Inside Jeb Bush's campaign headquarters, where push is on for long haul

His candidacy has reached a critical juncture, but staffers have a plan to grind out a victory.
Published September 26 2015
Updated September 27 2015

MIAMI — Jeb Bush on Friday completed another grueling week raising money and campaigning in Texas, Iowa, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida.

Here's what the candidate with the busiest schedule in the presidential race had to show for it: The latest polls have him sixth among Republicans in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and handily losing to Donald Trump in, of all places, his home state of Florida.

Back at "the Pit," as his team calls its dreary, fifth-floor campaign headquarters with a sweeping and equally dreary view of rooftops in Miami-Dade's Little Managua area, advisers seem keenly aware that, perception-wise, their candidate has reached a critical juncture. The last thing they need is for the sense that Bush is a washout to take hold. That image can be self-fulfilling and tough to turn around.

"The cable TV chatter is obsessed with early polling and that has the lowest correlation of nominating success of almost any indicator you can find," said senior campaign strategist David Kochel, whose Iowa nice demeanor masks a reputation for intensity and meticulous strategic planning.

"We wouldn't trade positions with anyone in terms of where we're situated. This campaign is built for a long nominating process. Few others are," Kochel said, sitting at a conference table inside an office with disconcertingly few people.

In a crowded field of credible Republican candidates, no one has anywhere near the extensive and far-flung campaign apparatus as the former Florida governor. Just look at his foothold in states voting in February:

• A dozen paid staffers and two offices in Iowa.

• A dozen paid staffers in New Hampshire, with two offices and the likelihood of two or three more soon.

• Eight paid staffers in South Carolina and, soon, three offices up and running.

• At least seven paid staffers organizing in Nevada, where as few as 40,000 Republicans could turn out for the caucuses.

No Republican in modern history has won the nomination without winning either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, and Bush has fallen toward the middle or back of the pack in both states.

"It's probably all over if he loses both Iowa and New Hampshire," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Barack Obama's Florida campaign in 2008. "If Jeb doesn't get an early win, all the money in the world isn't going to change the direction of the race."

• • •

Five or six months from now, analysts may look back at this point in the Republican primary and see that Bush was already doomed. His campaign money and organizational muscle may be insufficient to overcome the GOP's antagonism toward nominating a third Bush and another establishment-backed moderate.

Yes, it's true that if polls taken months before the voting starts mattered greatly then Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain or Rick Perry would have been nominated in 2012. It's also true, however, that very little has gone according to the Jeb Bush campaign plan.

His team expected to show so much fundraising might that it would "shock and awe" rivals away from running.

Bush allies initially saw the rise of Trump as a great help, with the bombastic reality TV star drowning out every other alternative to Bush.

Bush himself had talked about running a joyful, inspirational campaign.

Now the plan is to grind it out, state by state, week by week, month by month, until Bush is the last Republican standing.

Unspoken by Bush campaign staff is the expectation that his Right to Rise super PAC will spend millions to tear down several rivals with TV attack ads. The committee so far is airing only positive ads about Bush in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but that's unlikely to last so long as other candidates are obstacles to Bush.

It's very much the Romney campaign strategy of 2012, albeit with a less scripted candidate. The irony of Bush running as Romney 2.0 is that he and many of his allies so often derided the Romney campaign.

The former Massachusetts governor in 2011 actually looked far stronger than Bush does today: a consistently impressive debater facing a much weaker set of rivals than Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina and Trump.

"Romney had run before — and only four years earlier," Slater Bayliss, a Tallahassee lobbyist and former aide to Gov. Bush, said. "Gov. Bush has not run a campaign since 2002, and even Michael Jordan was a little rusty when he came out of retirement. Just like Michael Jordan, you're seeing Gov. Bush shaking off the rust."

Romney at this point also faced doubts about his ability to hold off insurgent challengers or even win over more than a quarter of the Republican electorate. But, unlike Bush, polls showed Romney way ahead in New Hampshire, and in second place behind Perry in Iowa.

