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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

It's Hard to Run for President When Nobody Likes You: The Jeb Bush Story

If the Jeb! campaign isn't on a respirator yet, it's because the respirator is being pushed down the hallway to its hospital room.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

In the media, we often write the obit before the person dies. It's not as macabre as it sounds. We all know when someone is near the end, and reporters just want to make sure they have a proper tribute ready when that end inevitably comes.

At this point, I think it's fair to starting writing obits for Jeb! Bush's presidential campaign, which is not dead yet but is surely on its way out. I can't predict the exact time of death, but with his polling numbers stubbornly stuck in the single digits and Republican voters looking for outsiders like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, it looks like death is the only avenue available for Jeb's 2016 campaign. His donation stream is slowing to a trickle. Jeb is still insisting that his campaign is not on life support—but if it's not on the respirator yet, that's because the respirator is out in the hallway, being pushed to his room.


If this were actually an obit, I might start it like this: "The Jeb! Bush campaign was the early frontrunner in the 2016 presidential campaign but it was pushed aside by an electorate hungry for an outsider, and a nation uninterested in a third Bush presidency. His campaign lacked focus, and was plagued by a candidate who never earned the "adult in the room" title he tried so hard to create." That might sound a little harsh for an obit, but I can edit it later. The next sentence is easy: "The Jeb! campaign died on [DATE TK] at a hastily-called press conference in Miami. The campaign was surrounded by family and friends but Jeb!'s father and brother, who both served as president, were not present. A cause of death was not given. The campaign was 28 years old."

I say "28 years old" because the Jeb! campaign began, for better and worse, with the election of Poppy Bush back in 1988. Jeb!'s campaign has been made possible by his last name, but that has also been one of its fatal flaws. Like Eddie Murphy's African prince in Coming To America, Jeb! is trying hard to live like a regular dude but failing. He has defined his 2016 bid around the idea that he is his "own man," and not just the scion of the Republican Party's royal family—but of course, his royal blood is why he is in the position to run at all.

The specific cause of death will be financial failure—at some point there won't be enough money to run a campaign that's competitive. But that's like a doctor saying the patient died because his heart stopped. What made his heart stop?


In Jeb!'s case, part of the problem is a sort of political climate change. I'm not talking about the climate change Jeb isn't sure exists, but about the zeitgeist. It's hard to be American political royalty in an election where the Republican base is so fed up with Washington that they've turned to people with no political resumes. And while the right's anger is primarily directed at President Obama, they also rose up in opposition to George W. Bush, whose administration bailed out banks and drove up the deficit. Now Jeb! trails a pair of Tea Party darlings and seems out of place in a party that has moved so far to his right. So in a sense, Jeb! is suffering from the revenge of Republicans who disliked his brother.

READ: Toure on the Struggle to Understand the Rise of Ben Carson

Some people will claim that Jeb!'s campaign failed because Donald Trump sucked up his thunder. But I'm not sure "thunder" is the right word to use when referring to the awkward, somnolent Jeb!. Trump roared and bloviated and sucked up the media's attention—but Jeb! didn't do much to remind people that he was still in the race. He never countered Trump's stranglehold on the race with big ideas or pronouncements compelling enough to take the spotlight back from the reality TV billionaire. Jeb!'s candidacy has had no big, central idea, no great passion for any cause.

What is his campaign really about? Jeb! tried to get us to see him as the adult in the room, but he never really delivered on that. Instead, he's looked small, talking about how good he is at fantasy football. At the most recent GOP debate, Jeb! snatched an opportunity to attack Marco Rubio, his old friend, but it made him look so lilliputian, that was the moment I started writing this obit.


All of this—his ever-shrinking stature, the horrendous historical timing of this campaign, the lack of an intellectual rudder for his candidacy—is now affecting the money. A look at Jeb's fundraising numbers reveal the heart of his campaign slowing down and struggling to beat.

In terms of total money raised, Jeb! remains the runaway leader on the GOP side, with $133 million in donations, according to the New York Times. Ted Cruz, the field's second biggest fundraiser, has raised just half of Jeb's total, with $65 million. Rubio is third with $47 million. But asking about total money raised is kinda like asking how much money someone has made in his lifetime. The more significant question is how much money the candidates have right now. The Cruz campaign tops that list with $13 million, followed by Carson and Rubio with $11 million each. Jeb! comes in fourth, with just $10 million in cash on hand. That means his burn rate is 86 percent—his campaign is going through money faster than Richard Pryor in Brewster's Millions. A campaign with that high of a burn rate and a dwindling donor stream is a campaign sliding toward death.

Part of Jeb's fundraising problem is that he hasn't been able to attract the small donations that have fueled many of his rival campaigns. Eighty percent of the people who have donated to Jeb's campaign gave the maximum $2,700. He's attracted more elite donors than any other candidate, but hasn't been able to make a connection with middle- and working-class voters.


RELATED: Toure Explains Why Donald Trump Will Never Be President

As donations dry up, Jeb's campaign has had to downsize. His team has made deep and wide spending cuts, including shrinking the payroll by 40 percent. The campaign has also started to shift its focus from large fundraisers to town hall-style campaign events, designed to improve the candidate's standing with average voters. But it's probably too little, too late.

At the end of an obituary, there's usually some line or quote that sums up the departed hero. But the Jeb! campaign doesn't deserve that. This was not an heroic effort. It's been effete and pathetic, squandering every possible advantage in terms of money, connections, and household name recognition. That the Jeb! campaign will die an untimely death is, in large part, the fault of Jeb! It may be because the candidate, having watched his father and brother ascend the presidency, felt ordained, or entitled to the same success. But the result was that Goliath was slayed—the Republican royalty has been turned away at the door.

So at the end of the obituary, I'll borrow from another recent tribute, written by the New York Times for former CBS chief John Backe. That obit closed with a quote from a Snoopy statue that stood in Backe's office: "What did I do to deserve all this?" I bet Jeb! is wondering just that.

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