Washington — For Gov. Bobby Jindal and his campaign for the 2016 presidential nomination, the question is: Where does he go from here?
The simple answer is Iowa, which hosts the caucuses Feb. 1 that start the formal nomination process. Jindal has campaigned heavily in Iowa for months and traveled there this weekend.
The Believe Again independent political action committee, a single-candidate super PAC backing Jindal, recently announced it would sponsor 33 town halls featuring Jindal in Iowa from Oct. 1 to Jan. 30. That all fits with the Jindal campaign’s strategy of scoring a surprise success early to build momentum for later rounds of nomination contests.
But the question about Jindal’s destination addresses more broadly his ability to actually compete for the nomination in the large Republican field. Early returns from opinion polls are not encouraging. Even in Iowa, he consistently scores in the low single digits: The Real Clear Politics average of recent Iowa polls ranks him 11th, at 2.7 percent. His national poll numbers are even worse, lodging him in 14th place, at 0.5 percent.
Polls at this stage in the election cycle are poor predictors of ultimate outcomes, but those dismal national results relegated Jindal to the so-called kids’ table debate Wednesday, televised by CNN as a prelude to its featured prime-time debate among the top 11 candidates. Jindal shared the undercard with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina; former New York Gov. George Pataki; and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania.
In the debate, Jindal declaimed vigorously against the “surrender caucus” of Republicans in Congress and in favor of religious liberty for beleaguered Christians, both staples of his campaign rhetoric. His performance won mixed reviews: The mainstream media formed a weak consensus for Graham as the star of the earlier event, while several conservative outlets lavishly praised Jindal — something his campaign was quick to promote.
“I could imagine Jindal having a moment in Iowa,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He certainly seems to be targeting his message at the most conservative, evangelical elements of the party, and that’s the Iowa electorate in a nutshell.”
Scoring points with conservatives against also-rans such as Graham and Pataki, both of them moderate by Republican standards, and even Santorum, who is well to the right on social issues but something of an economic populist, is not the same as matching up on even terms across the Republican electorate with the candidates who took the stage in prime time Wednesday, all of them ahead of Jindal in the polls.
Complicating matters for Jindal is that several of those higher-ranked candidates sound anti-establishment or pro-evangelical themes, or both, in their own campaigns.
The leader in the polls, billionaire developer and reality-TV celebrity Donald Trump, has built a following as a brash, no-holds-barred truth-teller, unafraid of challenging conventional wisdom. The current runner-up, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, favors a soft-spoken approach, but like Trump, he is an outsider who has never run for elective office before.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is an ordained Southern Baptist minister with a proven appeal to evangelical voters, although he is struggling to duplicate his win in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. Carson has struck his own chord with the religious right: He has explicitly modeled his tax plan on the Old Testament principle of tithing.
Ted Cruz has a foot anchored in each camp. He announced his candidacy in March at Liberty University, in Virginia, which was founded by fundamentalist icon Jerry Falwell, and he invoked his father’s born-again experience in his speech. Earlier this month, he traveled to Grayson, Kentucky, in a show of support at the release of Kim Davis, the county clerk jailed for contempt of court over her refusal on religious grounds to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple (although he reportedly was blocked by an aide to Huckabee, also at the event, from appearing alongside Davis).
Cruz is a first-term U.S. senator from Texas, yet he is anything but a get-along, go-along member of the Washington elite. He regularly feuds with his party’s leaders in Congress and played a key role in forcing a government shutdown in 2013 over the issue of defunding the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.”
Bucking the establishment is Cruz’s trademark, said David Crockett, chairman of the political science department at Trinity University in San Antonio: “He has made it his raison d’être for his entire Senate career so far.”
Compared with Cruz, Jindal is not as well known, has less money backing his campaign and is not considered to be as effective a public speaker.
“How does he out-Cruz Cruz?” Kondik asked. “They’re fighting for the same small pool of voters.”
There is one major distinction between Jindal and Cruz that has emerged strongly this month: the attitude each takes toward Trump.
Jindal has viciously attacked Trump, leading with a speech in Washington on Sept. 10 in which he called Trump a narcissist and an egomaniac, a “carnival act” who is not a true conservative. In an opinion piece published on the CNN website the day before the debates, Jindal referred to Trump as “a madman who must be stopped.” And onstage Wednesday, Jindal said Trump is not an authentic Republican, not a serious candidate and, if nominated, would hand the election to the Democrats.
Cruz, by contrast, shared the billing with Trump at a rally outside the U.S. Capitol Sept. 9 to protest the nuclear deal with Iran.
“Cruz is tapping into all of the more conservative elements, and he’s been very, very careful not to criticize Trump,” said Charlie Cook, who writes the Cook Political Report in Washington. “The voters he wants are now in the Trump and Carson camps, and he wants to be their second and third choices when Trump and Carson fade.
“He is a voice for that anger, that frustration” directed at the Washington establishment, Cook said. “I think he will be able to articulate and advance that in a better way than Trump and Carson.”
Cook predicts the Republican nomination will boil down to a contest between a candidate viewed favorably by the party establishment — such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or possibly former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — and an insurgent, such as Trump, Carson or Cruz.
If Jindal were to be categorized, he would be grouped with the iconoclasts: “There is nothing mainstream about his candidacy,” Cook said.
But Cook doubts Jindal will be there at the end. For Jindal and the other candidates at the kids’ table Wednesday, Cook said, the odds against them are simply too long.
Follow Gregory Roberts on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ politicsblog/