Trump, not Bush? Don't bet on it

Story highlights

  • S.E. Cupp: Against many expectations, Trump's fundraising, poll ratings still strong. Some worry: What if he gets the GOP nomination?
  • She says GOP has already anointed Bush, and the country may indeed be ready for return to experience, caution

S.E. Cupp is the author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right" and a columnist at the New York Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Ever since Donald Trump announced he was running for president in June, one headline has been repeated over and over again, practically on a weekly basis: "Trump Is Not Going Anywhere." Seriously -- Google it.

S.E. Cupp
And why would he go anywhere? He's dominating in the polls, most recently in key states Nevada and South Carolina, in some cases beating opponents Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush by more than 20 points.
As he's pointed out many times, he has plenty of money to carry this campaign deep into 2016, and yet despite his personal wealth, Trump has still managed to collect $3.7 million in "unsolicited donations." That's right -- 74,000 people, according to his FEC filing released on Thursday, each gave a billionaire who needs no one else's money to campaign until the cows come home $50 on average. That's what momentum looks like.
    Prognosticators (including myself) never imagined Trump going as far as he has -- not because he isn't smart, capable or talented, but because he isn't serious. Hurling cheap insults at his opponents (and everyone else), insisting he'll know stuff when he needs to, adlibbing non sequiturs instead of diving into policy, maligning entire voting blocs -- not, traditionally, the best way to get to the White House.
    And yet, here he is, with two scalps to boot in Rick Perry and Scott Walker and more likely to come. Many in the Republican Party are worried he might actually go all the way.
    To the GOP nomination, that is. The worry is well-founded. If Trump is the last Republican standing and faces the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election, she beats him in nearly every hypothetical matchup.
    It should be noted, however, that her domination over Trump has shrunk over the past few months -- they are within points of one another now. If he continues to surge he could well end up ahead, giving Republicans the kind of agita they haven't experienced since Ross Perot.
    But while Trump insists he isn't going anywhere, neither is another guy: Jeb Bush.
    While he's lagging in the polls and tightening his campaign purse strings, on Thursday he announced he's raised a respectable $13.4 million in the latest quarter, with $10 million cash-on-hand, this despite a noticeable lack of momentum and near-daily berating from Trump. Clearly, some folks still think Jeb can win.
    And indeed, as dim as his poll numbers are now, safe money is still on Jeb Bush. Here's why:
    Republicans have, in recent election cycles, adopted an informal but reliable pattern, for better or worse. The party anoints the next nominee four years before the election, and consolidates donors, resources and infrastructure behind him. Once the election rolls around the anointed candidate is presented as the frontrunner, no matter his actual standing in the polls, and the base is told repeatedly that no one else -- especially their preferred candidate -- is as electable as their guy.
    Deciding ahead of time -- again -- which candidate to back, without ever taking the temperature of the electorate, is risky business. In 2008, it had long since been decided that it was John McCain's turn. While he was a fine candidate, it was clear after two terms of Bush the country wanted a change candidate, not a caretaker. Both McCain and Hillary Clinton learned that lesson the hard way.
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    In 2012, it had long since been decided that Mitt Romney was next in line. He, too, was a fine candidate -- in 2008. But by 2012 the country was mired in anti-Wall Street mania, and wanted no part of a hedge fund adviser's candidacy. Nor was it smart to nominate the author of Massachusetts' health care exchanges when the country's Republicans were desperately trying to undo Obama's version of it. Right candidate, wrong time.
    This tunnel-vision loyalty is great news for Jeb. Over the past couple of years, establishment donors and advisers have lined up behind the former Florida governor, anticipating that the country would be ready for a caretaker candidate after eight years of Obama's learn-as-he-goes experimenting with the economy and foreign policy. (The Democrats, incidentally, have made the same calculation with Clinton.)
    And the country may indeed be ready for a return to experience and caution. But there's clearly a vocal contingent on the left and the right that is screaming for a change candidate, hence the success of Bernie Sanders and Trump.
    But answering a call from a pollster requires far less deliberation than pulling a lever on voting day. They're having fun now, but will Trump backers follow through? Or will they play it safe on Election Day? Jeb is betting on the latter.