The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If Jeb Bush isn’t the front-runner anymore, where does that leave him?

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks to the National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference in Houston on April 29, 2014. (Pat Sullivan/AP)
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New polling from the Washington Post and ABC News confirms what we've suspected for a while now: Jeb Bush can no longer be described as even the nominal front-runner in the 2016 Republican presidential primary fight.

Rand Paul and Scott Walker "lead" the way at 11 percent followed by Jeb and Marco Rubio at 1o percent. None of the other candidates gets double-digit support. Those numbers jibe with Quinnipiac University polling released this week that showed a five(!)-way tie for first place between Bush, Huckabee, Walker, Rubio and Ben Carson.

For Bush, that's a significant fade from where he stood in a late March WaPo-ABC poll; at that time, Bush took 20 percent, giving him a clear lead over Ted Cruz who stood at 13 percent. That's a major problem for a candidate whose appeal to the Republican electorate is built, in no small part, on the idea of the inevitability of his victory.

While Jeb has never been the sort of strong front-runner that his brother was at this time in the 2000 presidential race, if you asked anyone who follows this stuff moderately closely, they would generally have defaulted to him as the likeliest nominee for the first four-plus months of this year.

Why? Well 1) His last name is Bush and 2) He is going to raise ungodly sums of cash via his super PAC  — due in no small part to #1.

While Bush himself did plenty to play down the idea that the nomination was his for the taking, everything about his operation — its size, the quality of staff he was able to convince to sign on, the leaks of his massive fundraising prowess — were all aimed at cementing the idea in undecided Republicans' minds that, at the end of the day, Bush was going to be the guy.

Leaning on the inevitability argument made sense for Bush because there simply wasn't another obvious place to begin building the central conceit of why Republican primary voters should be for him. As has been well documented, Bush is far more of a centrist on both immigration and Common Core, the national education standards program,  than the Republican party base. And he seems entirely unwilling to walk away from his positions on either.  Yes, I know Bush's record is more conservative in Florida than he currently gets credit for among base Republicans, but if you combine his views on immigration and Common Core with his decidedly moderate temperament — yes, that matters — I have a hard time believing true-blue conservatives will ever be for him.

Given that, you can see the problem for Bush's prospects if the idea of him as inevitable or, at a minimum, the front-runner of the race, disappears.  There's not much ground left for him to stand on. Or, at least, no truly solid ground.

Now, when Bush's fundraising totals for his super PAC come out at the end of the month, there will be another wave of inevitability talk surrounding him. He just has too much money! (and all that). But money, while decidedly beneficial to one's chances of winning, is not determinative — particularly if what is being sold to the public is not a product they want.

For Bush to win, he needs to find a way to get people on board who don't believe he is conservative enough for their liking. His ace-in-the-hole to do just that had long been the idea that a) he was going to win and b) conservatives, ultimately, want the White House back so badly that they are going to get with the guy who looks like the winner.

But now, Jeb is just another guy who could win — the same status Walker, Rubio, Rand and even Huckabee enjoy in the race. That makes the next year much more of an even-playing-field fight. That's not one I am convinced that Bush, given his record and his approach, can win.