This month, Republican presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are expected to host dueling fundraisers with top financial industry executives in New York. In their bid to shore up support from Wall Street, the candidates, both sons of Florida, face starkly different challenges. Bush, a former Florida governor, excels in the money race but lacks momentum. By contrast, Rubio, a U.S. senator, enjoys momentum but needs a bigger donor base to sustain his campaign.
Critically, Bush must reassure financial executives that he, not Rubio, is the pragmatic alternative to Donald Trump, who Wall Street sees as a class traitor who would spook the market. He can do so by pressing the message that Trump threatens the party brand, alienating constituencies like women and Hispanics the GOP desperately needs. Also, Bush needs to convince Wall Street that he alone has the knowledge, experience and campaign smarts to defeat Trump, take the nomination, and win the White House.
The problem, however, is Bush’s meme to donors. So far, the message he gives off goes something like: “Trust me, I’m a Bush, I know how to do this.” That bit of braggadocio points to his problem. Not just that he’s bland, wonkish, and stiff — though he’s all of these things. Rather, that he can’t stop defending his brother George, whose failures in Iraq haunt practically the entire GOP field. Trump and Rand Paul are the exceptions.
Here, context matters because the U.S. economy won’t be the crucial issue in 2016 that it was in 2012. Not after 67 months of continuous private-sector job growth. Rather, foreign policy issues related to the destabilizing effect of the U.S. invasion of Iraq will loom large. And emphatically, Republicans don’t want 2016 to be a referendum on George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” Not if they’re smart, they don’t.
Rubio’s family name, on the other hand, works for the GOP. He is the fresh-faced, ambitious, and hard-charging Hispanic alternative to Bush’s alternative to Trump, with a chameleon-like ability to sound like an outsider even when his policy positions match those of the party establishment. His challenge: to convince Wall Street that he’s ready. His set-speeches in the first two debates, examined closely, may pose a problem. Because they often sounded too canned, too word-for-word perfect, as though memorized from a notecard and delivered at the right time, or almost right time, because sometimes them seemed slightly off-topic. The question raised: whether the speaker is also the thinker.
Which goes to show how bizarrely effective America’s presidential selection process is. Bizzare, among other reasons, because it starts in Iowa and New Hampshire; but nonetheless effective because the candidates must face the voters in a series of state-by-state primaries in which money matters, yes, but momentum and popularity do, as well.
As evidence, Bush’s huge fundraising lead hardly guarantees him success. He and his Right to Rise PAC have garnered four times what Rubio has, much of it big-dollar contributions from Wall Street. Yet, Hillary Clinton has raised more from employees of the nation’s six largest banks than Bush, and at this same point in the last election cycle, Rick Perry led the money race among Republicans. Nor are the momentum of Rubio and the early-favorite status of The Donald proof of much of anything. Remember Rudi Giuliani in 2008 and Michele Bachmann in 2012 — they had momentum, too.
Richard E. Foglesong is professor of politics at Rollins College and political analyst for WFTV-Ch.9 in Orlando, Florida.