For Jeb Bush, little return on investment in TV ads

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks about his plans for the U.S. military at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston, South Carolina November 18, 2015. Bush called for an increased U.S. troop presence on the ground in Iraq as part of a global coalition to take on Islamic State militants, shifting to a more hawkish stance in response to the Paris attacks. REUTERS/Joshua Drake
REUTERS

DUBUQUE, Iowa -- Jeb Bush and his allies are spending circles around his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet for all the money they've invested - $26 million on television ads alone - they've yet to see a substantial return.

Having fallen from summer front-runner to autumn afterthought, the former Florida governor made deep spending cuts to his campaign operation in October. But he and his backers plowed ahead with a television blitz three times the size of anyone else's, while putting a new strategic focus on New Hampshire.

The candidate's latest ad, "Honor," features several Medal of Honor recipients saying that Bush will rebuild the military and has the necessary skills to lead the country. His campaign is spending more than $600,000 to air the ad in New Hampshire and Boston for the first three weeks of December. Watch the ad here:

Some Bush allies suggested those efforts had to pay off with improved numbers in preference polls in November. Yet as December begins, Bush remains mired in single digits - including in New Hampshire - in a race that continues to be dominated by political novices, most notably billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Bush's most loyal supporters argue the advertising, mostly financed by an outside group known as a super PAC, has paid off by helping stabilize a campaign that was losing ground. The brother and son of former presidents is showcasing new endorsements, and his team continues to raise a steady stream of money.

In November, Bush's campaign collected at least $1 million, a tally by The Associated Press found. Top donors will head to Miami on Saturday for a campaign update, and ahead of that gathering Bush strategists are circulating a list of 300 contributors as a show of his staying power.

But those same backers are also starting to acknowledge that time is growing short, with the leadoff Iowa caucuses now just two months away.

"We've got to do better than expected in those first three states" of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, said Barry Wynn, one of Bush's biggest South Carolina supporters and a member of his national finance team.

Said Craig Duchossois, a devoted financial backer from Chicago, "I continue to be concerned."

The pro-Bush super PAC, called Right to Rise, has spent about $26 million on TV and radio commercials in the past 11 weeks, according to Kantar Media's CMAG advertising tracker. That's about a quarter of the record-setting $103 million it raised in the first six months of the year.

When Bush gathered his top donors in Houston in October at an event that featured former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, many suggested that the candidate's poll numbers would improve by the end of November - once those ads had time to penetrate.

That hasn't happened. At the start of the ad campaign in mid-September, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that about 8 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters nationally said they supported Bush. Two months later, and despite thousands of biographical ads that touted Bush as a proven leader, his numbers in that same poll were about the same: 6 percent.

It's the same story in New Hampshire, a state Bush has visited nearly weekly since November. He was the first choice of 9 percent of likely Republican primary voters in a poll conducted for WBUR in mid-September, and was at about 7 percent by the middle of November.

Explanations vary depending on who is asked.

Duchossois said the Bush team was too ambitious in thinking his poll numbers would be moving this soon. But he said Tuesday, "The next month is absolutely critical."

Bush spokesman Tim Miller said no one from the campaign predicted a big change by the end of November. Instead, he suggested this week, the turnaround will come in the new year.

"I just think a lot of things are going to change in the race next year," Miller said. "It's a volatile field."

Officials at Right to Rise, the Bush super PAC, are taking an even longer view. The group has already reserved an additional $38 million in television advertising across the country over the next 15 weeks - as much as the next three biggest spenders combined.

"Our investments are long-term and focused on helping Jeb achieve a general election victory in November 2016," said Right to Rise spokesman Paul Lindsay. "We measure ourselves by that goal alone."

Bush and his supporters are making the case that, in the wake of the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, voters will take another look his message of experience - which they hope will eventually overtake interest in outsider candidates such as Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

"The good news is the numbers aren't slipping, and to me, there's been a vast improvement in the campaign," said Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based donor. "He is truly showing his expertise in the issues that affect us all. Some of the folks who are ahead of him won't stay there as voters get serious."

Perhaps the biggest question for Bush, regardless of how much money he and his allies spend on TV ads, is whether Zeidman's prediction proves correct.

Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a key supporter, told Chicago donor Bill Kunkler and others on a recent national finance call that voters were angry and some even irrational.

"Not that they are going to stay irrational. They are going to gravitate toward the most accomplished choice," Kunkler recalls Cantor saying.

"And we'll see if he's right."