Is Bush’s stock un­der­val­ued or a true mea­sure of a trou­bled can­di­dacy?

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - THE SUN­DAY TAKE Dan Balz dan.balz@wash­post.com

Former Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush’s po­lit­i­cal stock has fallen sharply over the past few months. The de­bate now tak­ing place among Repub­li­cans is whether that stock is un­der­val­ued or a fair read­ing of the cur­rent shape of his cam­paign.

The lat­est quar­terly financial re­ports brought new ques­tions for the can­di­date who be­gan the cam­paign with as­sets none of his ri­vals could match. He raised barely more in the third quar­ter than he did in the sec­ond — even though his sec­ond-quar­ter fundrais­ing amounted to just 16 days of ac­tiv­ity. His av­er­age daily fundrais­ing dropped sharply from one quar­ter to the next.

Bush ad­vis­ers cry foul at some of the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his fundrais­ing prow­ess. Yes, as the son and brother of former pres­i­dents, he is sup­posed to have a big net­work of po­ten­tial donors. But, they ar­gue, look at what Mitt Rom­ney raised in the third quar­ter of 2011 when he, as the GOP front-run­ner, had the big­gest fundrais­ing net­work of any of the can­di­dates. Rom­ney raised less than a mil­lion dol­lars more than Bush did this time.

That’s one way to look at it, but pull back a bit and you can see the po­ten­tial trap Bush’s team has set for it­self. By this time four years ago, Rom­ney had raised just over $34 mil­lion. That com­pares with Bush’s to­tal of about $25 mil­lion to date. Rom­ney then had al­most $15 mil­lion in cash avail­able. Bush has about $10 mil­lion.

Third-quar­ter fundrais­ing is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult for all can­di­dates. The next quar­ter will pro­vide an­other op­por­tu­nity for com­par­i­son be­tween Bush 2016 and Rom­ney 2012. In the fourth quar­ter of 2011, Rom­ney’s net­work pro­duced an ad­di­tional $24 mil­lion and ended the year with al­most $20 mil­lion in cash avail­able. Bush will have to step up his pace sig­nif­i­cantly if his team hopes to keep mak­ing com­par­isons to Rom­ney.

Bush ad­vis­ers say it’s tough to raise huge amounts of money in a field with so many can­di­dates. That’s in­dis­putable. Still, he has drawn crit­i­cal cov­er­age for fundrais­ing num­bers that either lag or are about equal with oth­ers in the Repub­li­can field who started with far fewer as­sets. So far this year, he’s raised less than Ben Car­son, slightly less than Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and slightly more than Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.). His third-quar­ter fundrais­ing was sec­ond best be­hind Car­son.

The Bush and Ru­bio cam­paigns were squab­bling late in the week over the ex­act amounts of cash in the bank and avail­able for the nom­i­na­tion cam­paign as op­posed to the gen­eral elec­tion. Their quib­bles were over rel­a­tively in­signif­i­cant amounts of money.

The bot­tom line is that Bush’s cam­paign ac­count is com­pet­i­tive with that of Cruz, Car­son and Ru­bio, and it is well ahead of two other main­stream con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates, Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich and New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie. Don­ald Trump, the self-fun­der, is in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory.

The third-quar­ter fundrais­ing re­ports tell one part of the story of the Repub­li­can cam­paign over the sum­mer. Polling tells an­other. Over­all, the big­gest sur­prise — well-doc­u­mented and of­ten cited — has been the stay­ing power of Don­ald Trump as the GOP leader. In July, he led the Poll­ster.com av­er­age of na­tional polls, its av­er­age of Iowa polls and its av­er­age of New Hamp­shire polls.

That’s still true to­day, al­though in each case his sup­port has grown. In July, Trump’s na­tional poll av­er­age was just un­der 15 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to Poll­ster.com. His cur­rent av­er­age na­tion­ally is just over 28 per­cent. In Iowa, he has risen from 14 per­cent in June to al­most 24 per­cent to­day. In New Hamp­shire, he is up from about 20 per­cent to about 28 per­cent.

