Jeb Bush, during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday morning, revealed that he doesn't really understand how damaging his lifeless performance at last week's debate in Colorado was to his presidential candidacy.
Asked by "Meet" moderator Chuck Todd whether he understood why some of his supporters thought something was "missing", Bush responded: "No, I don't." When Todd followed up by asking why people might think that, here's what Bush said:
" Probably because they watch the cable shows and they read the political press. But if they followed me on the campaign trail, like last week in New Hampshire where we had 300 people totally connected, totally believing in me, I think they would see a different candidate."
Let's take Bush at his word. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he is much more energetic and forceful on the campaign trail than he has been in the three presidential debates to date. Bloomberg's Mark Halperin, who travels the country watching candidates, seems to agree when he tweeted: "No one who knows anything about politics would write off the fired-up version of @JebBush speaking in Iowa now."
And, let's say that Bush is getting, on average, 300 people at each of the events he does in a place like Iowa or New Hampshire. (That would be a very big crowd for every event but let's give Bush the benefit of the doubt.)
In the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses, there were 121,501 votes cast. Rick Santorum won with 29,839 votes. Mitt Romney was second with 29,805; Ron Paul finished third with 26,036 votes.
In the 2012 New Hampshire primaries, there were 248,845 ballots cast. Romney won with 97,532 votes followed by Paul at 56,848 and Jon Huntsman at 41,945.
So, to win place or show in Iowa, Jeb would need to hold roughly 87 events of 300 people each -- every one of whom was not only "totally believing" in him but voting for him, too. To come in the top three in New Hampshire, Bush would need 138 events of 300 people each.
Possible? Sure. Probable? Probably not.
Yes, I realize that Bush is capable of winning votes from people who don't come to one of his rallies in Iowa or New Hampshire. Before this campaign is over, he and his affiliated Right to Rise super PAC will spend double (and likely much, much more than that) of any of his rivals for the nomination on TV ads.
But, I also think there are considerable logical problems inherent in Bush's assertion that what really matters isn't debates but that fact that he is killing it in relatively small group settings. That's illustrative of the anecdotal evidence fallacy that politicians (and lots of reporters) fall into. There are lots of people cheering for me at every event I go to ergo the polls are wrong and I am winning. Mitt Romney's belief at the end of the 2012 campaign that he would win was based on that particular anecdotal miscalculation.
Some perspective is important here. Fourteen million people watched the CNBC debate on Wednesday night. Twenty-plus million watched the first two debates on Fox News and CNN, respectively. Not all of those people were Republicans; the vast majority who were Republicans likely don't live in Iowa (population 3.1 million) or New Hampshire (population 1.3 million).
But, the debates shape perception on a grand scale. And perceptions of the candidates -- Marco Rubio ascendant, Jeb not -- matter not just to major donors, who like to be with winners, but also to undecided voters, who like to be with winners too. When the brightest lights come on, you have to find a way to be your best; that's that nature of running (and winning) presidential races in the modern-era of politics.
In short: It takes a lot of stellar 300-person events to make up for one less-than-great debate performance. Bush, I'm guessing, understands that reality even if he doesn't want to acknowledge it publicly.
His inability to perform on the biggest stage grossly outweighs the passion he is able to project in more intimate events. That equation is why Bush finds himself in such an unenviable spot in this contest.
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