Washington — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal sharpened the focus this past week on a few areas that already seemed to be in his plans for the future, providing yet more clarity for what looks to be his 2016 presidential road map.
But it’s not at all certain it will get him where he wants to go.
First, he announced Monday he was forming an exploratory committee for his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Jindal has been acting like a candidate for months, traveling repeatedly to Iowa and New Hampshire — the states scheduled to act earliest in the nominating process — and giving speeches and pronouncements on a wide range of national and international issues. He’s participated in numerous forums and conferences with other likely Republican contenders, and he’s widely counted among them. He’s raised money through various vehicles for a campaign and hired staff members for that undertaking.
The exploratory committee moves him a step closer to official candidate status, although its effect is mainly on fundraising, and what he can and cannot do under federal election rules. He has said he won’t issue a formal announcement until after the current session of the Louisiana Legislature ends next month, but if there was any doubt about his intentions, it has been all but eliminated.
Jindal made a bigger splash with his response Tuesday to the scuttling of a “religious freedom” bill by the Legislature. The measure, which Jindal identified as one of his priorities for the session, would have made even more explicit the protection from legal action for Louisianians who refuse to deal with same-sex couples at shops or stores or in other areas for religious reasons; the usual example is the devoutly Christian baker who rejects a request for a wedding cake from a same-sex couple intending to marry.
The state already had a religious-freedom law on the books, but when the bill failed, Jindal issued an executive order aimed to achieve the bill’s goals. It doesn’t seem as if the executive order will change much in the legal scheme of things, but if nothing else, the rhetoric generated by the fracas made it even more obvious that religious freedom is code for antipathy to homosexuals and the “gay agenda.”
All of which is likely fine with Jindal. One of those Jindal campaign vehicles in Iowa launched a cable TV and Internet commercial for him on Tuesday that is keyed to the religious-liberty theme. The pitch is nothing new for him: He has staked a claim as one of the most fervent, if not the most fervent, of the evangelical candidates in the Republican field, in appearances at prayer rallies, in speeches and in interviews on radio and TV.
His campaign strategy, then, emerges even more distinctly.
Evangelical voters are very influential in Iowa, where they account for the majority of Republicans participating in the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 1. And according to a know-your-enemy focus-group study in 2013 by Democracy Corps, a liberal research group co-founded by Louisiana-born Democratic consultant James Carville, evangelicals make up the single largest group within the Republican base.
“For evangelicals,” the study says, “homosexuality is the defining issue and threat.”
But Jindal does not have the evangelical field to himself, by any means. Several other Republican candidates are prowling the same turf, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas. In surveys of Republican voters, all of them rank well ahead of Jindal, whose polling numbers are vanishingly small.
Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minster, won the Iowa caucuses in his previous run for president, in 2008. But he did not win the Republican nomination; nor did evangelist Pat Robertson in 1996, nor former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, of Pennsylvania, in 2012, both Iowa winners also identified with the religious right. That points to a weakness in an evangelical strategy in the long haul: Evangelicals are not an outright majority among Republicans nationwide. New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the Republican primary, is far less receptive to ardently Christian appeals than Iowa, and other similarly secular states loom later on the nominating schedule.
And that’s just for Republicans. The national spectrum tilts much farther away from church-driven politics. If winning the White House is the goal, the risk for any Republican who wraps himself in religious vestments is repudiation by the voters in November 2016.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and is on Twitter @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.