Jeb Bush has a problem in Iowa. Almost every other conservative candidate in the race outranks him in the surveys. (The latest, from Quinnipiac University, showed him finishing a distant seventh). Should he freak out, fire his campaign staff, adopt a radical new message?
Absolutely not. First, there is no reason to take primary and caucus polling seriously this early in a presidential race, particularly in a field as crowded as the Republican one. Second, Bush's problem isn't the polls; it's a lack of polarity.
Because, contrary to popular belief, the Republican field doesn't divide neatly between "establishment" candidates and "conservative" ones.
The great fear of many conservative primary voters is that the typical dynamic in GOP presidential primaries goes something like this: There is one well-funded and professional establishment candidate, and then a half-dozen or more conservative candidates. The money and support of party moderates flows to the credible establishment pick, while conservatives divide their efforts and become paralyzed and choosy about their champions.
Some people think that as more and more of the country identifies itself as conservative, and as the continuing influence of 2010's Tea Party rebellion works through the party, that a conservative candidate will rise up and rout the moderates in the party forever. Or, perhaps, instead of the overthrow of one wing of the party, there is simple convergence.
But maybe neither is a helpful way to understand the Republican Party in 2016. Jeb Bush is much more conservative than the 1990s vision of a Republican moderate. And the 2016 field of reputed conservative alternatives to Bush is much more experienced and politically accomplished than the Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Pat Buchanans ever were.
By all accounts, Jeb Bush ran Florida as a conservative governor. He liberalized gun laws, restricted abortion, lowered taxes, and cut the government workforce by about 13,000 even as the population of the state increased. He left his state government with a surplus and a top credit rating. Some of the fiscal and economic achievements do have an asterisk next to them, in the sense that Bush left office before the national housing bubble burst, with a particularly ugly gush in Florida. But this is far from the traditional governing record of Republican moderates in the 1990s, who tended to be pro-choice, fine with gun control, and suspicious of "trickle-down" economics and tax cuts.
Bush used to be denounced by moderate GOP legislators in Florida as a "Shiite Republican," but he has since attracted the moderate label for two reasons. One, his rhetorical style is non-belligerent, and even conciliatory. Two, he supports Common Core educational standards and immigration reform that tilts more toward enduring large-scale immigration.
On the other side, the alternatives to Bush aren't necessarily that much more conservative on the substance of governing. Scott Walker had similar "deviations" from conservative orthodoxy on immigration and Common Core, though he is lately trying to remedy them. Marco Rubio is even more identified with a comprehensive, compromising piece of immigration legislation than Bush himself.
Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are, in different ways, the right-wing poles in the Republican primary debate. But essentially their mission has been to push the conservative wing of the party further into the insurgent or libertarian directions, respectively. They sense the unity of the GOP ideologically, and use that unity as a lever for pivoting the party.
There is no doubt that there is a residue of the conservative/establishment split in the Republican Party. Bush has been locking up big-money donors from the moderate ring. And a number of conservative-leaning voters find him suspicious, and are unlikely to vote for him unless his opponent is Hillary Clinton.
So, how can he win? He actually needs the race to seem more polarized — just along a different axis.
He needs to be seen as the "responsible one" who knows how to run a professional, modern, and, most importantly, winning campaign — and he needs the others to look like amateurs who are injuring each other in the race to get out of the packed clown car. That is exactly the kind of polarity that will lead him to victory in states like New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida with 27 percent of the vote, even as the combined alternative of Walker/Rubio/Paul/Cruz divide 55-60 percent of the vote. It will look like the old conservative-establishment dynamic, but it will be much more driven by style and organization than substance.
Bush has always been conservative enough to win the primary. He just has to prove to a small plurality of voters that he is acceptable and can win.
And he's doing it already.