Washington — In farmhouses, suburban split-levels and studio apartments across Iowa, the image of Gov. Bobby Jindal shimmers on television screens as he talks up his belief in an America where ethnic identities dissolve in the melting pot of assimilation.
“I am tired of hyphenated Americans,” Jindal, the U.S.-born child of immigrants from India, says in the ad, scheduled to run between July 13 and Aug. 2. “We’re not Indian-Americans or African-Americans or Asian-Americans. We’re all Americans.”
As Jindal, 44, campaigns for the 2016 Republican nomination for president, the 30-second TV spot aims to raise his profile among Republican voters in Iowa, who will caucus Feb. 1 to start the official nomination process.
“He’s obviously putting his eggs in the Iowa basket, both in terms of investment of his time and investment of his resources in a place that he needs to break out in,” said Kenneth Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of San Francisco and a co-author of the 2007 book “Campaign Advertising and American Democracy.”
The Jindal commercial running in Iowa represents a three-week, $700,000 ad buy, on TV stations in Des Moines, Sioux City and Cedar Rapids as well as on statewide cable TV and the Internet. Beyond its message on immigration, the commercial points up some of the unusual, evolving and challenging factors shaping the 2016 presidential election.
One of those factors is the sheer size of the Republican field. When Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced his candidacy July 21, that brought the number to 16 of current and former governors and senators and other contenders with national reputations who have officially entered the race, a total rarely if ever matched before.
In what could be a critical side effect of the unwieldy number of candidates, Fox News will limit participation in the first nationally televised debate of the campaign, which the network will air at 8 p.m. Aug. 6. In coordination with the Republican National Committee, Fox has decreed that 10 candidates will debate in prime time: those ranking in the top 10 in an average of five recent national polls as of Aug. 4. The also-runs are eligible for a kids-table forum to be broadcast in late afternoon.
Jindal has struggled to stand out in the Republican crowd: He consistently ranks near the bottom in national polls, registering in the low single digits. Fox hasn’t said which polls it will apply to its selection process, but Jindal would appear to be on the outside looking in. A second debate, to be televised by CNN Sept. 16, will use similar criteria to winnow the field.
The 2016 presidential campaign also is playing out in a time of enormous change in political fundraising and financing. The turning point was 2010, when federal court decisions struck down the prohibitions on election spending by corporations and labor unions and the limits on the size of donations from any source, so long as the money flows through political action committees and other groups operating independently of candidates’ official campaigns. That gave rise to super PACs, many of them linked to campaigns through staff connections and, increasingly, dedicated to the election of one candidate.
In January, friends and associates of Jindal set up the Believe Again super PAC, with the explicit goal of winning the White House for Jindal. Believe Again is paying for the Iowa ad campaign, and it also has sponsored several town halls in Iowa for Jindal to meet voters.
Single-candidate super PACs played a relatively minor role in the 2012 presidential election, but they have exploded in the current cycle. The super PACs have raised far more money than the candidates’ official campaigns, which can accept no more than $2,700 per election from individuals nor more than $5,000 per year from PACS — and nothing at all from corporations and labor unions. Several single-candidate super PACs have collected seven-figure contributions from wealthy individual donors.
Believe Again raised $3.7 million through June 30, super PAC staffer Brad Todd says. Other outside groups supporting Jindal have raised $5 million, he said. Jindal’s official campaign committee raised $580,000 from mid-May, when he announced he was exploring a presidential run, through June 30, six days after his formal declaration of candidacy, according to his filing with the Federal Election Commission (Believe Again and some other Jindal groups will file federal reports identifying donors by Friday; another pro-Jindal group, which Todd says accounts for $4 million of the total amount backing Jindal, files summary reports on a different schedule).
Jindal is not the only Republican candidate to make an advertising splash in Iowa this far in advance of the caucuses, said Elizabeth Wilner, director of the Campaign Media Analysis Group for Kantar Media, a marketing research firm. Others include New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida. All, like Jindal, are on the bubble as far as qualifying for the Aug. 6 prime-time debate, except for Rubio, who is certain to make the cut and has been supported by ads seeking to boost his foreign-policy credibility.
“It’s a lot of money,” Wilner said of the $700,000 outlay for the advertisements featuring Jindal. “It’s a bank shot to raise his support in Iowa, get buzz in Iowa, get noticed by the national media, and by virtue of all of that, raise his poll standing to get into the debates.
“I don’t think this is rocket science,” she said. “The timing of the debates, and the way candidates are being selected into certain debates, has put this emphasis on raising your poll standing at a much earlier stage than candidates were worried about in the past.”
Charlie Cook, the Shreveport native who produces the national Cook Political Report, harbors doubt about the wisdom of spending $700,000 in Iowa now.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Cook said, arguing the money would be better spent on a national outlet like Fox News, whose conservative perspective resonates with Republicans.
“Iowa polls are not going to count for getting into the debates,” Cook said, “and if you don’t get into the debates, you don’t count.”
Some campaigns or single-candidate super PACs are spending money on national advertising in advance of the debate cull, although Todd says Believe Again has no plans to do so.
The manager of Jindal’s official campaign, Timmy Teepell, insists the emphasis is squarely on Iowa. Although Jindal suspended his campaign for four days in the aftermath of the shooting in a Lafayette movie theater Thursday, he has traveled repeatedly to Iowa, where a better-than-expected showing could give him a major boost for later primaries and caucuses in other states.
“Our strategy is going to be an early-state strategy,” Teepell said. “We’re going to focus very hard on campaigning in the early states. It’s going to involve a lot of town-hall meetings. That’s where Bobby’s good. He’s good at give and take and talking to voters, and he’s that rare candidate who can answer every question and still stay there and shake everybody’s hand.
“There are a lot of candidates who are chasing national polls right now and that’s just not our strategy.”
Teepell’s view is echoed by Todd’s.
“The electorate in Iowa is engaged right now,” Todd said in an email. “They are looking hard and kicking the tires right now.
“Presidential campaigns are a dynamic process,” he said. “Momentum is more important than any other commodity. In a field as crowded as this one, you can’t wait too long to get started. In the last few weeks before the caucuses, the airwaves will be saturated with political messages, and it will be impossible to make a first impression. We’re working hard at Believe Again to make an impression now.”
But in any event, he said, Believe Again has reserved $1.5 million in advertising time in Iowa for the first weeks of 2016.
Jindal has fared little better in Iowa polls than in national surveys, although his campaign says its internal measurements show him gaining strength.
“What does Jindal need? He needs to stand out,” said Paul Freedman, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who collaborated on the 2007 campaign advertising book.
An ad blitz now can not only help Jindal directly with Iowa voters, but indirectly with the media and potential donors responding to the news that Jindal is making a splash early in the cycle, Freedman said.
“Whatever small bump or boost or flurry of media attention an announcement like that will buy is worth it: ‘Ooh, hey, here’s something really interesting,’ “ he said. “It’s a signal that they’re raising money. It’s a signal that they’re on the move. The announcement itself is significant.
“It’s a smart move.”
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/