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Should Jeb Bush Be Freaking Out Right Now?

It’s time again for our weekly 2016 election Slack chat, in which FiveThirtyEight’s political team debates the latest developments. As always, the transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): So, is Jeb! toast? There’s been a spate of articles recently suggesting he should be panicking right now. And he’s at a low ebb in national polls:


hjenten (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Why should he panic? The leader in the polls is Donald Trump (though trends indicate that he may not be for much longer). A man who basically spent no money on his campaign. A man whose favorable ratings are dropping. Second is Ben Carson and third is Carly Fiorina — neither have ever held elected office. Bush has the most money, the most endorsements … so NO, I wouldn’t panic.

micah: I mean, he’s leading in endorsements, but only a small share of GOP bigwigs have endorsed anyone — those don’t mean much yet, right?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Bush shouldn’t panic, but he should worry. Most of those endorsements came early in the race. He hasn’t received any in the past couple weeks, whereas Marco Rubio has received three. That’s not that many — but at the very least we can say the establishment is not rallying around Bush.

hjenten: Yes, I think it would be fair to say that Bush isn’t winning. I’m not sure it is fair to say that he is losing.

micah: He’s … existing.

natesilver: Gut-check: What are Bush’s chances of winning the nomination?

hjenten: 25 percent.

natesilver: OK, I’m about in the same ballpark as you, Harry. Predictwise has him slightly higher, at 30 percent.

hjenten: Yes, but note: Our 25 percent for Bush is down a little — despite Walker leaving the race.

natesilver: I’d put Rubio ahead of Bush instead of the other way around.

micah: Harry, would you put Rubio above Jeb too?

hjenten: I’d put them even. Look, Rubio is hot right now, but let’s see where he is in a month or two.

micah: So why would you put Rubio ahead, Nate?

natesilver: For one thing, I think he’s a better fit for the party ideologically. Maybe not perfect, but he’s pretty close to being “just right” in terms of being pretty damn conservative without being “extremely” conservative. Whereas Bush is genuinely moderate, in some respects.

For another, Rubio gives Republicans a fresher look and is less blatantly part of the same old, tired establishment. I think the “Republicans are in the mood for an outsider!” meme is slightly overstated for various reasons. Most notably that those insider/outsider numbers seem to have moved as a result of Trump and Carson’s surge, rather than preceding it.

But still.

It’s a long way to go from Trump/Carson/Fiorina and wind up all the way at Bush, who is about the most unapologetically, capital-e Establishment candidate of all time. Rubio has less distance to bridge.

hjenten: The question with Rubio is, can he take it when the spotlight is on him? Remember, he came out smoking after he won his Senate seat in 2010, then the immigration thing happened, he got a ton of media attention and fell back. Where will he be after the press attention comes upon him this time?

Also, Bush is just starting to use that war chest. He’s got lots of money. That’s not an awful position to be in.

natesilver: Yeah, Rubio hasn’t really been through a cycle of intense scrutiny yet. And he’s due for one soon.

micah: So we began this chat talking about Jeb’s chances and quickly moved to Rubio’s chances — why?

hjenten: Because they are the two most plausible candidates at the moment IMHO.

natesilver: Yeah, especially with Walker out of the race, there aren’t all that many plausible “party decides” choices. It’s just Bush, Rubio and probably Kasich.

micah: So you’re expecting whoever wins among those three to be the nominee?

hjenten: There are other candidates who can win, but I think in most universes, it’s one of those.

natesilver: I’d say team BRK (Bush-Rubio-Kasich) collectively have a 70-75 percent chance or so. Divide the remaining 25 percent between some long-shot establishment-ish options (Bobby Jindal?!? Chris Christie?!?!? Romney?!?!?!?!?) and an insurgent winning.

hjenten: Don’t dismiss Ted Cruz; I’d give him a 5 percent chance or so right now. But otherwise, yes, I agree.

micah: Maybe in the abstract Jeb shouldn’t panic right now, but couldn’t even premature panic become a self-fulfilling prophecy? The Washington Post reported that Bush donors are giving the campaign a month to show some signs of life in the polls “or face serious defections among supporters.”

natesilver: Yeah, that was an interesting story. And there are reasons to believe it and disbelieve it.

In the disbelief camp: It seems like money is unlikely to be the foremost problem for Bush. And the story was based almost entirely on anonymous sourcing.

