The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Is Jeb Bush’s Campaign Dying, or Just Getting Ready to Begin?

Jeb Bush's supporters are holding onto hope that the rest of the Republican Party is about to realize that the scion of the old-guard GOP is the best man for the job. Is there any chance they're right?

by John Surico
Feb 8 2016, 6:20am

Jeb Bush at a town hall meeting in Salem, New Hampshire. All photos by Jason Bergman

It's 11 AM on Saturday morning in Bedford, New Hampshire, and Jeb Bush's staff has a problem: A police officer is saying that that McKelvie Intermediate School has reached its maximum occupancy.

Hundreds of people—many wearing Bush '88 hats and W pins, the merch of a dynasty—have squeezed into the school's auditorium to see the latest Bush to seek the presidency speak. Other supporters are stuck outside, cheering the former Florida governor's "Safer, Stronger, Freer America" bus as it rolled in. While Bush takes selfies with the stragglers, Tom Ridge appears onstage inside.

Ridge is an old-guard Bushite: He worked alongside, and campaigned for, George H.W. when he was a congressman, and was Dubya's first Homeland Security chief. He's a military man—an infantry sergeant in Vietnam—and projects the kind of seriousness you don't get from, say, a talk radio host. "I would go to sleep safe tonight," he sternly tells the town hall crowd, "knowing that Jeb is president tomorrow."

A few minutes later, he pauses to introduce the third Bush to run for the White House: "George... er, I mean Jeb... Bush!"

These aren't great times to be a Bush running for president. The New Hampshire primary looms on Tuesday, and he's still only around 10 percent in most polls. Before the campaign started Jeb was the frontrunner thanks to an influx of cash from donors, but after a series of negative news stories, ugly debate performances, and a disastrous defeat in Iowa, he turned into a punchline. The nadir, probably, was when he was filmed telling a crowd to "please clap" after an applause line. It might have been a joke, but it's not a great joke for a struggling candidate to make. If he finishes fourth or fifth on Tuesday, it'll be humiliating, and probably a sign that he should drop out.

But Jeb Bush's race was never just about Jeb. His father and brother both won the White House as "compassionate conservatives," Republicans who espoused right-wing views without being all fire-and-brimstone about it. Today's GOP base seems to want a bit of brimstone, to judge by the ascendant candidacies of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Similarly, Jeb's credentials as a former governor and the scion of what is essentially an American noble family might once have attracted Republican voters who value that sort of thing—but now the worst thing you can be, other than a Democrat, is a member of the Republican Establishment. If he loses, it will demonstrate pretty conclusively that the old GOP that followed the Bush banner is dead. What the new GOP will look like, at this point, is a much murkier question.

On Saturday afternoon, that sort of talk seemed far, far away. With his wife, Columba, and two sons, George P. and Jeb Jr., looking on, Bush breezed through softball questions from residents. He sounded and seemed much more confident than he has on the debate stages, where he had been repeatedly—well, there's no nice way to put this—bullied by Trump. His responses in Bedford, especially on education and veteran care, were eloquent and boisterous, as he landed every punchline, leading to big applause. This was the candidate he was supposed to be when he announced all those months ago.

Alexander Maal, 23, was one of the rare young Bush supporters in the crowd. He and several other voters I spoke with were sure a Bush resurgence was secretly in the works and that the media would soon catch on to it.

"Trump got the headlines at first, so the media had to sell it," he told me. "But it's about to die down. Any serious voter knows that it has to be someone who will put in the due diligence." Maal added he personally didn't know anyone who supported Trump, and that die-hard Trump voters were a very small subset of the state's population.

Admittedly, to buy the idea of a Bush comeback you have to believe that the New Hampshire polls, like those preceding the Iowa caucuses, are way off. But this is always the dream of struggling campaigns: the breakthrough moment, the surge of unexpected support, the realignment of donors who want to bet on a winner. It's been going the other way for Bush for so long things have to change, right?

A young Bush supporter in Salem

The Bush campaign recently handed out pamphlets that read "Jeb on the Rise" and pointed to a new poll showing that he had drawn even with his non-Trump rivals in the state. And on Saturday night Bush had a notably strong debate, getting into an exchange with Trump over eminent domain that ended with Trump saying that the audience was full of establishment donors to loud boos. Of course, the headlines weren't about that—they focused on Marco Rubio's bizarre, repetitive, talking-point-heavy performance—but it was a start.

The next morning, Bush strolled into yet another public school for yet another town hall. This time, there were fewer people and less of a press presence; when there was chatter about the debate, it was mostly about Rubio. Still, he went through his usual performance, saying that student debt was so bad we should start talking about "six-year degrees" and handing out moose figurines to showcase how climate change is affecting the environment.

After Jeb jetted off to another town hall, Patrick Durkin, a 59-year-old Jeb field operative, looked on as the seats in the cafeteria, were quickly removed. He had stumped for Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. in the past, and held on to hope for a third round. "I think families like them, who dedicate themselves to political life, know what they're doing," he told me. "These are volatile times, and you need someone smart and steady."

The media, he said, had treated Jeb's candidacy "quite well," but unforeseen x factors (read: Trump) had disrupted the process. "It was a easy shot early on," he said, "To pit them against one another. But now, I think voters will get serious." New Hampshire, he added, "was the Super Bowl of politics."

Over the next 48 hours, Durkin said, he would knock on doors and call voters to make sure they got out for Bush. He didn't want to name his second-choice candidate—"just a governor," Durkin told me. But as he mulled over his Jeb-less options, he expressed the sort of resignation I had heard from other Bush supporters, who like their candidate are slowly adapting to the fact that the election—and the party—may be out of their control.

"God bless the person," he said, "who can get through this incredible labyrinth."

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