"I'm not sure the numbers mean a whole lot at this point, but I think in the next month or two they're going to start to mean something," said Spartanburg, S.C., financial planner Barry Wynn, a top Bush supporter in the Palmetto State and former state party chairman. "As you get into October, November, you need to start building up some of that momentum, and I think he can do that."

Through June, Bush raised about $11 million for his campaign, which he can use for travel and other direct expenses, and more than $103 million for his Right to Rise super PAC, which can take unlimited donations. Right to Rise mostly will pay for TV ads, and can't coordinate directly with the Bush campaign.

Raising money for the campaign is a top priority because that's what pays for Bush's far-flung organization. Bush fundraisers say it has been harder to raise donations legally capped at $2,700 per donor as Bush has struggled for traction this summer. Ann Herberger, his longtime top fundraiser, recently moved back to Miami from New York to oversee the efforts, and three fundraising staffers departed.

After growing fast early on, the campaign cut expenses and some salaries but declined to be specific. When a reporter visited last week, fewer than a dozen people worked quietly in what looked more like a vast storage area for unused desks, tables and bookshelves than a bustling presidential campaign headquarters.

• • •

Here's the rough path to the nomination envisioned by the Bush team:

The Iowa caucuses are expected to take place Feb. 1. Few analysts see Bush as a leading contender in caucuses traditionally dominated by social conservatives, but those low expectations could be helpful.

Kochel, who ran Romney's Iowa campaign, has 30 years of political experience in Iowa and knows where to find votes for the state's arcane caucus elections. Nowhere does an experienced organization matter more than in Iowa, and the Bush campaign expects his appeal to social conservatives is underestimated.

New Hampshire's primary is not yet scheduled, but national GOP leaders envisioned it for Feb. 9. Voters there are late-deciders, independent-minded and usually more moderate.

The primary can be unpredictable since voters can decide on election day which party's primary they want to vote in. Bush is now in fifth place in the state widely seen as a must-win.

South Carolina's Republican primary is expected to be Feb. 20, and so far only Bush and Rubio appear to be building formidable campaign organizations.

South Carolina has been good to the Bush family since Lee Atwater was advising George H.W. Bush to lose his striped-cloth watch band and talk up his fondness for pork rinds. The state had a track record of backing the establishment favorite — and eventual nominee — until Newt Gingrich won there in 2012.

A good deal of the long-standing Bush network is behind Jeb this time, Wynn said, but many are also standing with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who barely registers in most other early state polls. If Graham drops out, Bush allies say, his machine is most likely to get behind Bush.

Nevada caucuses are set for Feb. 23, and Bush is relying on the same team that helped deliver the state to Romney.

Bush today can point to no state voting in February where he clearly is likely to win. But nor can anyone point to any state Bush is writing off.

"You have to be successful in February to win the nomination," said Tim Miller, Bush's communications director. "Jeb has a lot of different paths in February. A lot of the other candidates don't."

On March 1 the primary contest drastically widens as Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia vote.

The Bush campaign sees strong prospects in Vermont and Massachusetts, thanks to TV spending in the Boston area. He has deep political ties in Texas, too, and the campaign boasts the biggest organization in Georgia.

Romney performed weakly in most of the Southern states that vote on March 1. Bush's team insists he has stronger appeal to Southern voters.

It takes about 1,200 delegates to capture the GOP nomination, and through March 1 each state will deliver delegates proportionally according to how the candidates perform. That changes March 15, when Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri vote. Whoever wins Florida — home state of Bush and Rubio — wins all 99 delegates, just as whoever wins Ohio — home state of Kasich — wins all 66 delegates.

Once assumed to be a lock for Bush or Rubio, Florida no longer looks predictable. Four polls of Republican voters this month have Bush in third place, with Trump leading and either Rubio or Ben Carson in second place.

Is Bush's campaign over if he loses Florida?

"We will win Florida," Kochel responded.

Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.