Jeb Bush acknowledged Friday what has been obvious for weeks: The rise of Donald Trump and other political outsiders has fundamentally reshaped the contours of the 2016 presidential race, forcing Bush to retrench with a major downsizing of his political operation and a reassessment of how and where he will campaign.
A week after reporting third-quarter fundraising results that only the Bush staff claimed were adequate, the onetime Republican front-runner who now lags in the polls detailed a series of substantial cutbacks and changes to his strategy.
Bush ordered across-the-board pay cuts, chopped his headquarters staff and slashed spending on travel and consultants. The former Florida governor is husbanding his limited resources to spend on television advertisements and organizing efforts in the early-voting states, in particular New Hampshire. And he is revamping his schedule to spend more time meeting with voters there and in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.
Asked Friday about the cutbacks at a Regent University forum, Bush insisted that he is not in trouble.
“This means lean and mean, and means I have an ability to adapt,” Bush told the school’s founder, televangelist Pat Robertson, at the forum in Virginia Beach. “The circumstances when we started the election were different,” he added, noting Trump’s surprising rise and durability.
Until now, Bush’s Miami-based team had argued that theirs was the lone campaign built to go the distance. They said Bush was uniquely positioned for a lengthy fight for delegates extending past the early states, through a series of March contests and well into the spring. But with Friday’s course correction, Bush is refocusing on organizing in the first four states in hopes of scoring an early victory somewhere.
“We will take every single step necessary to ensure Jeb is the Republican nominee and next President of the United States,” read a Bush campaign memorandum outlining the changes. “We are unapologetic about adjusting our game plan to meet the evolving dynamics of this race to ensure that outcome.”
The campaign — which entered October with $10.3 million in the bank — is slashing its budget, excluding media and voter contact efforts, by 45 percent from its June plans. Payroll will be reduced by 40 percent, with 25 percent of the staff remaining at the national headquarters. Other aides will decamp to early states, work on ballot access programs at a reduced wage or leave. The campaign also will cut travel expenses by 20 percent.
Bush aides cast the spending cuts as deft and argued they would help fend off perhaps more drastic cutbacks later in the year.
Bush’s retrenchment drew immediate parallels to Sen. John McCain’s campaign implosion in the summer of 2007. The Arizona Republican laid off most of his staff, including several top strategists, and retreated to New Hampshire to grind out a comeback. He eventually won the 2008 nomination.
Unlike McCain, however, Bush has no deep history with the voters of New Hampshire or any other early state. McCain’s task was to remind people why they had liked him, while Bush’s challenge in the three months before voting begins is to find ways to win over people who have been cool to his overtures thus far.
“All successful nominees and ultimately successfully elected presidential candidates walk many miles through the valley of the shadow of political death,” said Steve Schmidt, McCain’s top strategist in 2008. “Resiliency is the most underappreciated virtue.”
Schmidt said realigning resources was “smart” of Bush, but he was skeptical of Bush’s message stressing governing expertise at a moment when political outsiders are en vogue.
“The issues that the Bush campaign are struggling with are not about the structure of the campaign staff,” Schmidt said. “It’s a Republican electorate that has moved substantially to the right and that is deeply angry at the establishment of the party. Putting the chips down on the ‘experience’ line may prove to be a genius investment, but it’s certainly a courageous one, looking at the current state of the electorate’s mood.”
For several months now, as Trump and retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson have smothered Bush and other candidates, Bush’s core message about his experience as governor of Florida has not broken through.
On the same day Bush announced his cutbacks, Trump rallied throngs of supporters at the luxury golf resort bearing his name just four miles from Bush’s Miami headquarters.
In Iowa, Carson and Trump lead the GOP field with 28 and 19 percent, respectively, while Bush has 5 percent support, according to a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll released Friday.
One major Bush fundraiser, requesting anonymity to speak candidly, said of the Bush team: “They’ve finally woken up and realized that Trump may be for real. Initially, they thought, ‘This clown will self-destruct.’ It hasn’t happened.”
Heading into next week’s debate and into November, Bush plans to subtly adjust his message by presenting himself as someone who can “fix” a broken Washington and by focusing on national security, his advisers said.
By zeroing in on national security, however, Bush invites a discussion about the Iraq legacy of his brother, former president George W. Bush. Some former advisers to the 43rd president are now providing Jeb Bush with advice on foreign affairs.
Bush plans to step up his appearances at town hall meetings and at retail stops in the early states and is expected to appear more alongside members of his immediate family, including his wife, Mexican-born Columba, and their youngest son, Jeb Jr. Some close friends and Florida allies will also travel on Bush’s behalf.
“We recognize that there has to be an adjustment in the approach going forward,” said Bush’s communications director, Tim Miller. “Part of that is making sure there’s more time for us to use our best resources, which is our candidate, and have him in front of voters, have him in the arena where he’s comfortable and shows his strength.”
Some Republican strategists, however, note that Bush has been appearing before voters all year but has failed to overcome resistance to a third Bush presidency or find a message that inspires activists.
“They don’t have a staff problem,” said one presidential campaign veteran who requested anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “They have a candidate performance issue. The candidate better get better — very fast.”
After Bush raised an eye-popping $103 million in the first six months of the year for his allied super PAC, Right to Rise, his fundraising for the official campaign slowed considerably over the summer. Bush’s donors and other supporters have grown concerned about his inability to catch fire with Republican voters, despite heavy spending on television advertisements by the Bush campaign and the super PAC.
Privately, some donors have been fretting and eyeing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who won plaudits for his debate performances and has shown momentum in polls as an establishment alternative. Donors said senior campaign officials have sought to quiet their concerns. Finance director Heather Larrison held a conference call this week explaining the steps the campaign was taking to improve its financial outlook.
But one Bush fundraiser who requested anonymity to speak freely said: “It feels very much like a death spiral, and it breaks my heart. I don’t know anyone who wants to reinvest now.” The campaign, this person added, has been “head-scratchingly bad in every element. I wouldn’t be shocked in 60 days from now if he wasn’t in the race.”
News of the shake-up comes as top bundlers are flying this weekend to Houston for a strategy summit with Bush and his senior advisers, as well as former presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush.
Jeb Bush settled on the changes after days of deliberations with his top aides. The decision was conveyed to rank-and-file staffers Friday morning, though staffers said they were not immediately told whether they would be reassigned or let go. The downsizing abruptly darkened the start-up atmosphere inside Bush’s sprawling hurricane-proof office in Miami’s “Little Managua” neighborhood.
Jim Dyke, who is leading Bush’s South Carolina effort, said he welcomed the changes. His team has six full-time staffers and two consultants, with more expected to be added.
“These changes are smart,” Dyke wrote in an e-mail. “Better to take strategic medicine (especially when it benefits the early states) than have emergency surgery.”
Sullivan reported from Miami. Dan Balz, Matea Gold, Tom Hamburger and Sarah Pulliam Bailey in Washington contributed to this report.