WASHINGTON — If opinion polls of Republican voters are to be believed, Gov. Bobby Jindal faces long odds in his all-but-official quest for the 2016 Republican nomination.
Jindal, who has formed an exploratory committee and disclosed last week that he’ll make a formal announcement June 24 in New Orleans, consistently rates near the bottom of the crowded Republican field in the surveys, registering in the low single digits.
Jindal belittles those results and points to his success in rising from obscurity to lead the open-primary field in the 2003 governor’s race. He lost the runoff, but his strong showing launched his political career.
“When I got into my first race, we were at 2 percent, which was within the margin of error,” he told conservative talk-radio host Michael Medved in a May 28 interview.
“I don’t worry about poll numbers,” he said.
But the problem for Jindal is that those numbers gained potentially enormous importance for his quest when Fox News and CNN announced last month that polling results will determine which candidates appear in the first nationally televised debates of the campaign this summer. Those debates will take place months ahead of what’s been the traditional start to the culling process for the nomination — the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9.
With 15 or more Republicans expected to run, the networks will winnow the ranks to make the debates manageable.
The Fox News event in Cleveland will include those candidates who rank in the top 10 in an average of the five most recent national polls before the Aug. 6 debate. CNN will base its selection of eight to 10 participants for its top-tier debate, in Southern California on Sept. 16, on the results of national polls released from July 16 to Sept. 10. In both cases, the networks will provide some additional air time for the also-rans.
If the debates were held today under equivalent criteria, Jindal would not qualify for either of the main events, based on his standing in the polls.
What’s harder to measure is the damage to his prospects if he doesn’t make the cut.
“It gives a severe disadvantage to those who are not on the stage,” said Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican consultant who was national director of President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign and also managed the 2008 presidential effort by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is trying again this year and is comfortably within the top 10.
The wound may not be fatal to a candidate consigned to the wings, Rollins said. But, he said, “You can’t underestimate the power of people seeing you up there. People view you as a serious candidate because you’re on the stage, and you’re not a serious candidate if you’re not up there.”
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said, “If you can’t get in one of those two debates, how in the world are you going to convince your donors and volunteers to keep giving and working for you? I mean, talk about a signal: This is like the sun exploding. How can you miss it?”
If Jindal fails to make the grade for the debates, “It all but ensures he won’t get the public and media attention that he deserves,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a veteran of four Republican presidential campaigns.
That could be the death knell for a candidate like Jindal who is struggling to gain traction, Schnur said.
To avoid that outcome, Schnur wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News, the networks should split each debate into two equal parts, with each part filled by a random draw from all the legitimate contenders — a proposal that the Jindal camp has reportedly advocated as well.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the consultants and the campaign managers and the candidates themselves would want to be included,” said Democratic operative Joe Trippi, who has worked on presidential campaigns from Teddy Kennedy to John Edwards and managed the 2004 run by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. “If you’re not included, it’s going to be tougher to break into the open.”
The monthslong run-up to the actual nomination in July 2016 is less about issues and more about image and electability, said Dan Birdsong, a political scientist at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
“It’s really about the projection of strength, the projection of leadership, the projection of being presidential,” Birdsong said. A candidate absent from the debates may miss a crucial opportunity to project anything, he said: “You look weak no matter what you do.”
The importance of qualifying for the debates could reshape the campaign strategies of candidates like Jindal who are at risk of falling outside the charmed circle.
“For 40 years now, a second-tier candidate could devote a great deal of time to Iowa and New Hampshire and prove his chops in face-to-face meetings with voters before TV advertising takes over the campaign,” Schnur said. (Jindal, like most of his rivals, has traveled repeatedly to those states in recent months.)
“Because debate participation now requires a certain level of support in national polls, that grass-roots campaign activity becomes much less important and much less relevant,” he said.
“The smartest strategy for a candidate in Jindal’s position is to ignore Iowa and New Hampshire almost completely and set up shop in the Fox News Channel’s green room,” Schnur said.
An interview on the conservative Fox News network or a speech to a Washington think tank that draws the capital press corps could impact a candidate’s national name recognition and standing in the polls more than a country breakfast with a dozen farmers in Iowa — and so could Internet or cable-TV advertising.
“You can’t totally quit campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, but I would cut way back,” Sabato said. “If you’ve got the money, put out some ads.”
Candidates low in the polls “have got to pump up their ability to get within the top 10,” Sabato said. “If they don’t do it, their candidacies are going to fall apart,” he said.
“I definitely think that those on the bubble are going to be looking for ways to get national coverage,” Trippi said.
Jindal is no stranger to national coverage (and the courtship thereof), whether it comes from denouncing unsubstantiated Muslim “no-go zones” in Europe, chiming in to support former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani after Giuliani suggested Democratic President Barack Obama does not love America, or standing outside the White House to declare Obama is unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.
A week after the debate rules were spelled out last month, Jindal generated headlines with his assertion that a rival for the Republican nomination, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, is also unsuited to command the nation’s armed forces.
“The thing you have to worry about,” Trippi said, “is that you can get a lot of attention by setting your hair on fire — but the problem is most Americans don’t want a president who sets his hair on fire.”
That may not be necessary if the confidence expressed by Timmy Teepell, a key political adviser to Jindal, proves justified.
“If Gov. Jindal runs, he will run to win, and that means increasing poll numbers,” Teepell wrote in an email.
Besides, Teepell wrote, “Every candidate who has announced has seen a bump in the months after they announce.”
That bounce in the polls has varied widely among the Republican contenders. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, saw his already-rising poll numbers double after he officially declared his candidacy on April 13, and others have realized lesser gains. But Paul’s announcement on April 4 did him little good in the polls. And the numbers for Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, have remained essentially unchanged since her May 4 announcement, sharing Jindal’s territory around 1 or 2 percent.
But there could be a silver lining for Jindal if he’s relegated to the junior varsity by Fox and CNN, said Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant and biographer of President Ronald Reagan.
“For anyone who’s excluded, there’s automatically going be a sympathy factor,” he said.
“There is a chance that somebody can actually use being down in the pack that way and being cut out of the first tier by the networks, and sort of position themselves — a ‘you and me against the world’ sort of thing,” Trippi said.
“It is obviously worse to be there, but I do think there are narratives that one of those guys could leap out of there and be in the first tier by the end of the process.
“In a weird way, it may be hard to stand out on the A team and easier for an A player to stand out on the B team.”
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