Today, the Republican nomination process is a muddle. The Washington Post recently christened Jeb Bush the frontrunner, and for good reason. He is pulling in the top Republican talent -- the donors, consultants, and various policy advisors necessary to fund and run a top-notch campaign.
Yet, his polling numbers are anemic. The average from Real Clear Politics (RCP) shows Bush pulling in just 14 percent nationwide. In New Hampshire, RCP finds him with 16 percent, and 12 percent in Iowa. One might dismiss these figures, considering how early we are in the cycle. But Jeb (“John Ellis Bush”) is a Bush -- and Bushes have been running for national office for nearly 40 years. Republican voters know who he is, and have a pretty good idea of what he stands for. Yet they are not jumping on board, at least not yet.
This is not the first time in history a candidate has been in this spot -- winning the inside game, but underperforming with the public at large. Think back to Phil Gramm in 1996; he ran well with the donor class, but ultimately failed to gain any popular traction. How about Mario Cuomo in 1992? He was sought after by the donor class, but ultimately declined to run.
Yet Jeb Bush presents a unique case in that his name recognition (at least recognition of his last name) is universal. Gramm and even Cuomo were much less familiar, so their polling position early on was less relevant.
Perhaps the better historical parallel harkens back to a very old one -- the GOP nomination of 1880. This is one of my all-time favorites contests, and I discuss it in my new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption. It serves as a lesson for Jeb’s presidential aspirations.
The 1880 campaign has been mostly forgotten, but the nomination that year was really a watershed in the young GOP’s history. Ulysses S. Grant had been out of the White House for four years by that point, and the ensuing time had been hard for the professional political class. Nowadays, when we think of the GOP “professional class” we imagine the mega-donors, strategists, consultants, and lobbyists -- all of whom draw a living off Republican politics in some manner or another. Back then, the professional class hailed from the political machines in states like Pennsylvania and New York. These were the bosses, lieutenants, and various campaign workers who depended on federal patronage, mostly through government jobs like the post offices and customs houses.
Grant had been exceedingly generous to these spoilsmen, but at great cost to the party’s reputation. Corruption had become an issue by the end of his term, and in 1876 the party nominated a reformer, Rutherford Hayes. The spoilsmen -- known then as the “Stalwarts” -- hated Hayes, and wanted rid of him. They were not alone; Hayes had aggravated reformers, too, so he had utterly no hope for renomination in 1880. That year, the Stalwarts threw their weight behind Grant for an unprecedented third term, under the belief that he would be a more generous dispenser of federal largesse.
It nearly worked. On the first ballot, Grant collected a little more than 300 delegates, putting him well within striking distance of the 379 needed to win the nomination. His support was centered in states with strong GOP machines -- Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania -- as well as Southern states where Democrats had a stranglehold on electoral politics, and the handful of Republicans desperately needed federal patronage. But Grant’s support stalled beyond that.