Jeb's conservative nightmare: Why he's far more vulnerable to the right than Romney ever was

Bush's problems with the base go much deeper than Romney's ever did, despite popular memory

Published February 24, 2015 7:23PM (EST)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo collage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Manuel Balce Ceneta/Photo collage by Salon)

Ahead of his all-but-certain White House bid, Jeb Bush is rapidly locking up support among the GOP's donor class, foreign policy hands, and domestic policy wonks, assembling a 2016 campaign that increasingly looks like a veritable juggernaut. But for all his backing among much of the Republican elite, the former Florida governor is struggling among the party rank-and-file, generally polling in the low-to-mid teens in national surveys and falling behind in some polls of early primary states. Unloved by the GOP's right-wing base despite a deeply conservative record as governor, Bush may be one of the leading contenders for his party's nod, but he's a decidedly weak one.

If you're a Bush supporter -- and their ranks are surely legion among Salon readers -- you may take comfort in the memory of Mitt Romney, the erstwhile Massachusetts moderate who captured the 2012 nomination despite grumblings of discontent in some conservative quarters. But while Romney may be seared in the collective memory as a nominee who confronted significant hostility on his right flank, he wasn't as weak among conservatives as has been commonly assumed. Bush, by contrast, faces deep problems with the right.

Public Policy Polling underscored as much today, with the release of a national survey showing Bush third in the GOP field, taking 17 percent of the vote to neurosurgeon-turned-conservative activist Ben Carson's 18 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 25 percent. Mike Huckabee trailed Bush with 10 percent support, with no other candidate hitting double digits.

But the worst news for Bush wasn't that he seems to have surrendered his modest national lead to Walker, or that he ranks slightly behind a first-time office-seeker with a penchant for unhinged rhetoric. Instead, Bush should be sweating PPP's finding that he's viewed with deep suspicion by conservative voters. A plurality of "somewhat conservative" voters, 47 percent, view Bush favorably, with 17 percent viewing him unfavorably and 37 percent undecided. Among "very conservative" voters, however, he's underwater; 37 percent of such voters take a favorable view of him, against 43 percent who see him unfavorably. (Walker scores a 68 percent favorable rating among very conservative voters, with only three percent who view him unfavorably.)

Romney never dealt with such dire numbers. In March 2011 -- a roughly equivalent point in the 2012 cycle to where we are in the 2016 one -- a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Romney with a 68 percent favorability rating among conservatives. What's particularly striking, though, is that Romney performed even better among self-described "very conservative" voters, 71 percent of whom viewed him favorably. Even as various Tea Party candidates enjoyed their 15 minutes atop the national polls, Romney held his own among the most conservative GOP voters. In November 2011, the Post-ABC poll found Romney at 65 percent among the very conservative. Three months later, as Romney and Rick Santorum duked it out for support among Republican primary voters, Romney still enjoyed a majority-favorable view among very conservative types, with 54 percent saying they saw Romney in a favorable light.

By then, Romney was pitching himself as a "severely conservative" candidate, and for all the mockery that awkward self-description attracted, it worked, despite his past as a socially liberal Republican who assured Massachusetts voters he'd be a "progressive" governor and who made a point of noting during his 1994 Senate campaign that he wasn't a Republican during the Reagan administration.

Bush, on the other hand, is a longstanding opponent of abortion rights and marriage equality; ended affirmative action in Florida; intervened to keep Terry Schiavo alive; cut taxes; and pushed "school choice" policies consistent with conservative free-market dogma. Still, much of the political press corps has pigeonholed Bush as 2016's GOP "moderate," largely on the basis of his views on immigration reform and the Common Core education standards. And while his record may suggest otherwise, many conservatives clearly don't see Bush as one of them.

What should also keep Bush up at night is that unlike Romney, he'll be running against a stronger (on paper, at least) GOP field, with rivals like Walker, a sitting governor who boasts support across GOP factions; Marco Rubio, a onetime Bush protege who nonetheless seems intent on running and whose chances may be vastly underrated, à la John McCain circa summer 2007; and Rand Paul, who riles much of the GOP establishment but is, on the whole, a much more deft politician than his father ever was. Romney, meanwhile, faced an historically weak crop of candidates; as the 2012 contest neared its conclusion, his two principal rivals were a disgraced former House Speaker who'd left office in 1999 and a former senator who had lost his seat by nearly 20 percentage points.

Jeb Bush is no Mitt Romney -- and that, remarkably, should worry the Bush camp.

By Luke Brinker

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