For months now, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has been almost entirely fixated on far-off Iowa, which will hold the nation’s first presidential caucuses Feb. 1.
He’s got good reason. In recent years, the Republican contest has been kind to candidates like Jindal, politicians who are personable face-to-face and who wear their religiosity on their sleeves.
Indeed, Jindal has embarked on a meet-and-greet tour of each of the state’s 99 counties and has attended 85 events in the state since November 2012, according to The Des Moines Register.
He’s now starring in a new TV commercial in which he prays with his family and declares that it’s “time to turn back to God.” If you didn’t know better, you might think that the ad’s sponsor, “Believe Again,” was a church, not Jindal’s affiliated big-donor Super PAC.
As if Jindal needed more encouragement to overlook his stubbornly low poll numbers and plow ahead, he got it last week from the well-regarded, data-driven FiveThirtyEight blog, which ran an article arguing that Jindal “could still win Iowa.”
Noting that the previous two caucus victors, former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012 and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, hadn’t shown demonstrable growth until relatively late in the campaign season, the web site suggests that Jindal could benefit from the departure of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an early Iowa favorite who recently quit the race.
“Jindal fits the Christian conservative mold of the last two caucus winners, and he’s plainly playing for those voters; his campaign website has sections devoted to ‘pro-life,’ ‘radical Islam’ and ‘religious liberty,’ ” writer Harry Enton contended. Polls measuring presidential preference aren’t encouraging, he continued, but Jindal has an enviable “net favorability rating” in the state.
The report helped the Jindal camp defuse a separate story in Politico, which quoted several anonymous insiders speculating that Jindal would drop out. He’s showing no sign of doing anything of the sort any time soon.
He’s got plenty of competition in the massive field for the religious right vote, but it’s far from certain that he won’t make a bit of a run.
The question then becomes, what next?
The Jindal campaign’s obsession with Iowa makes strategic sense, if the goal is to emulate Santorum and Huckabee and emerge as the conservative alternative to a more mainstream Republican, someone like eventual party nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain (this is all supposing, of course, that the Donald Trump phenomenon fades).
But then what? Neither of Iowa’s previous GOP victors found a way to stay relevant once more mainstream voters got involved, either in the larger, later primaries or in the general election.
In fact, both emerged as cautionary figures for party leaders who feared driving less-than-true believers into Democratic arms.
Nor did either candidate parlay his momentary success into longer-term promise. Both Santorum and Huckabee are back this year as part of the huge Republican pack, but both campaigns are pretty much subsisting on vestigial glory.
Jindal, of course, didn’t have to choose this path. He’s always been socially conservative, but his early rise in politics relied much more on policy expertise and his refusal to turn political opponents into enemies.
These days he eschews a more sophisticated view of how government works, and casts pretty much every issue — even those on which poll after poll show he’s in the minority, such as same-sex marriage and Planned Parenthood — as an example of how “the idea of America is slipping away.”
Maybe the folks at FiveThirtyEight are right, though. Perhaps this strategy could, against all odds, still propel him to the head of the pack in Iowa. But if that just turns him into the next Santorum or Huckabee, what’s the point?
The Jindal campaign’s unofficial slogan may be “Iowa or Bust,” but at some point the governor is going to have to confront a third possible outcome.
Call it “Iowa, and Bust.”