Why Jeb Bush Failed: South Carolina Marks the End of the Road for Bush's Candidacy


COLUMBIA, S.C. — The sound system blared the country strains of Craig Morgan's "Bonfire" for the loyal guests who gathered in a hotel ballroom here Saturday for Jeb Bush's primary night party. 

The title of the tune seemed an ironic pinprick that compounded the stings of a presidential quest that had yet to ignite — and would soon come to an end.

News outlets called the Palmetto State's Republican primary early for Donald Trump, the bombastic billionaire who seemed in many ways Bush's polar opposite, and whose leap into the campaign proved to be the former Florida governor's undoing.

"I'm proud of the campaign that we have run to unify our country, and to advocate conservative solutions that would give more Americans the opportunity to rise up and reach their God-given potential," Bush told his fans. "But the people of Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina have spoken, and I really respect their decision — so tonight I am suspending my campaign."

"Nooo," came voices that rose from the crowd.

"Yeah, yeah," Bush said, nodding his head in affirmation and resignation.

Celeste Katz

Jeb's last stand: Emerging from a poll site he visited to schmooze voters at a school in Daniel Island, South Carolina, on Saturday afternoon, Bush — flanked by supporters including son Jeb Jr. and Sen. Lindsey Graham — had seemed less than thrilled when asked about chatter regarding the future of his campaign, and specifically whether he'd call it quits as soon as Sunday.

"I'm going to work as hard as I can until 7," the close of the polls, Bush said, although at another stop in a last-gasp hopscotch across the state, he said he couldn't see what would prevent him from forging on to the site of the next primary showdown, Nevada.

Although fans considered Bush a good man, critics called him everything from a sad sack — cue the dreaded "please clap" incident — to a spoiled rich boy to a dull, uninspiring wonk to another chameleon politician eager to twist himself to fit the voter whim du jour.

A woman at the Daniel Island poll site, Julie Thornton, 55, giddily rushed to get her photo with the former governor — although she confided to reporters afterward that she planned to cast her primary vote for his fellow Floridian and former protege-turned-show-stealer, Marco Rubio.

Bush — a good human being? Yes, she said. A fighter? Oh, no.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This was supposed to be Bush Country: Although he traded his famous and fraught last name for an exclamation point on his campaign signs and shirts — in a move that amused some and fooled none — Bush could never truly escape his identity as the scion of a controversial political dynasty.

While Bush — antagonized endlessly by Trump in a manner that seemed to transcend the political for the personal — may have wanted to be his own man, but when he heard attacks on his kin, he fought back with the kind of spirit many of his supporters wished he'd shown more of on the trail.

Bush did hit the trail with his presidential brother — a still-popular figure here in South Carolina — but it wasn't a game-changer in a campaign in which Trump's voice has drowned out many others and in a state where GOP hopefuls Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio engaged in a bitter fight to the last vote.

Celeste Katz/Mic

"South Carolina won the nomination for his dad in 1988 and it saved his brother in 2000 — but it's a much different state now than it was then," Dan Schnur, director of communications for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, told Mic.

"Donald Trump isn't the biggest difference between 2000 and 2016," said Schnur, now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "In 1988 and 2000 there was no such thing as a Tea Party. In 1998 and 2000, religious conservatives were an important faction — but not nearly as large a portion of the Republican primary electorate."

To Schnur, Bush — who was under heavy pressure to end his flagging campaign and allow supporters and donors who had once supported him and the pro-Bush Right to Rise PAC to move on with their lives and money — saw some of his fans force him into an untenable catch-22.

"It's not particularly fair, but the same people who wanted him to run because he could be this cerebral, policy-driven candidate are now asking him to take a baseball bat to his opponents," Schnur said. "That's a difficult adjustment to make on the fly."

It was also one Bush apparently wasn't willing to make.

Celeste Katz/Mic

The joyful tortoise finishes the race: Winding down his speech in Columbia, Bush displayed the optimistic and aspirational vision he had sought to make the hallmark of his campaign to win his turn at the Oval Office.

But the candidate's mood Saturday night was undoubtedly reflective and bittersweet.

"I've had an incredible life, and for me, public service has been the highlight of that life," Bush said. "But no matter what the future holds, here's the greatest safety landing, if you can imagine: Tonight I'm going to sleep with the best friend I have and the love of my life."

The tall man leaned down to plant a kiss on his wife, Columba, who stood quietly at his side as he closed the lid on the dream of a presidency that voters had unmistakably informed him, in state after state, would remain out of his reach.

Bush wrapped it up without fanfare and stepped down from the stage, his face flushed, to shake a few more hands and gamely pose for a few more selfies. 

The man who once called himself a "joyful tortoise" on a measured mission for the nomination had smiles for all — and no answers for the reporters who joined the crush to ask him about his next move or endorsement.

Soon he was gone. His supporters lingered. Some wept.