Bobby Jindal is doing all the right things, among national Republican and media constituencies, to get into the serious conversation for the 2016 presidential race. But his deep unpopularity at home in Louisiana significantly undercuts those national efforts.
On Sept. 30, a well-known survey company, Public Policy Polling, reported horrendous numbers for Louisiana’s governor:
“Bobby Jindal remains one of the most unpopular governors in the country — only 34 percent of voters approve of the job he’s doing to 55 percent who disapprove. Just 20 percent of voters in the state think he should run for president in 2016, to 68 percent who think he should sit it out. Even among Republicans, only 29 percent think Jindal should seek the White House. Jindal trails Hillary Clinton 46-45 in a hypothetical matchup for president in the state, and Jindal would even hurt the Republican ticket in Louisiana if he was the vice presidential candidate.”
Readers know this is nothing new. Thirteen months ago, Jindal’s numbers (as reported by the same pollster) were even worse, with only 28 percent approving and 59 disapproving — making him at the time the second least popular governor in the country.
Still, those low numbers haven’t really penetrated the consciousness of national Republican audiences. On his seemingly endless treks to early presidential primary states and to places where he can make speeches on major national policy issues, Jindal invariably receives enthusiastic audience responses and strong reviews from conservative intelligentsia.
“Can a wonk win the nomination?” asked a largely complimentary Sept. 16 piece in National Review Online, on the day Jindal unveiled an energy-policy plan at the Heritage Foundation. It followed a health-policy plan he outlined last spring. On Sept. 26, he talked cultural issues at the “Values Voters Summit,” where The Hill reported that “Jindal emerged as a surprising star of the conference with an alternately fiery and funny address to the crowd …” On Oct. 6, he will speak at the American Enterprise Institute on defense policy. Still to come (unless he already did them and I missed it) are speeches on jobs and education — the latter on a subject where he already has made splashes by pushing school choice and tenure reform while filing multiple suits against Common Core.
The truth is, Jindal is good at this kind of thing. Most conservatives, myself included, approve of most of his proposals. We also applaud his actual policy record in Louisiana. He’s right on school choice and tenure reform, right on the god-awful Common Core standards, right to privatize the Charity hospitals (about which, a disagreement with the federal government just last week seemed en route to resolution), and successful at economic development (unemployment rate consistently below the national average). He also made tremendous improvements to the state’s coastal zone management, and did great work handling natural and man-made disasters.
But those achievements haven’t made Jindal popular. Some of them put him at odds with well-organized constituencies. Some put him at odds with legislators of his own party, and some pitted him directly against his own appointees. Far too many involved either unilateral action or actions taken so high-handedly as to seem unilateral — with the result that he never built coalitions to help implement the policies, spent little time seeking public support, and thus secured no “buy-in” from others who could help him take responsibility (and the flak) from those who didn’t like the changes.
And through all of it, Jindal’s obvious presidential ambitions led even some of his conservative would-be supporters to resent his (alleged) lack of attention to the home front.
The reason his home-state unpopularity harms his national aspirations is that presidential campaigns rarely succeed without a cadre of super-enthused, dedicated volunteers, or without significant businessmen or other established leaders eager to champion the candidate. But aside from his own staff or consultants, does Jindal have anybody to carry his banner into heavy battle?
To win at politics requires not just good policy or good speeches, but also either a “fear factor” or a personal touch. Jindal doesn’t inspire the former, so he needs to figure how to re-establish the latter. Right now, despite his policy triumphs, polls show his touch is sorely lacking.
New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at blogs. theadvocate.com/quin-essential.