In 1979, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, last of his brothers, was persuaded it was time to launch his own bid for the White House. So he challenged the incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, for the 1980 Democratic nomination.
Making it official in an interview on 60 Minutes, then the most watched hour on American television, he flubbed the obvious question: why? He had no answer. Running for president was just something Kennedys did. His campaign never recovered.
Jeb Bush, who hopes to become the third of that ilk to win the presidency since 1988, looked in recent weeks to be making the same mistake. Knowing what we know now, he was asked, did he think brother George had been right to invade Iraq? For several days he floundered between yes, no and it depends. The punditocracy and the Republican money men were not impressed. Jeb! — as his campaign logo styles him — was suddenly Jeb?
On Monday, the former Florida governor officially announced his candidacy. His well-orchestrated rally, in the gym of a Miami community college, went some way to restoring the exclamation mark. What we saw was a candidate who knew what he had to do to beat Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee-apparent, 17 months hence.
Among the warm-up speakers, live and taped, there was just one white man, a state senator who had worked with Bush in his gubernatorial days. The rest were women or Hispanic or African-American, or some combination thereof. Typical was Bethany De La Rosa-Aponte, originally from Colombia and mother of a severely disabled daughter.
Bush, she said, had turned her into a Republican by the personal interest he had taken in her child, who could neither walk nor speak, and in others like her. “He doesn’t care about your political affiliation, or the colour of you skin, or where you were born, or what language you speak or if you can speak at all. He cares about everyone. He’s a servant.” She delivered the script with conviction.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and campaign consultant, is author of “2016 and Beyond: How Republicans can Elect a President in the New America.” The party doesn’t have much chance, the numbers tell him, unless it can convert a lot more De La Rosa-Apontes. White votes are simply not enough to win national elections.
“Republican congressional candidates won 60 per cent of (non-Hispanic) white voters in both 2010 and 2014, a level sufficient to win landslide victories both years,” Ayres writes. But, and it’s a big one, “Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won 59 per cent of white votes in 2012 and still lost the election by five million votes.”
In 2016, Ayres figures, the Republican nominee will likely need 30 per cent of non-white votes to be elected. In 2012, Romney managed 17 per cent; in 2008, John McCain 19 per cent. Bush’s brother won reelection in 2004 with 26 per cent non-white and 58 per cent white, but that, the pollster argues, would be a “losing hand” in 2016.
At this stage of the campaign, with 15 candidates for the Republican nomination either announced or expected to announce, opinion polls are not particularly meaningful. More important is who the money thinks will win, and that is more accurately measured by prediction markets.
Predictwise, a Microsoft project which aggregates data from the main such markets, has Bush as the Republican favourite at 34 per cent (3 to 1 odds ) followed by his fellow Floridian, Senator Marco Rubio, of Cuban extraction, at 24 per cent (4 to 1). Priced in is the expectation that, whatever craziness occurs in the next year’s primary season, the Republicans will ultimately coalesce around someone donors think has a realistic chance of beating Hillary. Bush edges Rubio since it is not clear America wants another relatively inexperienced first term senator as chief executive, however charismatic.
Either way, Republicans, if they are wise, will be looking for a candidate who can attract Hispanic votes on an unprecedented scale. Significant African-American support is still beyond Republican reach, though some think black turnout for either party will be down in 2016 reflecting disillusion over President Obama’s inability to make as much difference as he promised.
If Bush can make the case that he is running as his own man, not to continue a dynasty, and if he is not destroyed by the wingnuts in the early primaries, he could be just what Republicans need. He will be making the case bilingually with his Mexican better half, the former Columba Garnica de Gallo, at his side.