Jeb Bush, the early Republican frontrunner, is presently polling in the single digits despite an ambitious advertising blitz. Bush was a weak frontrunner from the beginning, winning plaudits from entrenched members of the GOP hierarchy and obtaining support from traditional Republican benefactors at a time when establishmentarians are reviled by the body politic. Conservative insurrectionist candidates like U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Real Estate mogul Donald Trump passed Bush in the polls by galvanizing grassroots conservatives.
Most frontrunners stumble, usually suffering a challenge from a more ideologically unadulterated candidate whose rhetoric energizes the party base. Sometimes the establishment candidate regains his footing. Other times, an insurrectionist candidacy takes off like a run-away train while the establishment candidate has difficulty leaving the station. They are victims of "Restless Insurrectionist Syndrome."
Jeb Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, in 1988, and his brother George W. Bush in 2000, were both early frontrunners with the preponderance of the GOP grand poobahs backing them. However, both candidates faltered, then recovered to pocket the nomination. The elder Bush finished an embarrassing third place in Iowa before coming back to win in New Hampshire. The junior Bush lost New Hampshire by a bone crushing 18 percentage points before reviving his campaign by winning in South Carolina.
The best example of an early frontrunner faltering and then rebounding was U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in 2004. In many respects, Kerry's predicament is a mirror image of Jeb Bush's predicament today. Both candidates have milquetoast personalities, a patrician pedigree, and a cerebral persona.
In 2003, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean took a commanding lead in the polls by spotlighting his opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. Kerry had voted for the resolution to invade. The resolution gave President George W. Bush the authorization to invade. Just a month prior to the Iowa caucuses, Kerry was mustering just 4% of the vote. However, under the stewardship of campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, union support, and an improved ground game, Kerry became focused like a laser beam on winning in Iowa.
Fortunately for Kerry, many voters came to think Dean as too far left and thus unelectable. In addition, Dean and U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt (D-MO) engaged in mutually assured destruction by assiduously attacking each other on the airwaves. The result is that both candidates fell in the polls. Kerry, as the default choice, rose to the top and won the caucuses. His momentum continued into the New Hampshire primaries and propelled him to the nomination.
Contrariwise, in 1963, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller was the establishment choice for the Republican nomination and was the early frontrunner. At the time, the establishment was comprised of mostly moderate and liberal Republicans. Like Bush and Kerry, he had the backing of his party's high command. However, Rockefeller failed to excite the GOP base. The party had not nominated a bone fide conservative since Calvin Coolidge in 1924, and the party's conservative base, situated mostly in the South and Midwest, launched a mutiny on the establishment in an effort to nominate an indubitably conservative candidate. In response, Rockefeller antagonized conservatives by waging war on what he called "extremist groups."
Riled conservatives who resented the characterization of being branded as extreme, campaigned full-throttle for U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), an unreserved conservative who called for the party to move to the right. Goldwater gave the conservative base the red meat they craved: emphasizing states rights, low taxes, and suggesting that participating in the Social Security system should become voluntary.
In addition, family values became an issue, as many in the party were offended by Rockefeller's divorce and quick remarriage. Rockefeller harbored a formidable 13-point-lead over Goldwater in the critically important California primary. However, the week before the primary, Rockefeller's new wife, Happy Rockefeller, had a child, which reminded voters that Rockefeller had been recreant to his first wife. Goldwater won that primary and steamrolled to the nomination.
Similarly, in the 1972 race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME) was the early frontrunner. He had performed well as the party's Vice Presidential nominee in 1968. However, his past support for the War in Vietnam and his equivocal stance on withdrawing troops from Vietnam discontented the party's "new politics" leftist base, which included many younger voters who wanted a candidate who would forcefully call for an end to the war. Muskie ran an overly cautious campaign, refusing to confront hard issues. When he was asked if he would make the Vietnam War a major issue, he responded: "No, I don't think so. It's a divisive issue."
Enter U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD). When he came into the race, the odds against him achieving the Democratic nomination were 200-1. However, McGovern animated the grassroots and became a tribune of the anti-war movement.
McGovern's campaign was inadvertently assisted by Muskie's reaction to a letter forged by shananagators within the campaign of Republican President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon feared facing Muskie in the General Election. The letter, written to the Editor of the influential Manchester Union Leader, was published just two weeks prior to the New Hampshire primary. The letter-writer alleged to have asked Muskie how he could represent African-Americans as President when there were so few African-Americans in his home state of Maine. This letter went on to state that Muskie responded: "No Blacks, but we have Canucks" (A derogatory term for French Canadians who have a large representation in Maine). Moreover, there was an attendant claim in the paper that Muskie's wife was a hard drinker and used off-color language during the campaign.
In a strategic miscalculation for the ages, Muskie chose to take on the letter-writer and the newspaper by standing outside in front of the newspaper building and excoriating the paper and its publisher William Loeb. It was reported in the media the next day that Muskie cried, though some observers maintain the water on Muskie's face was from snowflakes. After the incident, some New Hampshire voters began questioning if Muskie had the temperament to be President. Many defected to the surging McGovern. While Muskie won the primary, he garnered an underwhelming 46.4% of the vote in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. Muskie never reclaimed his early electoral momentum. He dropped out of the race in late April, telling news reporters: "I do not have the money to continue."
Supporting the old adage: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," in 1900 the Democrats had a dream candidate in Admiral George Dewey. He was the party's early frontrunner. On paper, Dewey was a dream candidate to challenge the popular Republican William McKinley. Dewey had become a national icon for his role in defeating the Spanish during the Spanish-American War at the critical Battle of Manila Bay. When Dewey returned home, parades were held in his honor.
However, the early frontrunner made an unforgivable gaffe by asserting that he would be subservient to the U.S. Congress as President. He vowed to: "execute the laws of Congress as faithfully as I have always executed the orders of my superiors." In addition, Dewey came across as supercilious by suggesting that the presidency would not be a difficult job: "I am convinced that the office of the President is not such a very difficult one to fill." Dewey never recovered from these gaffes and consequently abandoned his candidacy. Proving that he was not really much of a Democrat to begin with, Dewey endorsed Republican McKinley over the eventual Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan.
In 1924, the early frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination was William McAdoo. McAdoo had gained recognition as Treasury Secretary under President Woodrow Wilson and was married to his daughter Eleanor. However, McAdoo's frontrunner status devolved when it was revealed that he had received an annual retainer as a lawyer for oil operative Edward Doheney who was implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal. The bribery scandal involved the late Republican President Warren G. Harding and many of his coefficients. In addition, Many Democrats were put off by the fact that the Klu Klux Klan supported McAdoo.
That year, the Democratic National Convention in New York City was deadlocked, with McAdoo now just one of many choices for the conventioneers. He was no longer the frontrunner. At the time, the party required 2/3 of the delegates to agree on the nominee (Today a candidate needs a simple majority). The winner of the nomination was the little known former U.S. Solicitor General Johns W. Davis. Davis secured the nomination on the 103rd ballot after 17 grueling days. Humorist Will Rogers quipped: "New York had invited the delegates as visitors, not to live there."
Jeb Bush, as the milquetoast establishment candidate, is the victim of Restless Insurrectionist Syndrome, where the party base supports candidates who are anathema to the party establishment. Bush has to hope that the insurgents will implode, and that, like John Kerry in 2004, the establishment will rise again.