Of Course Jeb Can Win

Over at Slate, Reihan Salam raises concerns that Jeb Bush can’t win the presidency and urged him to drop out of the race. According to Salam, “a scorched-earth Bush campaign will make it impossible for any Republican to win in 2016.” That is, Bush is in a decent position to win the nomination, but what he’d have to do to destroy his vast field of Republican opponents would fracture the party and prevent it from winning in November. The piece is an interesting discussion of the fissures that run through the Republican electorate. But the overall argument is just wrong.

It hasn’t been that many years since the Democratic Party had a vicious internal battle between two very strong presidential contenders, one a white woman and the other an African American man. Campaign staffers and activists mined daily statements for whiffs of racism or sexism. Many political observers expressed concern that the party would be hopelessly and seriously injured due to a split among two of its most significant demographic subgroups. When Barack Obama won the nomination, a group of female activists threatened to bolt the party and back the Republican candidate. And Republicans sought to exploit this rift by nominating a woman for vice president.

Of course, the threatened rift proved harmless for the party by November. Democratic voters stayed Democratic. Women turned out to vote and largely chose the Democratic ticket, as they usually do in presidential elections.

There have been plenty of seriously fractious nomination contests, and they generally don’t hurt the party’s chances in the fall. The McCain-Bush battle in 2000 became personal and ugly, tainted with racial smears, but the party’s voters stayed loyal in November. Bill Clinton made a lot of enemies in the Democratic Party when he ran in the 1992 primaries and caucuses, but they all rallied around him once he was the nominee.

To be sure, we’ve seen some divisive nomination battles followed by party losses in November — the Kennedy/Carter rift in 1980 is a great example. But those battles don’t cause the losses. It’s the reverse; there’s a battle in the party because the incumbent is going down in flames and everyone knows it.

The Republican nomination battle for 2016 will surely be a contentious and bloody one. There are roughly as many candidates as there were victims at the Red Wedding, and all this is occurring during a time of considerable internal divisiveness within the party. Things will get ugly and personal at times. But by next March, or April at the latest, we’ll likely have a Republican nominee, and he or she will have plenty of time to mend fences. Besides, even though the losing candidates and their supporters will be angry, they won’t be so angry that they’d be willing to hand the White House keys to Hillary Clinton.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.