like those who voted for Santorum. But such groups’ influence could be lessened as Republicans contemplate 12 or 16 years without one of their own in the White House.

Bush’s familiar last name should help as well. Every Republican nominee since 1968 has satisfied one of three criteria: He’s had a family member who’d won the presidency; he’s been on a winning presidential ticket himself; or he’s come in second in a prior nomination season. These are admittedly broad criteria, but Republicans haven’t nominated relative unknowns, unlike Democrats with their Mike Dukakises and Jimmy Carters.

Of course, the Bush brand was damaged by Jeb’s brother George. Even so, George W. Bush has averaged a favorable rating in the mid-80s among Republicans. That’s only about 5 percentage points lower than Bill Clinton’s among Democrats.

Any analysis of primary politics is going to have a large amount of uncertainty, since primaries have decided presidential nominations only since 1976. That’s especially the case now, when we’re almost two years away from the first primary. There’s still no front-runner for 2016 — but Bush is a good candidate, not a terrible one.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.