How Mitt Romney and Terry Branstad helped paved the way for Jeb Bush in 2016

Jeb BushWe all remember that old saying, “be careful what you wish for.”  The saying is often followed by some version a warning that the wish may actually come true.

While presidential politics may appear to be on a repetitive four-year cycle to a novice observer of the craft, in reality, American politics is constantly changing.  No campaign cycle is ever alike.  Not only do the faces of the candidates change, but so do the issues and the rules that govern both party’s nomination process.

In March of 2013, I made my annual trek to the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, which is held in the Washington DC metropolitan area every year.  Following another disappointing year at the ballot box for Republicans, my goal at the conference was to get a glimpse of what is in store for Republicans in 2016.  My top priority during my stay there was to attend a dinner that was being keynoted by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Following the event, I wrote, “The dinner at which Bush spoke at was packed, but the former governor of Florida was unable to create much buzz at the conference. His speech offered a perspective that deserves attention, but the CPAC crowd seemed more polite than interested.”  I labeled Bush as one of my “losers” of the 2013 CPAC conference.  Nothing from that speech made me believe that he possessed the ability to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 even if he wanted to be a candidate.

As we sit at the dawn of the 2016 presidential race, I have a completely different take on Jeb Bush’s chances to win the Republican nomination.  Oddly enough, it’s not based on anything Bush has done in the past two years.  Instead, it’s the actions of Mitt Romney and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad that have increased Bush’s presidential odds and, whether you like it or not, made him the frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

The changes that Romney’s campaign pushed thought at the 2012 Republican National Convention have been well documented.  The goal was simple and understandable for someone like Romney who essentially had the nomination wrapped up before the convention. Ron Paul’s unwieldy delegates in Tampa made life difficult for the Romney campaign, and thus rules to bind delegates to the outcome of each state were adopted by the Republican National Committee.

In addition to binding the delegates, the RNC has also compressed the nominating calendar and made it easier for states to hold winner-take-all primaries.  These changes were all done with one thing in mind – speeding up the nomination process in 2014.  This is a direct attempt to end the prolonged primary fight Romney had in 2012 with Rick Santorum who won 11 states and was competitive with the Romney in big states like Michigan and Ohio.

The RNC has also inserted itself in the number of presidential debates that will be held, who will conduct them, and where they will be held.  All of these changes would have greatly benefitted Romney in 2012, but they will also help whoever the national frontrunner happens to be.  In 2016 the odds on favorite to be the well-financed national frontrunner seems to be Jeb Bush.

There will only be one presidential debate in Iowa before next year’s caucus, just one.  Does that benefit the conservative candidate who needs to take a shot at the national frontrunner? Of course not.  Does that help the candidates on the ends of the debate stage who are already struggle at getting time to speak?  Of course not.  Limiting the debates helps one person – whoever is the national frontrunner.  And in terms of the 2016 race, that’s Jeb Bush.

It’s ironic that the rule changes pushed by the Romney campaign in 2012 are now benefitting someone outside of Romney’s sphere of influence.  For the better part of 2014, but especially since the conclusion of the mid-term elections, there has been a behind the scenes back and fourth between those still loyal to Romney and those supportive of a Bush candidacy.  The reason for this bickering is not ideology, but politics.  All of those consultants who pushed for these changes did so thinking that it would help their candidate of choice in 2016.  However, with the emergence of Bush, some of these consultants may find themselves hurt by the very rules that wanted to see enacted.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad’s insistence that there not be an Iowa Straw Poll also will helps clear a path for Bush.  Branstad has not endorsed a 2016 candidate and may never do so, but it is no secret that he is a big fan of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  The presence of the Straw Poll for years has created heartburn for numerous candidates, but especially for frontrunners who have little to gain by participating in the event and everything to lose.

Since the end of the 2014 election, Branstad has once again called for the end of the Straw Poll.  In its place, Branstad has suggested that regional events without a voting component could be held.  The Republican Party of Iowa will meet on Saturday to discuss the future of the event, but even if there is a Straw Poll in Ames this coming August, Branstad’s criticism of the event has already had an impact on the credibility of the event.

Branstad’s repeated criticism of the Ames Straw Poll makes it easier for candidates to avoid the event.  In previous cycles, candidates who didn’t participate in the event were basically forced to throw in the towel on Iowa all together.  No candidates had a legitimate reason not to participate.  In essence, Governor Branstad has signed a permission slip to skip the event for any candidate who doesn’t want to participate.  Again, the obvious candidate that helps is the frontrunner who doesn’t want to get bogged down and forced to spend a lot of money in Ames.

A diminished Ames Straw Poll allows candidates to approach Iowa differently.  The event forced candidates to set up shop in Iowa early so that they could organize and turn out supporters to the Straw Poll.  Now candidates can organize with just the caucuses in mind.  It also allows a well-financed frontrunner to use paid media like TV, radio, and direct mail to interface with potential caucuses goers.  Simply put, candidates can approach Iowa more like a primary than a caucus in 2016.

I have been surprised at the number of articles that have been published about Jeb Bush’s weaknesses.  Opinions on another Bush presidential candidacy vary greatly depending on one’s own personal political ideology.  Establishment types can see a clear pathway for Bush, while conservatives believe he is past his prime and nothing more than a lamb being led to his slaughter.

I’d caution anyone who doesn’t take a Jeb Bush presidential candidacy seriously.  The points raised by his critics are valid.  Bush’s last campaign was more than 12 years ago.  Politics and life as we know it have changed greatly during that time.  In 2002, Bush was widely accepted as a conservative Republican.  Today he’s viewed as a moderate establishment Republican whose views on education and immigration are out of step with the activists of his party.  And let’s not forget about Bush fatigue.  Is anyone really clamoring for a third member of the Bush family to occupy the White House?

The good news for Bush is none of that may really matter.

Every candidate who runs for president in 2016 will have to maneuver around obstacles in their paths, not just Jeb Bush.  Yet, while Bush does have some unique hurdles to clear, he also has a number of advantages. Besides his last name and appeal to big money donors, the advantages ushered in my Mitt Romney and Terry Branstad’s effort to diminish the Ames Straw Poll have done more to pave his way to the 2016 Republican nomination than anything else.

Again, be careful what you wish for.