2016 Republicans, Debates

Debate Prep: Searching For Bobby Jindal

September 12, 2015

Three years ago, Bobby Jindal was a leading contender for the 2016 Republican nomination.  Three months ago he was an asterisk.

When many were high on him, Jindal combined Paul Ryan’s mastery of numbers, Scott Walker’s ability to enact conservative changes and reforms where others had failed, and Marco Rubio’s immigrant story.  He was even almost as Tea Party friendly as Ted Cruz, and practically as comfortable with evangelicals as Mike Huckabee.

That’s the glass half full perspective.  The half empty look is that Ryan-style wonkery is seemingly out of style, Walker overshadowed Jindal with his union fight, Rubio is a far more dynamic speaker, Cruz more clearly an outsider and Ben Carson has at least temporarily won the hearts of evangelicals.

That’s how the Ideal Candidate of the Future wound up just barely above the Pataki Line. Recognizing Jeb Bush, Rubio, Walker and others were better positioned for the establishment vote, Jindal turned himself into a social conservative Iowa candidate. It’s not a stretch, he is one, but it’s an incomplete view and he has Carson and the last two Iowa caucus winners in that lane.

Unsurprisingly, Jindal has shown few signs of contention, never cracking the Top 10 in national polls and struggling to regularly do so in Iowa.  He’s lacked a strong, convincing, distinctive message, and in a year where voters appear to prefer non-career politicians, the guy who has worked in government since he finished his year at Oxford might appear surplus to requirements.

Despite a few possible signs of life in Iowa (recent 5% and 4% poll results), the biggest sign Jindal is grasping a bit was his broadside against Donald Trump this week.  Candidates devote speeches to hitting Trump for two reasons; Trump is picking on you or nobody is paying attention to you.  This was the latter.

When Rick Perry tried this several weeks ago, I thought it was good strategy.  Still think so, but it didn’t work.  If he plays his cards right, Jindal may get a bit more traction.  Several events have combined to give him a great opportunity to regain his standing from a couple years ago.

First, Carly Fiorina got promoted to the main event without Chris Christie being demoted. As Fiorina proved, a good undercard debate performance can make a candidate viable overnight.  Due to the fluke of CNN needing to change their rules to make space for Carly, there are now 11 participants.  Rather than potentially overwhelming the happy hour debate, Christie will get his 7 minutes with the higher tier candidates.

This already leaves Jindal in good position to make his mark, but he got an extra gift.  Jim Gilmore didn’t qualify to participate and Perry dropped out.  There are now only 4 participants in the opening act.  Bobby is looking at lots of airtime.

George Pataki is boring.  Lindsey Graham will talk about ISIL, ISIS, ISIL and ISIS.  Rick Santorum will say Rick Santorum things.  If Jindal can’t distinguish himself in this group, he should drop out of the race.  If he’s anywhere near the candidate anyone hoped he was, it should become quickly apparent he belongs at the adult table.

That part is the boost, but Jindal still needs to do something with it.  Another series of breaks have cleared a path on the side of the field that once appeared blocked.

Walker has completely imploded.  While most voters view him favorably, he’s now in low single digits.  Jeb has moved backwards and has taken on water.  He’s now in single digits everywhere.  Despite very high favorability ratings, Rubio is not converting them to polling support.  No mainstream candidate has a significant amount of support, particularly in Iowa.

There will be at least one mainstream ticket out of Iowa.  As well as the outsiders are doing, they are still leaving about 40% for other candidates.  Unless either really messes up, Carson and Trump should get two of the three or four tickets out of Iowa (If you’re a New Hampshire candidate like Kasich, a ticket isn’t necessary).

If Ben or Donald slip up, Cruz is circling the waters, waiting to collect any spilled voters.  While a majority of voters are not excited about experienced candidates, some are.  One candidate will consolidate a majority of the voters who would prefer a mainstream candidate.

Jindal likely recognizes all of this and it’s very possible his attack on Trump was not desperate flailing, but instead an on-the-fly course correction, telegraphing his move to the politician side of the field.  Without the resources of some competitors, Jindal will focus on Iowa along with doing some prep work in SEC states.  He’ll ignore New Hampshire and hope a good Iowa result helps there.

Though almost twice as many Iowa Republicans like Trump as don’t (similar to national numbers), the group that doesn’t like him hates him.  When Perry attacked Trump, it was Mr. Oops doing it.  Jindal has no such stain on his public reputation, and has well above average Iowa favorability ratings.

While it once seemed like there was room for Walker, Jeb and Rubio, at least in Iowa, there’s now only space for a fusion of the three.  To do this, Jindal just needs to be himself.  All of himself.  His conservative record is pretty spotless.  He has about as much relevant government experience as the three of them combined.  Since he won’t be playing outsider, might as well emphasize his experience.

Believe it or not, at the age of 44, Jindal has served almost two full terms as governor, was elected twice as a U.S. Representative, was the #2 in a cabinet department (HHS), ran the Louisiana State University system, and the Louisiana hospitals.  He also helped his state through multiple hurricanes and a giant oil spill.  The guy is qualified.

Unlike Jeb and Rubio, Jindal hasn’t committed any major conservative apostasy, increasing his chances if he makes it past the first several states and needs to start quickly winning evangelical and Tea Party voters.

Unlike Walker, Jindal is versed in how DC works.  Again, none of these career politicians are going to be able to sell themselves as outsiders.  Jindal can sell himself as a capable, proven, aggressive reformer.

This isn’t going to be easy.  Jindal has yet to find the right tone and message.  By going in the other direction, he wasn’t able to use some of the best arguments to vote for him.  His approval ratings back home in Louisiana suck.

We’ll know on Tuesday if he’s found his tone and pitch.  It’s there or it’s not and there won’t be another chance.  I think it will be there.

Walker and Christie are no more popular than Jindal at home.  Rubio is currently at 6% in polling in his home state of Florida.  Jeb has a barely positive approval rating among Republicans.  Inconvenient, but only Kasich doesn’t have to worry about this, and plenty of GOP voters will not consider him.

If he’s ready to go all-in as a mainstream candidate, the road is wide open.  I’d rather be Jindal than Jeb or Walker today.  Let’s see what happens.


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