Politics & Policy

Can Bobby Jindal Catch Fire from Iowa?

Bobby Jindal campaigns in Iowa. (Steve Pope/Getty)

Iowa City, Iowa — Bobby Jindal is still talking when they turn off the lights at the Celebration Farm. It is two and a half hours after his town hall started, and he has finally finished chatting with the very last of the attendees who hung around to meet him one-on-one. Jindal is talking to National Review when they cut the lights, and he seems in no hurry to be on his way. We move the conversation into the parking lot. On his way out, he obligingly stops to take a selfie with one of the venue staffers closing the place up.

If time spent retail politicking could win an election, Jindal would be the next president. At campaign events across the Hawkeye State in the two days NR follows him, Louisiana’s governor is always the last man standing. The events draw 50 to 80 people, and he stays until every hand is shaken, every voter met, every question answered. He is running for president, up against the ticking clock as he tries to break through an overcrowded field of Republicans. But he never seems to be in a hurry.

“Where are you from?”

“What year are you in school?”

“How many people work on the farm?”

It is that personal attention, delivered at every one of his stops in the Hawkeye State — 96 events in the past 55 days — that Jindal hopes has laid the groundwork for bigger things. He is a candidate whom everyone seems to like, and though he remains an asterisk in national polls, his numbers have ticked up to their highest point yet in Iowa, the state on which he’s staked his campaign. He’s at 6 percent there in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released Sunday, tied for fifth place with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Jindal has created an opening here. But to capitalize on it, he will need to find a way to catch fire, and it’s not clear if he’ll be able to conjure the organization, the money, and the big moment to make that happen.

“The people he presents to and the people he gets the chance to meet with, they all leave saying they really like him,” Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leader, a social-conservarive political organization, tells National Review. “I hear ‘I like Bobby Jindal’ a lot.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by a number of Iowa Republicans, who say Jindal’s likability and strong appeal to social conservatives is earning him fans, if not full converts.

For now, that’s sufficient. Two weeks ago, Iowa GOP primary voters watched their onetime front-runner unravel and drop out, reaffirming just how unsettled and volatile voters’ preferences are at the moment. “All [Jindal] needs to do right now is be a lot of folks’ second choice and he could potentially be fine,” says Doug Gross, an adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012.

Iowa, in the past two cycles, has provided a launching pad for less well-known and less well-funded candidates: Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012. The problem for Jindal this cycle, Iowa Republican strategists say, is the sheer size of the field, the number of people vying for the conservative vote.

“There are too many Rick Santorums in the race,” says Jamie Johnson, a GOP grassroots strategist who supported Rick Perry and is now unaligned. Huckabee and Santorum are giving it another shot, and Ben Carson and Ted Cruz are putting their significant war chests to work in courting the Christian conservative vote. So whereas Santorum emerged as the sole remaining contender in the insurgent lane last cycle, and Huckabee occupied the Evangelical conservative lane all by himself in 2008, Jindal is navigating a lot of traffic.

Republicans often talk about choosing a nominee in terms of flirting, dating, and marriage. In Iowa, they say Jindal needs a breakthrough to get himself out of the friend zone.

It’s not clear when or how such a moment might come. In Iowa, an endorsement from someone like Vander Plaats could be a huge boon among social conservatives, but state observers say they suspect Vander Plaats’s still-unstated affection lies with Cruz. Jindal’s most high-profile moment of late, perhaps, was a speech at the National Press Club excoriating Donald Trump as a “narcissist” and an “egomaniac” unfit to be president. The diatribe was funny, and Jindal has incorporated part of it into his stump speech. But it struck some Republicans as desperate coming from someone whose poll numbers so far leave him no chance to deliver those insults in person on a debate stage.

If Jindal’s bet on Iowa pays off, his campaign will face the daunting task of harnessing the ensuing momentum on a shoestring budget.

Jindal says there’s no guarantee he’ll even take part in the next undercard debate, though he has not yet made a decision “in terms of what we’ll participate in.” His campaign has not been shy about its displeasure with the polling criteria for the debates. Senior adviser Curt Anderson mocked the Republican National Committee and the two-tiered system in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last Thursday, and Jindal accuses “the RNC and the media” of “trying to clear the field for Jeb.”

If Jindal’s bet on Iowa pays off, his campaign will face the daunting task of harnessing the ensuing momentum on a shoestring budget. Iowa offers a unique opportunity for less well-funded candidates to burst on the scene, but historically some have struggled with what comes next. When Santorum won the caucuses in 2012, his campaign appeared ill-prepared to handle the increased interest, and some of his subsequent New Hampshire events had to be moved outside — in the depths of winter — to accommodate unanticipated crowds. His early lack of resources meant he was unable to even compete in Virginia, where he failed to file a petition to appear on the primary ballot.

