One of the puzzling developments that have emerged over the course of the current presidential campaign is the lackluster performance of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As Bush has been struggling to breakthrough on the Republican side, Clinton has been struggling to maintain her lead atop the Democratic field. After a few months into the campaign, Bush and Clinton haven’t lived up to the expectations that many political observers had set. Why is that the case? Systemic factors and personal factors could help explain the trials and tribulations that Bush and Clinton have so far endured on the campaign trail.
Systemic factors refer to the nature of political campaigns, which have some necessities that are beyond the control of political candidates. Some of the preliminary steps that political candidates must take consist of finding out what salient issues voters care about, forming a compelling narrative as to why voters should trust a specific candidate to handle those issues, and putting together a winning coalition. The preliminary steps of a political campaign thus require a candidate to have a compelling message, to be a compelling messenger, and to set up a campaign apparatus to galvanize supporters at the grassroots level. In this regard, Bush and Clinton had to get a sense of what issues their base voters care about, offer their solutions to those issues, and connect with as many of their respective party’s base voters as possible.
On the Republican side, given their disappointment in the performance of national Republican leaders, voters seem to be yearning for new faces who are political outsiders with no prior experience in elective office. They seem to be yearning for a non-politician candidate who can at last make good on many promises that have been made to those voters over the years. In this environment, it’s quite difficult for Bush, a consummate political insider, to get some traction in the polls.
Regardless of Bush’s move to issue multiple conservative policy papers on the campaign trail, the overwhelming majority of Republican base voters don’t quite seem to be interested in his candidacy.
On the Democratic side, though the prospects of a Clinton’s history-making presidency as the first woman to be Commander-in-Chief still seem appealing, an increasing number of Democratic voters seem to be yearning for a candidate that they could trust to champion a series of issues that they care about: income inequality, climate change, college affordability, student loans debt, a less hawkish foreign policy, wall street reform, etc.
Though Clinton still sits atop the Democratic field, and though she faces far less competition than Bush, the required primary process and the enthusiastic challenge from her main opponent, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have so far caused her support to dwindle as an increasing number of Democratic voters either support Sanders and/or hope for the candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden.
Upon getting a sense of what issues their targeted audience care about, candidates are usually advised to stake out positions on those issues and package the said positions into a narrative that not only clearly states why a candidate is running for office but also why voters should support the said candidate.
As of now, neither Bush nor Clinton has clearly and consistently stated the reason why they are running for president and why voters should support them. With a lack of a narrative comes a lack of a compelling message. This makes it more difficult for a campaign to remain energetic and purposeful.
Without a compelling message, it goes without saying that a political candidate cannot be a messenger let alone a successful one. No wonder then that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters are currently shunning Bush and prefer various trustworthy messengers who have a compelling message that addresses the issues Republican voters care about.
Clinton seems to be facing the same predicament. Her once-commanding lead has been dwindling over the past few months and her current lead atop the Democratic field seems to be due more to the fact that Democrats may be resigned to her candidacy by default (there’s not yet a better winning alternative) and less to the enthusiastic support of the Democratic base.
To compound matters for Bush and Clinton, some of the personal decisions that they have made have contributed to dragging their poll numbers down. Realizing that his last name is not particularly popular among the electorate – due to his brother George W. Bush’s unpopularity – Bush constantly states he is his “own man.” Yet, it’s been reported that most of his key advisers are his brother’s former advisers, which makes it hard for Bush to distance himself from his brother’s record.
This uneasy situation came to head when Bush struggled answer a question about whether he would still advocate for the war in Iraq – knowing what we now know. Besides, his mangled answers to a question on birthright citizenship and to a question on women’s health issues seem to have reinforced the distrust that many Republican voters have of Bush.
As for Clinton, her decision to use a private e-mail server when she was Secretary of State and her subsequent mishandling of the issue have reinforced the image of an untrustworthy politician that many voters have had of her. Besides, that poor decision to use a private e-mail server has so far consumed her campaign that she is unable to focus on pertinent campaign issues. Moreover, her frequent change of mind on key issues (Iraq War, Keystone XL pipeline, Gay marriage, etc.) seem to contribute to the erosion of her credibility among many Democratic voters.
Bush and Clinton are not known to be great charismatic retail politicians. They are both known for being policy wonks and well-connected individuals who could raise humongous sums of campaign money. However, they are both likely to continue facing key challenges unless they can first articulate a simple, clear, and consistent narrative that honestly answers a simple question: why are you running for President and why should people vote for you?
This question is quite simple and should not be too hard to answer.