Donald Trump’s surge in the polls has been covered as terrible news for the GOP. But it’s fantastic news for one Republican — Jeb Bush.
The rise of the bombastic celebrity mogul and the saturation media coverage of his controversial comments on illegal immigrants is a godsend for the putative frontrunner, who, in every area except fundraising, has been underperforming so far.
In addition to the fact that Trump poses no threat to actually win the Republican nomination, the purported billionaire helpfully sucks up all the media oxygen so none of Bush's potentially more dangerous rivals can get any attention. Trump also presents a wonderful contrast for Bush — making him look tolerant, professional, and adult. And if Trump stays in the race and remains popular on the right, it will show that yet again, conservative voters simply can't get it together to seriously wield their influence in the presidential primaries.
The race is young, and if the roller coaster polls in 2011-'12 are any indication, things are likely to keep changing quite a bit before voting actually starts. Debates, new campaign developments, or the Iowa caucuses — which look promising for Scott Walker — could certainly elevate other contenders above Trump.
But if the race should happen to stay where it is in recent national polls — a race with Jeb Bush and Donald Trump as the top two contenders — it would be a cinch for Bush to win.
The party will never support Trump
Trump's candidacy is following a path that was very familiar in the last GOP presidential primary. He says outrageous things. He gets media attention. He moves up in the polls. Party elites get very nervous, because he's considered outrageous and unelectable. This is what happened to Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich last time around — and it was followed by a steep decline. (Though Gingrich had a brief resurgence after winning the South Carolina primary.)
The reasons for their respective declines vary, but the larger point is that the Republican Party was never going to accept any of them as the nominee. Party elites have a lot of influence in how the primary process plays out — plus a lot of time, resources, and knowledge of the rules they can use to help ensure that someone they strongly dislike and distrust won't be their standard-bearer.
And they strongly dislike and distrust Trump. They view him as a wealthy and unpredictable outsider beholden to absolutely no one in the party, addicted to the sound of his own voice, and heedless to the political damage that controversial comments like his assertion that Mexico is sending "rapists" to America or his past skepticism that President Obama was born in America can cause.
If Trump keeps catching fire, GOP insiders will break the emergency glass so he'll be extinguished. And that would be great news for the current leading alternative to Trump — Jeb Bush.
Bush's frontrunner position is fragile. Trump helps solidify it.
According to the polls, right now Bush is the GOP's default choice — but just barely. (And, importantly, not in Iowa.) Being the default is really valuable. It means that Bush will be the one the party turns to to save them from Trump if the mogul stays in and still looks formidable in the polls going forward.
But it's clear that the party isn't sold on Bush's candidacy yet, because its officials are in no rush to endorse him. The chart above, by political scientist John Sides and posted at the Monkey Cage, shows what percentage of the 331 Republican governors, senators, and House members across the country have endorsed a presidential candidate so far. Only 33 have, far below the pace of prior years. And of those 33, just 14 have endorsed Jeb Bush.
Far more GOP officials are waiting for the race to play out than in previous years. Many of them likely wonder if Walker or Rubio would be a better candidate than Bush, but feel hesitant to go out on a limb and endorse them if their candidacies are going nowhere. If the race looks like it's Trump versus Bush, though, their choice is easy.
Trump prevents candidates who could beat Bush from getting precious media attention
But it's Trump's greatest skill — getting media attention — that doubles as his greatest service to Bush. Every minute that media outlets cover Trump controversies is another minute that all of Bush's more dangerous rivals are excluded from the spotlight.
The GOP field is so crowded right now, with 15 candidates and two more expected to jump in soon, that the key challenge most contenders face is simply getting anyone to pay attention to them. Bush, the default choice who also benefits from name recognition, doesn't face that problem. But everyone hoping to dislodge him does.
Yet as these hopefuls are trying desperately to make their mark, a whopping 48 percent of the social and regular media conversation about the presidential election in one recent week was about Trump, according to Zignal Labs, an analytics partner of the Washington Post. This chart from BuzzFeed News's Katherine Miller looks even more stark:
As is evident from the social media numbers, there's a reason regular media outlets have been spotlighting Trump so much. They've learned that a ton of people love reading, watching, listening to, and clicking on content about Donald Trump much more than they do content about most other GOP presidential candidates.
Now even articles about other candidates are sometimes sold as articles about Trump — take, for instance, this noble effort by Slate to get people to click on a story about John Kasich last week:
The problem of media attention is particularly acute this year because GOP candidates need to place in the top 10 in national polls to even qualify for the party's first two debates. Trump now qualifies easily (provided he turns in financial disclosure forms to the FEC, as he's said he will this week). But many other contenders — like Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham — are in danger of missing the cutoff.
And even if these candidates do manage to qualify, how could they upstage Trump in the debate? The man is a reality TV star whose whole schtick is saying attention-getting things. Bush will get attention regardless, due to being the frontrunner. Maybe the best a long-shot candidate can hope for is that Trump will pick a fight with him — and that, hopefully, Trump will be the one who ends up looking foolish.
Trump makes Bush look like a really reasonable, tolerant guy
Yet the potential service Trump could do for Bush doesn't end with the primary. He could help him look better in the general, too.
Since 2012, Republicans have been extremely concerned that the hard-line immigration views supported by their base will hurt their prospects among the growing Latino population — and, potentially, prevent their candidate from winning. Now Democrats are gleefully hoping to paint all the other GOP candidates with the brush of Trump's bigoted statements. In response to a question on Trump, Hillary Clinton told CNN's Brianna Keilar last week that all the GOP contenders were "in the same general area on immigration," since none of them supported a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.
Yet it's Trump's very stridency and combativeness that make it so difficult for me to imagine this argument working. Trump is obviously far more extreme than Bush. Bush has already condemned Trump, and he will surely keep doing so as long as Trump remains a factor. Even more importantly, Trump is repeatedly and loudly arguing that Bush — and most other candidates — do not share his views on immigration. How can the Republican Party be full of Trumps if he's denouncing all of them?
And if, once Trump is dispensed with, a man who married a Mexican woman and who has part-Mexican-American children, who has called illegal immigration "an act of love," and who uses appealing and uplifting rhetoric becomes the GOP nominee, how could the same outrage be channeled against him?
Update: Shortly after I posted this article, Jeb Bush's team tweeted this video showing Bush challenging Trump's rhetoric in Iowa, in what the campaign seems to intend as a "Sister Souljah" moment.
A Republican will never win by striking fear in people’s hearts. https://t.co/IEa16hZgTK
— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) July 14, 2015
"On our side, there are people who prey on people's fears and their angst as well. I don't know about you, but I think it is wrong," Bush says. "Whether it's Donald Trump or Barack Obama, their rhetoric of divisiveness is wrong. A Republican will never win by striking fear in people's hearts. A Republican can win and will win if we have an aspirational message that gives people hope that their lives will be better when we apply conservative principles the right way."