A new Quinnipiac poll in the Hawkeye State makes that case in stark terms. Yes, Bush is tied for fifth place at 5 percent. Yes, he is 23 points behind Ben Carson and 15 points behind Donald Trump. But go beyond those topline numbers and it gets worse — way worse — for Bush. Among white, born-again evangelical voters — the single most influential bloc of voters in recent Iowa Republican caucuses — Bush gets just 3 percent of the vote, one-12th of the support Carson wins among that group. Among tea party voters, Bush doesn't register even 1 percent of the vote. Among "very" conservative voters, Bush gets just 3 percent.
But wait, there's more! Asked which (if any) candidate they could not see themselves supporting, one in five Iowa Republicans named Bush — the second-highest number behind only Donald Trump (30 percent won't vote for.) One in 3 tea party supporters said they could not see themselves supporting Bush. Among likely Republican caucus-goers, 43 percent have a favorable opinion of Bush, while 51 percent have an unfavorable one; only Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, George Pataki and Lindsey Graham — none of whom are seen as serious contenders in Iowa (or anywhere else) — rate worse in the eyes of GOP caucus-goers.
Back in May, it was easy for Bush allies to dismiss his low poll numbers and the significant opposition to him among key constituencies. After all, the vote in Iowa was nine months off and the campaign — both in the state and nationally — had not really begun in any meaningful way.
It's not May anymore. And the caucuses are less than four months away, not nine. And Bush is still at 5 percent in the primary ballot test — the same place he stood way back in May. Yes, I am aware that Bush, or more accurately, his super PAC, has $100 million in the bank to spend on selling the governor to voters in Iowa (and New Hampshire and South Carolina and beyond). But I am also aware that that super PAC has been on TV in Iowa since mid-September with a heavy ad buy. Bush's numbers have not moved appreciably. That would suggest that it's possible that no matter how much money Bush throws at the state or how well produced his ads are, it may not matter. Iowa voters may simply not be buying what Bush is selling.
The good news for Bush is that with a GOP field that boasts 15 candidates — the vast majority of whom have a supporting super PAC — the likelihood of a drawn-out nomination fight is high. That means that winning Iowa might be less important than it has been in years past. In fact, the last two Iowa caucus winners have fizzled out; Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 then limped to a distant third-place finish in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. He isn't president right now. And he wasn't the Republican nominee back then.
It's possible, of course, that Bush will go all-in on Iowa — unleashing his financial advantages to convince the first-in-the-nation voters that he is their best candidate. Based on his lack of positive movement between May and today, however, there's the very real possibility that none of that spending or focus changes much of anything. My guess is that Bush will never formally "skip" Iowa but rather, seeing the same numbers that I see, downplay his chances there and limit his spending while focusing his time and his money on friendlier states.
Winning the presidential nomination is about making hard choices about where to push and where to back away. Bush will face a very hard choice when it comes to Iowa sometime very soon.