Washington — With the first national TV debate of the 2016 Republican presidential campaign in his rear-view mirror, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal traveled to Atlanta for a conservative conference Friday before heading on to familiar territory for the weekend.
“The governor will go back to doing what he does best — hunting where the ducks are, talking directly to voters, and building momentum in Iowa,” Jindal’s campaign manager, Timmy Teepell, said in a fundraising email late Thursday night.
The Feb. 1 caucuses in Iowa will start the formal nominating process, and Jindal has campaigned heavily there, in keeping with his “early states” strategy: Make a splash with an unexpectedly strong finish in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina — the first three states on the nomination calendar — and then capitalize on the ensuing buzz in the dozens of states to follow.
It’s a conventional approach for a candidate who, like Jindal, lacks the financial resources and national reputations enjoyed by some of his 16 rivals in the Republican field.
It emphasizes retail campaigning, town hall meetings with voters and stops in Main Street coffee shops as Jindal fulfills his promise to visit all 99 counties in Iowa. It’s working, his campaign says, citing some recent polls showing growth in Jindal’s previously dismal level of support.
The strategy minimizes the importance of events keyed to a national audience — such as the event Thursday in Cleveland, part of a Fox News production that included all 17 Republican contenders in the first of a half-dozen network TV debates sanctioned by the Republican National Committee before the Iowa caucuses.
“The media is acting like these are critically important events,” Teepell said in an email last week, “but this race is wide open. There is a lot of time on the clock, and as soon as these debates are over they will be forgotten.”
But national media exposure still plays a major role in the presidential process, even though contests in individual states will pick the delegates who choose the nominee, said Jeff McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana.
“You probably cannot make a great impression in Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina or one of the early states if you don’t have a national rhetorical presence,” he said.
“You have primary voters in New Hampshire or caucusgoers in Iowa who are still going to get the majority of their information not from seeing Gov. Jindal walk into the diner in downtown Red Oak, Iowa, but from seeing him interviewed by Sean Hannity of Fox News in the evening.”
It wasn’t Hannity who moderated the debate Jindal took part in Thursday afternoon: It was Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum, co-hosts of “America’s Newsroom” on Fox, serving as the network’s second-string team. The first string — Fox News anchors Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace — handled the top-billed debate broadcast in prime time.
To manage the unwieldy Republican field, Fox News divided the contenders into two flights for the debates. The first flight included the candidates who finished in the top 10 in an average of five national polls conducted shortly before the debates. They squared off before a boisterous crowd of thousands at the Quicken Loans Arena.
Jindal came in 13th in the polling average, so he and the six other also-rans were relegated to the late-afternoon forum before an audience of dozens. His performance drew mixed reviews: Some praise him for hitting at Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who easily qualified for the prime-time event, for timidity in his conservatism, and some blame him for relying on well-worn phrases from his campaign and projecting a negative vibe.
The afternoon debate attracted 6.1 million viewers, the third-highest number ever for a primary-season debate on cable TV. But that was dwarfed by the 24 million who watched the prime-time debate, a record audience for any program on the network, Fox News said.
“TV is still king,” said political scientist Mary Ellen Balchunis, of La Salle University in Philadelphia, “especially with the generation that votes.
“Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat — the younger generation is into that.”
Jindal’s campaign live-tweeted during his debate, and it also deploys Snapchat, Periscope and Facebook in its social media arsenal.
“The new media processes out there don’t necessarily replace the old ones,” McCall said. “A candidate like Gov. Jindal still needs to get onto television. He still needs to be present there. You can’t just run a campaign through social media.
“If you can get enough attention in the national media,” he said, “that’s the kind of stuff you tweet out, that’s the kind of thing you post on your Facebook page, that’s the kind of thing you say to your donors, ‘Hey, look, we got this national attention.’ ”
The overwhelming focus of the national media — TV, newspapers and online outlets — after the debates fell on the prime-time event, with Jindal and the other candidates on the undercard rarely mentioned. And if the earlier event did produce a “best of the rest” worth noting, the consensus awarded that distinction to Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard.
CNN will broadcast the next RNC-sanctioned debate, on Sept. 16 from Simi Valley, California. The arrangement will be similar to the Fox News pattern, with one tier of candidates polling in the top 10 and a second tier for the rest, whose appearance will precede the main event.
A second failure to make the top 10 could intensify the stigma for Jindal and the other also-rans, said Charlie Cook, of the Cook Political Report, in Washington, D.C. “If you don’t get your numbers up and make the first rounds in the debates, you’re not going to be a contender in Iowa,” he said.
But political scientist David O’Connell, of Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania, echoes Teepell in downplaying the impact of the debates for Jindal.
“I don’t think being excluded from the debate has much, if any, effect on his chances of winning the nomination,” O’Connell said.
The key for Jindal, O’Connell said, is to win in Iowa or New Hampshire — and because New Hampshire is likely to be unfriendly territory for him politically, that puts all his eggs in a made-in-Iowa basket.
“His entire campaign is going to depend on his performance in Iowa,” O’Connell said. “And there, TV debates don’t matter that much. Given the small turnout and demands of the caucus process, what does matter is good, old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning and field work.”
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.