Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday announced the first major step in assembling a run for president in 2016. But another recent announcement, political strategists said, could go down as one of the most politically and digitally savvy moves of the early 2016 presidential cycle.
Bush told a local Florida television station last weekend that he plans to release more than 250,000 emails from his time as governor, an unprecedented move aimed at getting out ahead of opposition researchers early in the campaign.
For Bush, it gives off an air of transparency and openness — something he will likely use to try to bring new constituencies, including young voters passionate about transparency, into his camp. President Barack Obama lost a large chunk of support from young voters last year amid revelations of government surveillance programs by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
“I was digital before digital was cool, I guess,” Bush said in the interview.
“I think part of serving or running, both of them, is transparency—to be totally transparent,” he said. “So I’ll let people make up their mind. There’s some funny ones, there’s some sad ones, there’s some serious ones.”
It also is a somewhat risky move and opens up much of his political past to the people who will be trying to derail his candidacy. But strategists say the potential benefits will more than offset any costs.
“The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages,” Matt Mackowiak, a Washington- and Texas-based GOP strategist who founded Potomac Strategy Group said of Bush’s maneuver. “It will be a boost for him to demonstrate transparency and remind people of the work he did as governor.”
The email dump is set to come sometime in the first few months of 2015, Bush said, which could coincide with an official announcement for president. It presents a clear contrast with a few candidates, including one who could be his Democratic challenger — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton faced questions about her transparency during the 2008 campaign as then-Sen. Obama, her Democratic primary opponent, pledged to run the “most transparent administration” in history. The criticisms of Clinton have only continued ahead of the 2016 cycle, from forcing reporters out of events to the State Department’s stonewalling of press requests for files from her time as secretary.
“It's smart especially as Jeb wants to be seen as the cleaner candidate,” said Matt DeLuca, a strategist who works at the public-relations firm Edelman. “We'll see what sticks I guess. I also wonder if he'll be as open about other things.”
If Bush is open about other things, it would also draw a line between Bush and other past and present Republican candidates. Mackowiak and others saw Bush’s move as a subtle criticism at potential GOP foes like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is still under investigation in the “Bridgegate” scandal; and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is under investigation over whether his recall election campaign in 2012 illegally coordinated with outside groups.
It also would draw a distinction between Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee, who was viewed as notoriously secretive on the campaign and ultimately refused to release a full picture of his tax returns.
"The e-mail dump shows he's clearly serious about running. It's a stark contrast from Romney,” said one midwest veteran strategist of multiple presidential campaigns, who is not affiliated with any candidates in 2016.
Romney was also a frequent victim of targeted opposition research during the 2012 campaign. The research burned him on the little things — like flip-flopping on his favorite movie — and helped drive an overall narrative about Romney’s time as a private-equity executive by digging through and highlighting old files. American Bridge, a left-leaning group founded by David Brock, produced a 950-page opposition file detailing “every business deal of Mitt Romney’s career.”
Releasing a big chunk of the possible opposition files against him, strategists said, would eliminate surprises and remove a theme that stuck to Romney: “What is he hiding?”
“I think he is getting ahead of the opposition researchers by providing his emails,” said Trevor Hammond, a staffer to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “If he has nothing to hide there is no reason not to share the documents.”
But Bush’s plan has one significant potential roadblock: The emails he’s releasing could ultimately end up playing second fiddle for opposition researchers, who might focus more on his time after leaving office.
Bush has already faced a round of negative press over what Bloomberg dubbed his “Mitt Romney problem” — vastly expanding his ties to various private-equity ventures. One of the left-leaning groups tasked with researching Bush for potential fodder, American Bridge, said those types of stories would likely continue.
"If Jeb Bush's goal is to blunt the impact of opposition research groups like American Bridge, rest assured that he's already done the opposite, namely by spending the dozen years since he's held public office involving himself in one shady financial venture after the next,” Jesse Lehrich, the deputy communications director at American Bridge, told Fusion.
“We're very grateful to Jeb for the many opportunities he's afforded us."
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.