After last night’s Republican presidential-candidate debate in Las Vegas, Jeb Bush got some badly needed positive assessments of his performance, albeit mostly of the “he’s not dead quite yet” variety. You have to figure that those cheering him on included not just his supporters and Establishment Republicans generally, but the small tribe of people who make their living buying and selling political TV ads. Unless his campaign really starts to cook, Team Bush is on a trajectory to become one of those historic profiles in futility that influence future behavior. And it could push the already crusty and embattled theory that you win elections by dominating TV airwaves with paid advertising right off the cliff.
The latest report from NBC’s Mark Murray (based on data from the network’s ad-monitoring partner SMG Delta) on ad spending by presidential candidates not only reinforces the general story of a disconnect between money out the door and invisible-primary poll standings; it specifically draws attention to the ongoing disaster of Bush super-pac Right to Rise’s massive pro-Jeb advertising campaign in the early states. Up until now, Bush’s allies have outspent the entire remainder of the field in paid media, with $35 million already gone. Nearly half of that is in New Hampshire, where Bush is currently in sixth place according to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, with about one-fourth the level of support of front-runner Donald Trump, who has spent almost nothing on ads. But the worst could be yet to come: According to Murray, Right to Rise also has another $28 million in ads in the pipeline. Unless Team Bush has already executed some big strategic pivot without anyone knowing about it, you have to figure they are for the moment almost literally doubling down on positive ads touting Bush’s fine conservative record in Florida, at a time when GOP voters have decided they really don’t like governors.
Right to Rise’s Mike Murphy, whose reputation is on track to become one of campaign ‘16’s most lurid casualties, has publicly floated the idea of using the rest of his war chest to “carpet-bomb” everyone in the field other than Donald Trump, creating a Bush-Trump battle to the finish in the smoking crater of the contest. It’s not clear whether that was a dark omen of things to come, or a head-fake, or an indication that it’s time for donors to pry Murphy’s fingers off the keys to the vault lest Jeb Bush go down in history as the man who selfishly wrecked his party’s prospects in a critical presidential year. He’s already in danger of joining Phil Gramm and Lloyd Bentsen and John Connally in the pantheon of big-spending presidential candidates voters just didn’t like.