What’s hap­pened to Bush dur­ing the past three months? Na­tion­ally, Bush was run­ning sec­ond in July with an av­er­age poll rat­ing of 13 to 14 per­cent. To­day he has fallen to just about 8 per­cent and is fourth over­all. In Iowa, his av­er­age has dropped a cou­ple of points (within the mar­gin of er­ror) and his stand­ing is fifth rather than third. In New Hamp­shire, he has gone from sec­ond place in the poll av­er­age to fifth and his sup­port has fallen sev­eral points.

With Ka­sich and Christie fur­ther down, Bush and Ru­bio are seen on a col­li­sion course in the main­stream con­ser­va­tive com­pe­ti­tion. Ru­bio has re­ceived the bet­ter cov­er­age of late, the as­pi­ra­tional fresh face vs. a can­di­date with ex­pe­ri­ence and a fam­ily name that is a mixed bless­ing. Ru­bio’s de­bate per­for­mances have been well praised, and his ap­proach to cam­paign­ing sim­i­larly has been com­mended for its pa­tience and po­ten­tial.

There are caveats, how­ever. Ru­bio raised less than half of what Bush col­lected in the third quar­ter. In fact, he raised a mil­lion and a half dol­lars less than Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker, who quit the race last month. Ru­bio raised about a mil­lion dol­lars less than Carly Fio­r­ina.

The same holds for what the polls show. Be­tween July and to­day, Ru­bio’s poll num­bers na­tion­ally have ticked up a point and he con­tin­ues to oc­cupy third place. In Iowa, he has lost a point and has dropped from fifth to sixth. In New Hamp­shire, he has also lost a point and dropped one place, to sev­enth. This is not ev­i­dence of a surge. If Bush has per­formed be­low ex­pec­ta­tions as a can­di­date, Ru­bio has not yet played up to the po­ten­tial for at­tract­ing sup­port that some Repub­li­cans see in him.

Bush’s financial ad­van­tages now rest al­most ex­clu­sively with his su­per PAC. The com­mit­tee raised $103 mil­lion through the sec­ond quar­ter. (Third-quar­ter re­sults are not yet avail­able.) That amount dwarfs what all the other Repub­li­cans have avail­able, save for Trump’s per­sonal for­tune.

The com­mit­tee has spent $13 mil­lion on tele­vi­sion ads in Iowa, New Hamp­shire and South Car­olina. The group has re­served a to­tal of $23 mil­lion in tele­vi­sion time through the end of the year plus an ad­di­tional $17 mil­lion for those states in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary. The com­mit­tee an­nounced re­cently that it had re­served $17 mil­lion in ad time for states with con­tests March 1.

There is lit­tle ev­i­dence that the money spent over the past month has be­gun to boost Bush’s stock, al­though his ad­vis­ers say there are signs of im­prove­ment in his per­sonal im­age, which they hope is a pre­cur­sor to im­prove­ment in his over­all stand­ing. Ad­vis­ers to the Bush su­per PAC said they had not set times or tar­gets by which to mea­sure whether the hefty spend­ing on ad­ver­tis­ing was pay­ing div­i­dends.

“We have a bench­mark for suc­cess and it’s to win more del­e­gates,” su­per PAC leader Mike Mur­phy said in an e-mail re­layed through one of his col­leagues.

One Bush ad­viser said the cam­paign has hit its financial tar­gets for the quar­ter and is fo­cused on the “block­ing and tack­ling” of build­ing a broad and sus­tain­able cam­paign op­er­a­tion ca­pa­ble of go­ing the dis­tance.

Money for TV ads and in­vest­ment in or­ga­ni­za­tions in the states are cer­tainly im­por­tant, but me­chan­ics can carry a cam­paign only so far. What a win­ning cam­paign needs is a can­di­date who can be­gin to in­spire Repub­li­can vot­ers. That re­mains the big­gest chal­lenge for Bush, and there is lit­tle his ad­vis­ers can do about that.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Na­tion­ally, former Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush was run­ning sec­ond in July with an av­er­age poll rat­ing of 13 to 14 per­cent. To­day he has fallen to just about 8 per­cent and is fourth over­all among GOP can­di­dates.

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