“We thought about that a lot,” Anderson says of such a scenario, but he declines to elaborate. “There’s some parts of your strategy you don’t tell reporters.”

#related#The Jindal campaign is not raising boatloads of money. Jindal was only a candidate for six days of the second fundraising quarter, during which he pulled in just $579,000. And Anderson says the campaign didn’t raise a massive haul in the just-concluded third quarter, either. “It’s enough to get by,” he says, declining to give the exact number. “It’s not gonna be like ‘Wow, he really raised a lot of money.’”

Jindal’s team planned for a lean budget, and he tells National Review that the campaign has no debt. But that means a limited organization in Iowa, where success depends on corralling voters to spend several hours caucusing on a winter weeknight. Jindal’s campaign has just four paid staffers there, and Anderson says they are relying on volunteers to help get voters to the caucuses. They have some help: Believe Again, a super PAC backing Jindal’s candidacy, has been working on the ground to help organize support for the Louisiana governor.

Anderson also argues Jindal is a less monochromatic candidate than Santorum and Huckabee were when they won the caucuses. He is certainly competing for the Christian conservative vote in Iowa. But Anderson argues that Jindal’s serious policy chops — he has the only detailed plan to replace Obamacare of any candidate remaining in the field — and his two terms as Louisiana governor will give him a chance to compete in multiple lanes, maintaining broader appeal beyond the Iowa caucuses.

The problem, say Republicans, is that it’s not clear how many people remember Jindal’s longer record of accomplishment. Jindal rose to prominence as the first Indian-American governor in the United States, a position he won at the ripe old age of 36, already having held a series of high-profile government positions. Back then, he was a boy wonder who conservatives thought might be the next Barack Obama.

‘You have to have staying power [in Iowa]. And that’s the thing: Bobby Jindal grows on people; other candidates wear on people.’

But his star has fallen in the years since he first burst onto the national scene. His State of the Union response in 2009 was widely panned for its naïve-sounding delivery and content. And even at home, his popularity has suffered. A May survey put his approval rating among Louisianans at just 31 percent. He was the first choice of just 3 percent of Louisiana GOP primary voters in a poll released last week, and trailed Hillary Clinton by three points in a head-to-head matchup statewide.

Jindal, who in a 2012 speech told the RNC that Republicans “must stop being the stupid party,” has honed that outsider posture in a year where outsider candidates are in vogue with Republican primary voters.

“I’m actually angrier with Republicans in DC than I am with Democrats,” Jindal says in his stump speech at the start of each event. Even if he disagrees with them, he says, Democrats fight for the legislation they support. Republicans, he complains, just roll over. 

Asked if Reince Priebus has been a good RNC chairman, Jindal says, “I think everybody in D.C. needs to be fired.” He accuses both Congress and the RNC of trying to run away from conservative principles.

It’s difficult to get Jindal off message even in casual conversation. He is most animated when talking about his kids — laughing about how his two sons would just wear Dri-FIT clothing at all times if they could, and how one of them generally thinks the state troopers protecting the governor are really there to play with him. But by the second campaign event, even the story about how his daughter is starting to care about clothes, and how Jindal worries that means boys are next, starts to sound familiar.

Yet unlike some of the other GOP hopefuls, Jindal still sounds genuine, even when he’s repeating the same lines. He may tell the story the same way, but he does not sound robotic or rehearsed.

#share#When Jindal talks to someone one-on-one, it’s as if they are the only person in the room. He locks eyes and smiles, asks personal questions about their lives, their families, their schooling. He listens attentively and seems to really care about their responses. As he gets more and more into a conversation, he leans in closer to the person he’s talking to. In return for their openness, he relates his own personal stories — mostly about his three children. There is no campaign staffer cutting people off, and Jindal chats and listens as long as a person wants — even if that person is several years shy of being able to caucus in February.

That sense of connection with voters is one of the things Iowa Republicans point to in noting that people who get to meet Jindal tend to like him. “You have to have staying power here. And that’s the thing: Bobby Jindal grows on people; other candidates wear on people,” says Johnson.

Jindal is certainly putting himself in the path of plenty of Iowans, traveling all over the state. If his personal attention and charm can win over enough of them, he could be a contender.

For now, Jindal’s campaign, like the candidate, seems in no hurry. “Some people are eventually going to take off, and we hope that it’s gonna be us,” says Anderson.

But there is a cut off date. “At some point,” Anderson says, “this is either gonna work or it’s not.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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