Washington — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal hopes to cash in a long shot during his about-to-be-announced run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, with even his political team acknowledging his need to climb over numerous candidates ahead of him in the polls.
But neither Jindal, who says he doesn’t worry about polls, nor his longtime campaign consultant, Timmy Teepell, seems terribly concerned about the odds.
Both point to Jindal’s performance in his first try for office, when he led the open-primary field for governor in 2003. (He lost the runoff, but his strong showing propelled his later career.)
“Gov. Jindal went from an asterisk to 33 percent to win his first primary,” Teepell said in an email. “He is unafraid of a race where he only has to go 11 points to get ahead,” he said, referring to the frequent inability of even the leading Republican contenders to register more than that.
Jindal will formally declare his intentions Wednesday at a rally in Kenner. He ranks 15th among GOP contenders now, at 1 percent in polls of Republicans nationwide, according to the Real Clear Politics average of surveys conducted from May 19 to June 14.
But as Teepell pointed out, he’s not that far out of first place. No Republican candidate has emerged as a clear front-runner.
“It’s wide open,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns from Teddy Kennedy to John Edwards. “There’s nobody running away with this thing. The last-place guy is within reach of the first-place guy.”
Jindal’s rise to the top from near nullity in 2003 is hardly the only time a politician has pulled that off, even on the vastly bigger scale of a presidential race. In 1976, a Georgia peanut farmer who had served a single term as governor, Jimmy Carter, emerged from near-obscurity to capture the Democratic nomination and ultimately the White House.
Like Carter, Jindal comes from a Southern state without a large population or contributor base. And like Carter, Jindal is a born-again Christian whose religious convictions form a significant part of his political profile.
In a speech Friday to the Faith & Freedom conference of religious-right activists in Washington, Jindal, 44, recounted his journey from the Hinduism of his childhood — his parents emigrated from India to Baton Rouge shortly before he was born — to his embrace of Christianity as a teenager; the story is a standard element of his public appearances. He identifies now as an evangelical Catholic.
In 1976, Carter made his first big splash in Iowa, home to the caucuses that kick off the nomination process. He shrewdly exploited the Democratic Party’s revised rules giving more power to grass-roots state nomination contests instead of party bosses.
“The Iowa caucus had never been an event of any consequence whatever,” said Charlie Cook, longtime producer of the national Cook Political Report. “Carter spent an enormous amount of time in 1975 in Iowa, sleeping in people’s homes, with no one else going out there more than, like, once.”
Carter leveraged his win in Iowa — he actually finished second, behind “uncommitted” — to victory in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary, and then won more and more states until other contenders were driven from the race.
Jindal is no stranger to Iowa, which holds its caucuses in this cycle on Feb. 1. He has visited the state repeatedly, and he recently told the Des Moines Register that he’ll be spending more time there if and when he officially enters the race.
“For someone in his position, it’s not three strikes and you’re out but maybe one strike and you’re out,” said Trippi, who was an adviser in 1998 to Dick Gephardt, the Missouri congressman who moved from the back in the pack to a win in Iowa in the closing weeks before the caucuses. “He can’t swing and miss.”
But if Carter offers a tempting template for Jindal, he also serves as a reminder that every campaign is unique and that discrepancies can be as significant as similarities.
“Each one of these is different,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican consultant who was national director of President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign. “There’s not a blueprint.”
Like generals in wartime, Rollins said, candidates “are always trying to fight the last battle all over again.”
Carter’s term as governor ended in January 1975, a full year before the Iowa caucuses, so he could devote his full time to nurturing his presidential ambitions. Although Jindal has traveled extensively to Iowa, New Hampshire and other campaign destinations in the past year, he nonetheless has had to attend to some of his duties as governor, an office he will hold until January 2016.
Carter’s run for president 40 years ago took place well before the explosion of media outlets and round-the-clock attention that characterizes today’s political arena, said John J. McGlennon, a political scientist at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. Carter could quietly build support under the radar.
“He could literally camp out in Iowa and New Hampshire, meet with party activists, go to evangelical churches and present himself as a born-again Christian,” McGlennon said. “That’s not something that candidates have the luxury of doing these days.”
In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, the electorate was receptive to a candidate who wasn’t a Washington insider — and Carter fit the bill for Democratic voters, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“They wanted someone who wasn’t corrupt. They were looking for someone who didn’t even know how the streets were laid out in Washington,” Sabato said.
“Carter sold himself as a squeaky-clean and deeply religious man,” Cook said. “And he was up against a whole slew of Washington insiders at a time when people were pretty upset with Washington.
“It was fairly unique set of circumstances.”
Jindal is one of a dozen Republican candidates who have crisscrossed Iowa and New Hampshire over the past year, which points to a particularly daunting challenge that he and other long-shot contenders confront for 2016: the number and strength of their competitors.
“Whatever you think of Republicans, you cannot possibly call this a weak field,” Sabato said.
Besides Jindal, the Indian-American governor of a small and reliably Republican state, candidates who have announced, or are soon expected to, include sitting governors who have won in bigger states that voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections (Chris Christie, of New Jersey; John Kasich, of Ohio; and Scott Walker, of Wisconsin); the former governors of populous states with large numbers of well-heeled donors (Jeb Bush, of Florida; George Pataki, of New York; and Rick Perry, of Texas); incumbent U.S. senators (Ted Cruz, of Texas; Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina; Rand Paul, of Kentucky; and Marco Rubio, of Florida); a former governor (Mike Huckabee, of Arkansas) and a former senator (Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania) who have each run a national campaign that produced a victory in the Iowa caucuses; the former CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Carly Fiorina, of Hewlett-Packard); a famed neurosurgeon (Ben Carson); and a reality-TV celebrity and splashy real-estate developer (Donald Trump).
Some of those candidates enjoy additional advantages: Bush is the son and brother of former presidents; Rubio and Cruz (Hispanic) and Carson (black) come from electorally significant minority groups; Fiorina is a woman; and Paul’s father built a passionate nationwide following in his own previous runs for the White House.
Jindal has assiduously courted evangelical voters, who make up a majority of the Republican electorate in Iowa and South Carolina, another early-primary state. ?But what might have been a refreshing departure for Carter among Democrats in 1976 is now practically de rigueur for Republican candidates, almost all of whom tout their religious-right bona fides: A dozen of Jindal’s rivals also undertook a pilgrimage to the three-day Faith & Freedom conference. And some in the Republican field make especially strong claims on their Christian brethren, including Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and Walker, the son of a Baptist minister.
But Jindal doesn’t require an outright win in Iowa or another early state, Trippi said: If anything, his low standing means he can make an impression by beating expectations and finishing second or third.
“I think, right now, he’s not in a bad place,” Trippi said. “He can get there from here.”
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