About 12 years ago, Joe Lieberman was a fairly ridiculous Democratic presidential candidate, who was routinely booed in debates, and whose support for a Bush/Cheney-approach to foreign policy put him wildly out of step with the party. The Connecticut senator figured his only credible shot at the nomination would come from a strong showing in New Hampshire.
Lieberman failed miserably, getting about 8% of the vote, and coming in a distant fifth. But the senator was so eager to characterize the results as good news, he came up with one of the funniest attempts at political spin in my lifetime. “Thanks to the people of New Hampshire,” Lieberman told supporters, “we are in a three-way split decision … for third place!”
The anecdote came to mind reading the latest Politico piece on Jeb Bush’s campaign trying to reassure donors that the Florida Republican is still a viable presidential candidate, recent polling notwithstanding. In New Hampshire, campaign backers are arguing, “there’s a five- to six-candidate tie for second place ‘and we are right in the mix,’ one campaign adviser said.”
Broadly speaking, Plan A for members of Team Jeb was making their candidate look great. Nearly $30 million later, this strategy has clearly come up short. Plan B was making Donald Trump look awful, and that hasn’t gone well, either. But the Politico piece hints at a possible Plan C.
Mike Murphy, the Los Angeles-based ad man running Bush’s Right to Rise super PAC, isn’t about to leave the $75 million left in the group’s bank account unspent and is readying a 15-minute biographical film about Bush.According to another source close to Right to Rise, Murphy has been floating another tactical shift to potential supporters, suggesting that he might spend the bulk of the $75 million to carpet bomb Rubio, Cruz, Carson, Chris Christie – everyone but Trump. The thinking: Making the race into a binary choice between Bush and Trump might be the only way a majority of primary voters go with Bush.
Sure, this may sound like a desperate, outlandish gambit, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily crazy.
Though there’s still plenty of time, Donald Trump’s position atop Republican polls remains quite strong. If Bush and his team had any idea how to weaken the frontrunner, they would have done it by now.
But Team Jeb also realizes much of the party establishment hates Trump and wants to prevent him from winning the nomination. The status quo – a crowded Republican field – very likely benefits the New York developer, since it dilutes the anti-Trump vote, splitting it in several directions.
It’s therefore hard to blame Bush’s super PAC, which is flush with cash, from looking for ways to create the head-to-head dynamic that might work to the former governor’s advantage. Bush’s odds of success are obviously dwindling, but if the party en masse were forced to choose between Trump and Jeb, the latter would probably be pretty competitive.
So, the thinking goes, Team Jeb could spend $75 million trying to get Republican voters to fall in love with Bush (an unlikely scenario), or use that money to tear down Trump (a fool’s gambit), but why bother? It’d probably be easier to devote the resources to bringing down the other candidates between Trump and Bush.
Why not go after just Cruz or just Rubio or just Carson? Because it’s difficult to say for sure where their supporters would go under such a scenario. The result is a bit like a mafia movie in which the don targets all the rival families at once, since anything less would lead to chaotic failure.
For the record, I’m skeptical the $75 million “carpet-bombing” strategy would work – at least in part because it would prompt Bush’s rivals to stop ignoring him and start attacking him – but given the state of the race, I’m not sure what more he and his team have to lose by thinking outside the box.
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Team Jeb considers a more radical Plan C