In an alternate universe, Jeb Bush would currently be preparing for the most trying half year of his life. The former governor of Florida was the favorite to be the Republican nominee for president. But his strengths -- a famous last name, deep pocketed donors, and a well-regarded brand of thoughtful conservatism -- were overwhelmed by other factors. It wasn't just a bombastic billionaire who seemed hell-bent on humiliating Jeb at every turn. It was also something far simpler: his last name.
"Our whole issue was related to dynasty or this sort of tough factor," Tim Miller, Jeb's former communications director said. "And neither of those things are fixable."
In the latest episode of our "Candidate Confessional" podcast, Miller, who accompanied Jeb on most of his travel and was among the inner circle of advisers, pulled back the curtain on what went wrong for the campaign. In the process, he laid bare some troubling conclusions for a Republican Party that stands on the verge of choosing that bombastic billionaire -- one Donald J. Trump -- as its presidential nominee.
Presidential campaigns, Miller explained, are becoming staging grounds for only two types of politicians: those who eclipse everyone else with showmanship and those who are so scripted you can't discern if any humanity remains. Voters are left with a Hobson's choice and candidates like Jeb -- clunky, goofy and not entirely scripted -- suffer.
Miller got his first whiff of this problem as a narrative developed that his boss was gaffe-prone. Some of it, admittedly, was Jeb's own making. There was a plea to the crowd to give him applause, a promise of a wet kiss for spending cuts and a disastrous response to the question of whether he'd support, again, the invasion of Iraq.
"We knew in the moment" that that answer was a problem, Miller said of the Iraq response, though he pleaded that the question had been misinterpreted by his candidate.
But some of it was a byproduct of the modern campaign construct. Jeb had run his last race more than a dozen years prior and was unaccustomed to a click-thirsty press corps.
"I do feel like Marco [Rubio] and Ted [Cruz] and even people who didn't do as well like Bobby Jindal, and [Scott] Walker, they sort of grew up in this media environment where they had been burned before and they had been bitten by the sort of 24 hour media environment," Miller said. "Whereas if Jeb made a gaffe or whatever in 2002, Adam Smith wrote a story for the Tampa Bay Times the next day and it was over. ...He didn't build up that alligator skin like Marco has."
Jeb's rust was compounded by Trump, who delighted at portraying his gaffes as massive character flaws. When the businessman first entered the race, Bush made the strategic choice to ignore him. Jeb "initially was on the side of, my whole campaign is going to be consumed by Trump," Miller said. "If I start responding to every time he says something crazy about me, I'm never gonna talk about something else."
As the insults piled up, strategic adjustments had to be made. Not only had Trump accused Jeb of supporting immigration reform because his wife was Mexican -- "You can't let an attack on your wife go by for political reasons but also for moral reasons," as Miller aptly explained -- but his vicious portrayals of Bush were getting commercial-free coverage.
"He lands at the state fair in Iowa and he has this huge press conference. And the whole press conference was about Jeb," Miller recalled. "I remember sitting there in my apartment … watching the livestream of it and thinking, 'Okay, we can't just say nothing.' This idea that we are going to ignore him and he is going to go away is not really a choice for us."
But Bush couldn't muster up an effective response. Not only that, he found the need to do so utterly baffling. He "just didn't get" being portrayed by Trump as "low energy," Miller explained. After all, Trump was the one flying in on his private jet for a single campaign stop before heading home to his palatial apartment. Jeb was "living a life of 20-hour-days where he is sending me emails at four in the morning and sending me emails at midnight," Miller said. "I don't know that it even clicked with him."
The campaign began to enter, what Miller called, a "death spiral." Their falling poll numbers were prompting terrible news coverage, but the only way to get better news coverage was to get better poll numbers. The one move they had was to swing back at Trump, which Jeb did by consciously acting more brash during the debates.
Had the rest of the Republican field had more foresight, they might have joined along. But Jeb quickly discovered that he'd become a human shield for the other candidates in the race.
I felt Jeb was basically a shield for some these guys on the debate stage Tim Miller, Jeb Bush's former communications director
"And I understand it," Miller stressed. "If I was sitting in the debate prep for any other candidates, I can't imagine that I would have suggested: 'You know what you need to do is throw some punches against Donald Trump.' No let Jeb handle it. He's the one who is taking all the incoming. And you saw what happened."
What happened was that Jeb's candidacy kept plummeting while Trump, and his schoolyard antics, drew more voters in. By the fall, the Bush campaign was getting back poll numbers that showed this wasn't an electorate suited for Jeb, and all but confirmed there was going to be no rosy conclusion to the campaign.
Miller recalled one survey they put into the field that October that asked, among other things, what character traits voters least liked about Jeb. Nursing a hangover from his brother's bachelor party in New Orleans, he scrolled down to see the results. They were startling. Over 70 percent said it was something related to the last name or him being nerdy or not tough enough that gave them pause. Everything else -- his support for immigration reform or common core, or even those gaffes -- was barely making a difference.
"I remember looking at that and thinking: 'I don't know how we are going to fix this,'" Miller recalled. They couldn't.
Listen to the podcast above or download it on iTunes. And while you’re there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week’s episode, when our guest will be Sandra Fluke, the famed women's reproductive rights advocate who lost her race for the California State Senate.