In the belief camp: It’s a Washington Post story and, IMO, the Post has a better ratio of actual reporting to unfounded gossip/narrative-setting crap than a lot of outlets. Also, there’s some confirmation of that Post story in Bush’s lack of endorsements lately, and his sluggishness in the polls.

hjenten: Okay, here’s the thing: Bush is now advertising on TV heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire. If his numbers aren’t moving after a month, then why would they move in three months? After a while, you reach a saturation point. So the story doesn’t seem ridiculous to me.

micah: But Harry, maybe Jeb won’t see much growth in a month, while other candidates in his “lane” are still pulling support (i.e. Rubio, Kasich, etc.), but who’s to say Rubio won’t flame out in a few weeks? Same with Kasich?

hjenten: That’s a rather interesting point, Micah. I think that’s part of the reason using a wait-and-see approach isn’t the worst idea at this point. It’s October.

micah: Right, maybe we should call Jeb’s donors and tell them to calm down.

natesilver: Let me flip the script a bit. Why should Republicans choose Bush? He’s not particularly conservative. But usually the more moderate candidates are at least more electable, and it’s less clear that’s true for Bush.

His favorability ratings with the general electorate remain pretty poor. Yes, it’s early, and that can and will change — but he doesn’t have the sort of head-to-head numbers against Clinton or Biden that would allow him to brag to donors.

And if there’s any tinge of anti-establishment sentiment in the electorate, that could outweigh whatever advantage Bush has by being slightly closer to the center than Rubio.

hjenten: You’re assuming a number of things, though: First, that general election polls right now mean something. There were points in the 2012 cycle when Romney polled weaker against Obama than Rick Santorum. I doubt most would say Santorum was ever more electable than Romney.

natesilver: But Bush’s numbers have been middling for a long time, despite high name recognition.

hjenten: Second, that Bush is polling all that poorly against Clinton. He seems to be doing better than most of the other GOP candidates.

natesilver: He’s doing worse than Carson!

hjenten: And better than the rest!

And three, can most people pick out Jeb vs. George?

micah: Yeah, I wonder how much in these early polls respondents see “Bush” and think “George.”

natesilver: That’s possible, although George W. Bush’s favorables aren’t so terrible right now. A little bit of a post-presidency halo.

Look, I emphatically agree that the general election numbers aren’t very meaningful right now. I give slightly more weight to Bush’s numbers because they’ve been mediocre for a long time, instead of as the result of a rough patch of negative news coverage, etc. But I wouldn’t put all that much emphasis on it.

Still, Rubio can claim that he provides a better contrast to Clinton. He can claim that he’ll help Republicans with Hispanics. (Which is a claim we probably ought to scrutinize at some point, but it’s not a ridiculous argument.) And he’s almost certainly more conservative. If electability is a draw, Rubio wins, no?

Podcast: Harry Enten, Micah Cohen and Nate Silver talk election 2016

Recorded as part of Advertising Week 2015. Download in iTunes. Find all the FiveThirtyEight podcasts here.

hjenten: I think you’re talking about two things here: 1. Should Bush panic? 2. Is Rubio better than Bush?

micah: Doesn’t the answer to #2 inform the answer to #1?

natesilver: Here’s what I’m saying: Bush isn’t winning now, as we’ve agreed.

So the notion that he’ll win eventually is based on some sort of reversion to the fundamentals. But I think the “fundamentals” — what we’ve learned from patterns in past campaigns — are more favorable to Rubio than Bush.

micah: But it’s not necessarily true that Bush winning requires a reversion to the fundamentals. As we’ve said, Rubio hasn’t been in this kind of spotlight before — he could blow it, even if he’s a better fit on paper for the GOP (see Walker, Scott).

natesilver: Sure. Which is why I still give Bush a 25 percent chance. If a) This Time Isn’t So Different After All and b) Rubio isn’t ready for prime time or peaks too soon, then Bush has a pretty good chance. It’s a plausible story.

However, what stories like the Post’s tell us, along with the sluggishness in endorsements, is that he’s not necessarily the GOP’s default choice any more. It seemed like there was a chance this spring that he might win the campaign on the basis of inertia alone, and that seems less likely now.

hjenten: I don’t think he was ever the “default” choice. I’m not sure why people thought that. When he didn’t get a ton of endorsements out of the gate, it was fairly clear (to me anyway) that he wasn’t the default choice. Indeed, if you go back and look at the articles we wrote in the spring, you see that. We were always high on Rubio.

So to me, what we’ve seen so far from Bush and Rubio isn’t surprising at all.

The questions that remain unanswered are:

  1. Can Rubio withstand the spotlight?
  2. Is Rubio too conservative to win the nomination? (By our three-pronged metric he would be more conservative than any Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater.)
  3. How much of an advantage does Bush’s money give him?
  4. And, lastly, does Bush begin to look more attractive to party officials as people tune in?

IDK the answers to these questions.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.