Why is Jeb Bush attacking Hillary Clinton, not GOP rivals?

On the eve of Wednesday's GOP debate, a new ad from the Bush campaign avoids targeting the Republican candidates who are beating him in the polls.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Crews prepare the venue for the Oct. 28 CNBC Republican presidential debate, on Tuesday,inside the Coors Events Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo.

Say you’re Jeb Bush’s campaign manager and you’re planning to release a political attack ad on the eve of a crucial Republican primary debate. Who do you target? Donald Trump, who’s been bullying you for months? Marco Rubio, who’s emerging as a new hope for the establishment GOP? Ben Carson, who’s now the leader in crucial Iowa polls?

Nope, no, and nyet. The Bush campaign on Tuesday dropped a new two-minute video aimed squarely at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, not a Republican rival.

Yes, the former secretary of State, who Bush won’t face unless he recovers to defeat the rest of the GOP primary field.

As ads go, it’s pretty solid. It starts with clips of Mrs. Clinton saying liberalish things and promising to tax the wealthy to pay for her plans.

“Hillary is not a moderate” comes up on screen. Then there are quick cuts of punditry and Clinton speeches intended to tie her directly to her former boss and charge that she would be a third term for Barack Obama.

Halfway through, the mood changes and Jeb! appears on screen. “I reject the pessimism of the left that just thinks we have to become more dependent on government,” Mr. Bush says. Then the ad wraps up with a whirl-through of Bush looking energetic, promoting jobs, and saying “I know how to do this!”

Why is Bush focusing on Clinton, as opposed to his actual immediate threats?

Probably because he and his advisers calculate that his best chance remains punching up, portraying himself as an equal to the presumptive Democratic nominee and arguing (implicitly) that he’s the person best positioned to defeat her.

The campaign makes these assertions directly in a Power Point presentation for important donors obtained by The Washington Post. It quotes Quinnipiac University poll numbers to the effect that Bush leads Clinton 44 to 42 percent in a direct match-up, and that voters consider the former Florida governor more “presidential” than the former secretary of State.

Bush’s problem is that to this point his electability argument has fallen on unconvinced ears. This is true not just for GOP voters in general, but also for party elites. He’s failed to win the nod as the establishment choice for the nomination.

The data point that really shows this is his lack of endorsements. Primary political endorsements aren’t usually advertisements per se – they’re a means for insiders to signal preferences to each other and for party leaders to coalesce around a preferred candidate. In the past, they’ve been an accurate predictor of which hopeful will succeed and which will fail.

Right now Bush has 36 endorsement “points,” according to an analysis by the FiveThirtyEight blog. That puts him in first place in the GOP race, but only barely. And the real story is that many GOP figures have yet to throw their weight behind anyone. 

You know who’s winning the endorsement primary? Hillary Clinton. She’s got 385 “points” in the FiveThirtyEight calculus. That’s party dominance.

Maybe Bush can turn his campaign around Wednesday night. It will be interesting to see how much of his time he spends talking about Clinton and Democrats, as opposed to the Republicans who are beating him in the polls.

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