This week Jeb Bush made it official: He would like to be president. He starts out with weak poll numbers for such a familiar name, finishing behind Mitt Romney in most surveys of Republican voters. The lack of enthusiasm among conservative Republicans for another Bush has some analysts downplaying his chances. But if Jeb Bush can hold things together through an inevitable rough patch next January, when the Iowa caucuses will anoint a challenger to his right, he’ll probably win big in the blue-state primaries of California, New York, Illinois, etc.
That’s how John McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012 beat Southern and Farm Belt favorites Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, respectively. The difference between the presidential Republican Party and the congressional Republican Party is that blue-state voters have little or no influence over the latter. Because Massachusetts has no Republican members of Congress, for example, it has zero chance of moderating the GOP caucus, but it still holds a presidential primary that will awards delegates to Bush or another candidate viewed with suspicion by the Tea Party faction.
Similarly, Hillary Clinton may face a primary opponent to her left (maybe Elizabeth Warren but more likely Bernie Sanders or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley) who prospers in Iowa or New Hampshire, but she’s likely to run up huge delegate leads in the red states of the South and Midwest.
Bush and Clinton also benefit from the trench warfare between the two major parties. Things could break so that either the Democrats or Republicans win an Electoral College landslide in 2016, but their geographic bases are not going to change no matter whom they nominate. Hillary Clinton is not going to win Arkansas or Kentucky in a competitive race, and neither is someone with supposed appeal to rural Southerners, like Jim Webb. Chris Christie isn’t going to win California or Connecticut, and he’d have a tough time carrying his own New Jersey. Things aren’t like they were in 1976, when the selections of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford (over Ronald Reagan) radically reshaped the campaign map. “Electability” may count against candidates at the extremes (Sanders, Ted Cruz), but the personalities and the dynastic baggage of Bush and Clinton aren’t going to matter much in November. If they can raise money, their parties will be happy to nominate them.
What about the appeal of fresh faces and new ideas? Nah. Bush and Clinton can adopt enough reformist language to head off the candidates who most appeal to newspaper columnists. Republican primary voters are not going to go for Rand Paul’s new ideas on criminal-justice reform (“tough on crime” suits those voters just fine) or for Paul Ryan’s ideas on entitlement reform (“hands off my Social Security” motivates a lot of GOP voters). Democratic primary voters won’t cotton to tax reform if it means eliminating deductions on home mortgages and the like, and few have an interest in spending a lot of money on revitalizing poor urban neighborhoods. Bush and Clinton can talk about embracing innovation while warning about their opponents’ “risky” ideas.
There will be “boomlets” for other candidates throughout 2015, some created by the political press. April 15 is a perfect time to write about libertarian Rand Paul catching fire, July 4 is good for boosting the GOP’s diversity (see Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio if Bush doesn’t prevent him from running), and next November’s municipal elections make a good hook for an urban candidate like O’Malley. And Bush in particular could turn out to be such a limp candidate that he’ll fade out before the New Hampshire primary. But the fact that they’re such familiar names is not a handicap for either Jeb or Hillary.