The biggest stories of this young political year are the surprising surges of the outsider presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Close behind is the possible collapse of the once-formidable front-runner, Jeb Bush.
Only a year ago, the Washington cognoscenti, the less politically sophisticated big donors and the London oddsmakers all figured that the son and brother of presidents was a solid favorite to clinch the Republican nomination. Six months ago, the former Florida governor thought he had a real shot at winning Iowa, the first nominating contest.
Yet as the state's voters prepare to gather for the traditional caucuses on Monday night, he barely registers in the polls.
There is already a debate in Republican circles over what went wrong: Was he just a bad candidate? Was he ill-served by the chief strategist of the richly funded Bush super-PAC? Or was this just a bad year for any establishment figure?
Never miss a local story.
In the first half of 2015, when Bush could have dominated the agenda, his campaign essentially had one message: financial shock and awe, we'll have more money than anyone ever. Little effort went into defining the candidate, or reminding voters that Bush, who'd been out of office for almost a decade, was a conservative reform governor. Policy expertise, including from influential social right leaders, was brushed aside.
The campaign then decided that the super PAC, Right to Rise, run by Bush's longtime confidant Mike Murphy, would be the prime player. The PAC has spent $70 million on broadcast, cable and radio advertising, almost 30 percent of the total spent by all Republican and Democratic candidates and their political action committees.
The returns, the numbers suggest, have been minimal. Even ads that created buzz – attacks on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio that poked fun at his fancy boots or pointed out his flip-flopping on issues – didn't help Bush or hurt their target.
They did create bitterness among establishment Republicans, who complain, privately, that while Bush insisted that he was the only one who was taking on the front-runner Trump, Murphy was going after Rubio.
The tension with Rubio, a fellow Floridian who had been a Bush protege, also illustrated Bush's weakness as a candidate. In an early debate, he sought to attack Rubio's spotty attendance in the Senate. Rubio turned the attack back on a flat-footed Bush.
He also stumbled over whether he would have supported the ill-fated war in Iraq waged by his brother, President George W. Bush. He should have anticipated this potential pitfall, but he was never able to effectively deal with the legacy of his brother, who some top Iowa Republicans say is a big albatross in the state. (The Bush camp hopes that won't be the case elsewhere. They are reportedly planning to have the 43rd president campaign for his younger sibling in South Carolina.)
But Bush suffered most from being savaged by Trump, who derided him, insulted his family ties and mocked him with the lasting epithet that he was "low energy."
Bush has improved as a candidate. In Iowa this past week, he was more substantive than most of his rivals on domestic issues and national security. But when he riffs on topics such as Civil Service reform, the Trump shot echoes.
In the Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll released this weekend, Bush is in a four-way tie for seventh place with only 2 percent, and has the highest negatives of any Republican candidate.
If that reflects his showing in the caucuses, he will have to come back and beat the other establishment candidates in New Hampshire next week; otherwise, all pathways to the nomination will be closed.
The campaigning in Iowa and the multitude of debates provided evidence that Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich are the two Republican candidates best prepared to govern.
That quality appears to matter little in this crazy year.
Albert Hunt is a Bloomberg columnist.