Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once considered the Republican Party's most likely presidential nominee, is ending his campaign after a dismal showing in South Carolina's primary. "The people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision, so tonight I am suspending my campaign," he told backers in the Palmetto State.
Feb. 21, 201604:59
The former Florida governor almost certainly meant it at the time. Bush didn't expect to do well in Iowa, but he saw New Hampshire and South Carolina as states that would propel him to the nomination. The Palmetto State, in particular, had been very kind to his family -- neither George H.W. Bush nor George W. Bush ever lost an election in the state -- and Jeb liked his chances.
But yesterday proved what a year of campaigning had already made abundantly clear: Republican voters simply weren't buying what Jeb Bush was selling.
Bush finished a distant fourth last night -- narrowly escaping fifth -- which came on the heels of a fourth-place finish in New Hampshire and a sixth-place finish in Iowa.
The last time the Republican Party won a presidential election without a Bush or a Nixon on the ticket? 1928. This year, they're going to try to break the streak -- unless Jeb somehow ends up as the nominee's running mate, which seems extremely unlikely.
And speaking of history, the Floridian has earned an ignominious place in American electoral history. Never before has a candidate raised such an extraordinary amount of money, only to fail spectacularly. We've seen former frontrunners stumble, but we've never seen anything quite like Jeb Bush's rise and fall.
Remember, Bush had a game plan that seemed sensible: he'd launch his exploratory committee early, position himself as the frontrunner, lock up the party's biggest donors, and rely on a "shock and awe" perception to keep competitive rivals out of the GOP race. Since the candidate favored by party insiders and the Republican establishment always seems to end up as the nominee, Jeb had reason to be optimistic.
But only part of the gambit worked. Bush did, in fact, raise an incredible amount of money, but competitors entered the race anyway, and his stacks of cash proved to be inconsequential: the more Team Bush invested, the worse the candidate fared.
There wasn't a single moment that doomed Jeb's candidacy, though his week-long struggle with a question about whether the war in Iraq was a good idea still stands out as a turning point in the race. What's more, he didn't falter as a result of a scandal or humiliating gaffe.
Bush's problem was more fundamental. He was the wrong candidate with the wrong message at the wrong time. He had strengths -- a conservative record, a family pedigree, a willingness to talk about public policy in a half-way serious way -- which just happened to be the exact opposite of what Republican primary voters were looking for in 2016. Bush, who hasn't run a successful campaign since 2002, at times seemed surprised to discover a GOP electorate he hardly recognized.
Back in early December 2014, Bush made a striking observation: he conceded that his party's presidential nominee would have to be willing to "lose the primary to win the general." He added at the time, "It's not an easy task, to be honest with you."
Nearly 15 months later, we know -- and now he knows -- just how difficult that task can be. Bush generally stuck to the belief he articulated at the time, and it cost him dearly.
This morning, I dug up the post I published on the day Jeb formally kicked off his campaign, and I noted at the time that, as a result of his last name, Bush would face a natural, unavoidable resistance, which he could only overcome by being an exceptional candidate.
But there was simply nothing exceptional about his candidacy. He was a clumsy and underwhelming campaigner, with poor instincts, and lackluster debating skills, who seemed wholly unprepared -- not only for Donald Trump's bullying, but also for the national spotlight.
Quitting must have been difficult, but it was a merciful end to an epic failure.