Why you should care
Because certain campaign strategies are backfiring early this primary season, and this one might top that list.
On the surface, they don’t seem to share much in common.
Jeb Bush is typically soft around the edges and often underwhelming, even stilted, at meet-and-greets here in New Hampshire. Chris Christie, on the other hand, is a gruff, off-the-cuff straight talker who’s engaging and quick to earn applause. “You want to lose the third election in a row?” he asked, to a resounding chorus of “nooo” in the town of Henniker. “I don’t want to lose, and I don’t think you do, too, so it’s choosing time.”
But with Donald Trump and Marco Rubio expected to take the top slots in primary voting tomorrow, both Bush and Christie are gunning for the same prize. For Christie, that’s meant making more than 180 stops in the Granite State, outpacing practically every other candidate. And for Bush, it’s meant taking a harder, even fiery, stance. Before about 700 folks in Bedford this weekend, Bush lashed out at Trump, saying, “The guy needs therapy,” and suggested that those leery of his last name could use some therapy, too.
For both of them, it’s meant ganging up on Rubio, tag-team style. The junior senator from Florida is “the new and exciting thing on the menu this political season,” as Boston University professor Thomas Whalen puts it. Last week in a Pittsfield factory, Bush threw soft punches, attacking his “buddy” Rubio by asking whether he’s ever really made a tough decision in his life, whereas Christie threw the harder knocks at the “boy in the bubble” — including at the latest debate — and claims the junior senator never candidly answers voter questions. “Christie is kind of like the bad cop,” says Whalen. “Bush is going to try to be the good cop.”
How do you break through when there’s competition for the same sort of territory of voters?
Wayne Lesperance, New England College political science professor
With those personas largely intact, both men have made the rounds on the national TV talk show and statewide town hall circuits, occasionally praising each other’s strengths (Christie: “I like Jeb Bush, and I think he was a good governor of Florida”) while taking shots at Rick Santorum for endorsing Rubio but seeming to struggle to list a single real accomplishment of his. Add to that their blitz of ads being aired in this state, worth an estimated $100 million overall when combined across all candidates, and it’s clear how crucially they need every vote they can get. There’s a lot on the table. Just 25 percent of likely Republican voters were leaning toward one contender in a survey released this weekend, relatively unchanged from a couple of weeks earlier, while a full 30 percent were still trying to decide.
Will their carpet-bombing campaign tactics work? The joint approach could ultimately end up being a smart strategy, though some observers warn the barrage of barbs is more likely to backfire. Christie would remain in a sticky situation even if Rubio’s popularity slipped, as the Garden State governor likely would still be clumped closer to Bush and John Kasich instead of moving up as a clear leader of the group. “That’s Christie’s challenge: How do you break through when there’s competition for the same sort of territory of voters?” asks New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance. Meanwhile, Bush’s super PAC already spent plenty to take down Rubio in the Hawkeye State — “to no effect,” says Whalen. “It made Bush look politically cheap trying to tar and feather a fellow Republican.”
Now Bush’s campaign is going even further, recently boasting about buying certain keywords online so that when people in New Hampshire search for Rubio’s accomplishments, “they will be directed to a 404 error page.” Seems like the bad cop is rubbing off on the good cop more than some might think — which could lead to a less-than-dynamic result for each member of this duo.