Florida's political insiders aren't giving up on Jeb Bush yet.
Despite Bush's monthslong struggle to gain traction and lift himself out of single-digit support, the latest Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll found an overwhelming majority — 78 percent — of more than 150 veteran political operatives, fundraisers and other politicos surveyed last week expect Bush still will be running by Florida's March 15 presidential primary.
Even after Bush and his allies have spent more than $50 million, he lags well behind Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in early state and national polls. He would have to get through about two dozen caucus and primary elections before Florida, where the latest polls put him in fifth place.
Still, among Florida insiders who know Bush far better than most political observers, 29 percent say they expect Bush to win the Florida primary, while 35 percent predicted Rubio would win Florida, 30 percent said Trump, and 5 percent said Cruz. Mind you, any poll of Florida's political establishment is sure to have a pro-Bush bias.
"I still hold out hope for Jeb," one Republican said. "In Tuesday's debate, he showed his willingness to fight. Trump will fade. Trump is like the TV show you thought was amazing as a kid but is stupid when you watch it as an adult. The question is how soon Trump's supporters grow up."
A Democrat was skeptical: "Jeb Bush has to make it though nearly 30 primaries or caucuses before he even gets to Florida. Unless he can unexpectedly break through with an early success in New Hampshire, South Carolina or several of the March 1 states, it's hard to see how he will still be standing on the Ides of March."
The Insider Poll is an entirely unscientific survey of Florida's political establishment, which includes many longtime Bush admirers, including people currently working on his campaign or actively raising money for him. They reflect conventional wisdom and perhaps wishful thinking among Sunshine State political elites who used to be far more bullish about Bush's prospects.
In April, only 2 percent of our Insider Poll participants expected Bush to be out of the race by March, and 37 percent expected Rubio would be finished. This week, less than 6 percent predicted Rubio would be out by March, and 22 percent said Bush would be gone from the race.
"Sad to see what's happened to Jeb. He's a long way from the confident governor we know. He started off as a happy warrior, but getting tagged with the 'low-energy guy' morphed him into a guy who seems uncomfortable in his own skin," one Republican lamented. "I think Marco will carry Florida in the general but won't have the coattails to win the Senate for the GOP, not unlike Bush and Nelson in 2000."
Asked whom they expect to win the Republican nomination, 27 percent said Rubio, 25 percent said Bush, 24 percent said Cruz and 22 percent Trump.
"I've finally given up on Jeb — $35 million on TV and he hasn't moved the needle," a Democrat said. "Rubio is the only candidate on the stage at the last debate that actually looked like he could win the nomination. Everyone else is just not inspiring or straight-up crazy. I just can't imagine they nominate a Cruz or Trump — who would have a slim to zero chance of winning the general."
The Florida insiders were divided on the general election, with 53 percent predicting a Democrat will win the White House and 47 percent predicting a Republican. This month's Insiders included 86 Republicans, 61 Democrats and 10 people registered to neither major party.
"GOP electorate seems hell-bent on an outsider who is unelectable," one Republican said.
"I keep waiting to wake up from this nightmare," said another.
Asked about Florida's much lower-profile U.S. Senate race, 55 percent predicted Republicans would hold the seat being vacated by Rubio and 45 percent said a Democrat would win it.
A whopping 90 percent of the Insiders expect U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy to be the Democratic nominee, rather than U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, but the Republican primary appears more unpredictable. Forty-five percent said Pinellas U.S. Rep. David Jolly would be the GOP nominee, 29 percent predicted U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of northeast Florida, 18 percent said Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, and 2 percent predicted defense contractor Todd Wilcox of Orlando. Six percent said they expected someone else — someone not yet in the race — to win the Republican nomination.
"Look for two especially capable U.S. Senate candidates — R David Jolly and D Patrick Murphy — to grapple next November," one independent insider wrote. "Republican candidates firmly hold a historical advantage in Florida Senate races during presidential election years when no incumbent is running. Like in 1980, 1988 and 2004, important in 2016 for a R Senate win in Florida will be long coattails of the R presidential candidate heading the ticket, like Sen. Marco Rubio."
Those surveyed for our latest Insider Poll are listed on the Buzz blog at t ampabay.com/buzz.