Jeb Bush, who announced Tuesday that he was exploring a White House run, has been compared to Mitt Romney so often over the past week you’d think they were long-lost brothers. After all, both are mainstream candidates supported by the Republican establishment but on thinner ice with the GOP grass roots.
That’s largely true, but it’s far too simplistic. Bush and Romney have problems with different wings of the Republican primary electorate.
Bush’s biggest problem heading into 2016 is likely to be with the tea party. In a December Marist College survey, Bush won 16 percent of Republican primary voters — enough to lead a Romney-less field — but just 8 percent from tea party supporters.
What’s the tea party’s problem with Bush? He’s staked out relatively liberal positions on the Common Core education standards and immigration reform, which leaders of the tea party movement deeply despise. More generally, tea party voters prefer outsiders, and Bush is about as insider-y as it gets, with a brother and father having occupied the Oval Office.
Romney, meanwhile, did relatively well with tea party supporters. In that same Marist poll, he took 21 percent of the vote from supporters of the tea party compared to 19 percent overall. This matches the pattern during the 2012 primary season. In the 20 caucuses or primaries with an entrance or exit poll, Romney’s median performance was 41 percent among tea party supporters compared to 39 percent of the overall vote.
While Romney is viewed as an establishment candidate, his policy positions match up nicely with the tea party. Romney was quite conservative on immigration reform. And while Common Core wasn’t a big issue during the 2012 primary season, Romney came out against it long before it became a hot-button issue for the Republican base. Romney’s father was governor of Michigan and a presidential candidate, but his son does have outsider credentials, having only served as Massachusetts governor for four years and having worked for a long time in the private sector.
Instead, Romney’s biggest problem was — and is — among the social wing of the GOP base, particularly evangelical Christians. Romney’s flip-flop on abortion and mixed messages on same-sex marriage left many evangelical voters distrustful of him (Romney’s Mormon faith may have also played a role). In a December ABC News/Washington Post survey, Romney garnered 13 percent among evangelical Christians compared to 20 percent among Republican primary voters overall. In the 20 entrance and exit polls in 2012, Romney’s median performance among evangelicals was 32 percent, 7 percentage points worse than his overall support.
Bush, though, has the potential to do well among evangelicals. In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, Bush took 20 percent of the vote among evangelicals and only 15 percent overall. When the survey included Romney in the 2016 primary choices, Bush still won 17 percent of evangelicals compared to just 10 percent overall.
Bush, of course, would be following in the footsteps of his brother, George W. Bush, who was beloved by evangelicals and rode them to victory in 2004. Today, evangelical leaders are split on Common Core and immigration, and Jeb Bush has been steadfast in his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, Bush is Catholic and not evangelical, but being Catholic didn’t stop Rick Santorum from winning a median of 36 percent of the evangelical vote in the 2012 primary compared to just 28 percent overall, according to 2012 entrance- and exit-poll states.
So, what does this mean for Bush in 2016? If he were to run (and he hasn’t said for sure that he will), Bush would probably have a different coalition than Romney’s. Bush could perform better in states where evangelicals make up a high percentage of the electorate, including Iowa, while he might not be in strong in states with a big tea party presence and less of a social base, such as Arizona.