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As Campaign Cash Flows to Ben Carson, Jeb Bush Cuts Staff Pay and Operations

GOP establishment candidate Jeb Bush's inability to get his pile of super PAC money to translate into people actively supporting him demonstrates how much this race is different from those of the past.
Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA

As essential as money and experience might seem to mounting a successful campaign for political office, a good supply of both doesn't always guarantee momentum.

Just ask Jeb Bush. His campaign said on Friday that it is cutting pay to staff across the board by 40 percent, severely downsizing its campaign headquarters in Miami, and slashing spending on operations apart from ads and outreach. The announcement is the latest evidence that Bush — the Republican establishment candidate for president who has the most super PAC money of anyone in the race — is struggling to compete with outsider candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson who have long surpassed him in the polls on the strength of grassroots support.


The Bush campaign's decision to drastically cut costs was only one piece of recent bad news. The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll in Iowa released on Friday shows Carson and Trump continuing to hold massive leads over the rest of the GOP field, polling at 28 and 19 percent respectively in favorability amongst Republican caucus-goers. Bush fell to fifth place, with five points. He also came in second, tied with Lindsey Graham, among the candidates that most Republicans want to see drop out of the race altogether.

The fact that Bush is faltering as a presidential candidate might seem odd, considering that all signs had earlier pointed to him being the expected nominee. A considerable factor in his favor was the size of his war chest. His campaign and the super PACs helping to underwrite it have raised more than $125 million so far — a staggering sum. But his inability to make that cash translate into people actively supporting his candidacy demonstrates how much this race is different from those of the past.

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There was an assumption going into this cycle that outside mega-donors would determine the outcome of the election, said Ben Domenech, a prominent Republican commentator and writer. "But just having a handful of millionaires throw a bunch of money into a super PAC has turned out not to be as effective for running a presidential campaign this cycle."


According to federal election laws, a campaign cannot run its actual operations — like paying staff or setting up field operations — with outside super PAC money. You need direct contributions, such as small grassroots donations or larger checks written by wealthy donors, to legally pay for expenses apart from the flashy advertisements paid for by outside organizations.

"Raising those hard dollars is proving harder than expected," said Domenech.

Bush is realizing this the hard way. So did Scott Walker and Rick Perry, who despite being flush with super PAC funds were forced to drop out early in the race because they could not pay their staff.

Carson's unlikely trajectory, on the other hand, illustrates the opposite. Among Republicans, he has raised the most money through small, direct contributions to his campaign, relying predominantly on successful social media efforts to reach out to voters. This appears to be paying off — the former neurosurgeon with zero political experience collected $20.8 million from July through September, leading all other GOP candidates. He also plowed past Trump in Iowa for the first time today, picking up a nine-point lead.

"The truth is, these super PACs can do a lot of things, but they can't run a campaign," said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican strategist and Ronald Reagan's former campaign director.

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Trump has also avoided relying on super PAC money, but the businessman-turned-reality TV star's unprecedented success in the race so far is partly because he is bankrolling himself. Unlike his competitors, Trump's independent wealth means he does not need to rely either on super PAC money or grassroots donations for his campaign — which makes this "obviously a very unusual year," Rollins said.

The unusual nature of the race is also hurting Bush in other ways.

"Let's face it, the guy's a nerd," said Domenech, laughing. "He's a nerd in a field full of people with big personalities."

Adding to Carson and Trump's success, and Bush's downturn, is that having political experience is increasingly seen as a liability in this GOP race rather than a credential. This is the former Florida governor's biggest hurdle, because he has to defend not only his own record but also those of his brother, former President George W. Bush, and his father, former President George H. W. Bush.

It is still more than a year away from election day. If the past couple of months and previous campaign cycles have demonstrated anything, they have established that it is useless to try to predict what might happen next month or even next week. Depending on how the upcoming Republican debate goes, Bush could very well hang on until primary voting begins in January.

Or he might himself joining Rick Perry and Scott Walker on the sidelines if he can't figure out a way to reach voters.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928