Inevitability Comes Before a Fall in Modern Presidential Politics

Two related stories cry out for attention today.

First, that Jeb Bush is struggling to regain the perception of inevitability within the Republican field that he once had, and that Mitt Romney enjoyed in 2008.

Second, that according to the latest NBC poll, Bernie Sanders now leads Hillary Clinton by 9 in New Hampshire and has closed 13 points in Iowa. More importantly, in head to head matchups in Iowa, Clinton trails both Jeb Bush and Donald Trump in Iowa by substantial margins and is tied with Trump in New Hampshire.

The usual caveats about polling apply, of course: it’s still very early, and one always wants to take the average of polls rather than any individual poll.

The trend seems clear, though: inevitability should not be something a candidate wants.

Hillary Clinton was the inevitable candidate in the 2008 race and the status did her more harm than good. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s inevitable candidate in the same year, wound up limping across the GOP primary finish line dogged by Rick Santorum of all people–only to lose after being seen as an out-of-touch, robotic and wooden joke on the campaign trail.

Now Jeb Bush, once the inevitable favored son of the 2016 GOP field, is struggling to regain that status in Trump’s Republican Party. He shouldn’t want to.

Part of Donald Trump’s political success is predicated on the fact that no matter how much he gains in the polls, he never sits back and gets comfortable, reduces his visibility or sets up political firewalls. He stays as aggressive in picking fights and making news as a hungry contender polling in the low digits.

Jeb Bush, meanwhile, has become a walking joke for his passive weakness in the face of Donald Trump’s insults, and his country-club white-collar tone and demeanor compared with Trump’s brashness.

Inevitability is bad for candidates. It makes them careful, comfortable and defensive. No modern candidate should want it. If a candidate is fortunate enough to hold a lead in an intra-party presidential primary, they should follow the opposite of their instincts and their consultants’ advice and stay hungry: hold rallies, initiate bold legislative proposals and make provocative statements to win a news cycle or two.

The American people have an intense anger at elites right now, and they feel both culturally and economically insecure. Inevitable candidates run the risk of incurring their anger as the entrenched elites who need to be removed. It’s perhaps the most dangerous position for a modern presidential candidate to hold.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.