The Debates and the Bushes

Recent articles in Politico Magazine look at two aspects of the 2016 Republican presidential race


U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is a regular contributor to Politico Magazine, and this week we offer a snippet and link to his two most recent pieces for the publication. The first article, which appeared in Politico Magazine on July 16, 2015, offers a more inclusive Republican debate format compared to the one proposed by the cable news channels. The second column, which appeared in the magazine on July 20, 2015, reviews the Bush family’s track record of speaking empathetically while campaigning negatively and explains why we can probably expect Jeb Bush’s 2016 bid to follow a similar course.

The Editors

Let Them Debate!

It will be easy this year to identify the biggest losers in the GOP debates. They will be the candidates who aren’t on the stage.

With a record 17 prominent candidates vying for the Republican nomination (so far), no system for determining admission to the debate stage will please everyone. But the GOP can certainly do better than the statistically unsound procedures announced by Fox News and CNN. These rules will senselessly reward gimmicky candidates like reality-TV star Donald Trump and punish serious, viable ones like Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

To qualify for Fox’s August debate and CNN’s September one, recent national polls must rank a Republican candidate in the top 10. Those who fail to make the cut will attend separate debates guaranteed to have a fraction of the viewership and a fraction of the potential payoff.

As polling experts of all ideological stripes have pointed out, the margin of error in surveys is so large that it is statistically impossible to determine who should fill the last two or three spots in the top 10. Effectively, all the polling bottom-dwellers (those who have one percent to four percent) are tied — and a good chunk of the field is now in this category. Just this week, the Ted Cruz campaign, whose candidate is ranked eighth according to the Real Clear Politics average but is in a decent position to make the first debate, questioned Fox News’ debate standards and suggested it select candidates only through polls that interviewed more than 1,000 primary voters and were conducted via telephone.

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Jeb Bush Is Meaner Than He Looks

Like father, like son — or perhaps it’s the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Whatever cliché you prefer, one of the useful things about dynasties is that patterns emerge over time. With the Clintons, for instance, we know to pay attention to every modifying word and each verb tense they use (the meaning of “is” and such). The whole truth usually has to be dragged out of them — or discovered independently.

Similarly, an examination of the Bush family legacy in campaigning makes clear that Jeb Bush’s “Mr. Nice Guy” routine isn’t likely to last all that long. Most presidential candidates have a streak of ruthlessness in them — even the nice guys. Make that especially the nice guys. They’re mild-mannered and courteous in public, so someone else has to do the dirty work of winning for them.

Jeb Bush will prove this again. It’s an easy prediction that he’ll follow his brother and father in bushwhacking any opponent standing between him and the presidency. With the Bushes, do not take too seriously their assertions of personal sweetness.

George H.W. Bush called for “a kinder, gentler nation” while accepting the Republican presidential nomination in August 1988. George W. Bush set the goal of “compassionate conservatism” when his turn came in 2000. And now, Jeb Bush promises to “show [his] heart” during his 2016 campaign — one he says he wants to be full of “hugging and kissing.”

The Bushes have the empathetic pitch down pat, but beware the brass knuckles hiding beneath the velvet glove of their rhetoric. Jeb Bush is likely to have far more money than any other rival, especially because of his Right to Rise super PAC, which has collected $103 million already. This committee is run by the shrewd and talented Mike Murphy, who has declared he will “weaponize” Bush’s fundraising advantage.

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