Sorry, Iowa, but you're not that special: Hilarious hype aside, Jeb Bush can afford to lose the state

You know what's better than winning Iowa? Having hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on a campaign!

Published May 7, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (Jeff Malet,
(Jeff Malet,

Did you hear the news? Jeb Bush is doomed! All because a May 2015 poll shows him in seventh place in Iowa, earning a meager 5 percent of support from likely caucus-goers. Scott Walker leads the poll with 21 percent and so we might as well name him president right now.

Jeb's poor polling in Iowa will come as great news to Iowa Republican officials and operatives who expect each candidate to come and shower them with money and assorted other flatteries every cycle. Bush has raised a still unknown but presumably mind-blowing amount of cash (in "outside" money that he will effectively treat as "inside" money) and Iowa's professional leeches are disappointed that he's been reticent thus far to throw it at them. Now they will use this bad poll as evidence that Bush needs to park his ass in the Heartland indefinitely and slip them all bundles of C-notes. From the Washington Post:

Unlike his brother, who won the 2000 caucuses after months of charming GOP voters, Bush has so far been less attentive to the state. He plans to attend the Iowa GOP Lincoln Dinner on May 16, but his allies privately acknowledge that he may neglect this August’s Iowa straw poll, a test of organization disliked by national GOP leaders for the attention it showers on lower-tier candidates. Last month, he skipped an Iowa faith group’s summit.

“I don’t care if he’s a Rockefeller liberal. It’s his disdain for the grass roots, our sense that he doesn’t think that Iowa is relevant, that will make people stay away,” said Sam Clovis, a conservative organizer in northwest Iowa.

Douglas E. Gross, a Bush family friend in Iowa who is uncommitted, called Bush’s hands-off manner a “risky” play, especially if the political winds shift and Iowa becomes more important to his chances.

“Caucuses require organizational prowess,” Gross said. “It takes months to develop a turnout effort. As time ticks away, it’s time he won’t get back.”

It is hysterical that anyone would think Jeb Bush would consider for even one millisecond the possibility of making a play for the Iowa straw poll. The Iowa straw poll is pitched by Iowa Republicans as a CRITICAL EARLY TEST of ORGANIZING PROWESS in which EVERY SERIOUS candidate must drop MILLIONS OF DOLLARS. The Iowa Straw Poll is in fact a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party, and one that forever lost whatever claim to importance it had in 2012 when its winner was President Michele Bachmann.

Still, there's at least a touch of worry among the wealthy class of barons who have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Bush. The Post reports on how Mike Murphy, who as presumed chief of Bush's super PAC will manage the largest pool of money ever seen in a primary, recently sought to calm donors down:

At a luxury Miami hotel last month, one of Jeb Bush’s chief strategists stood before hundreds of top GOP fundraisers to deliver an unsubtle message: The former Florida governor will not be one of the “presidents of August.”

During his closed-door presentation at the 1 Hotel in South Beach, Mike Murphy dismissed buzz-fueled candidates who rise fast early only to flame out once the primaries begin. Murphy ridiculed the early spate of presidential polls — many of which show Bush lagging, particularly in Iowa — as “noise meters.” And he insisted that the Bush team is patiently playing a long game, one that will not be upended by the actions of his rivals.

OK, sure: Some spin is involved. If Bush were polling first in Iowa, he would be telling donors and "Morning Joe" and really anyone who's listening that Iowa is the most important state in the country, and its Republican caucus-goers literal saints placed on Earth by Jesus Christ as His chosen guardians of democracy.

But his talk about playing the long game makes sense, and that's why Iowa gatekeepers are terrified. Bush will have enough money to run a full 50-state primary operation from day one. While Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Perry duel at the Iowa state fair about who photographs more naturally eating a fried stick of butter, Jeb Bush will be, say, setting up a campaign infrastructure in California. No, you don't want to be completely forgotten in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. You don't need to win any of them, either. Cynical as it is, Murphy is right to say that for now, raising unlimited sums of cash while undeclared will be more important in the long run than getting in immediately for the sake of a bump in the early polls.

Bush's problem isn't that he could fall outside the top three in Iowa. It's that 2016 will be the first cycle in which numerous candidates will have the resources to play the long game comfortably. Jeb Bush will at some point need to get Republicans to actually like him. There's no reason that those voters have to be concentrated in Iowa, though.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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