Republican voters who tuned in to the first officially sanctioned presidential debate Thursday night didn’t get to hear Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pitch, nor that of any of the other candidates relegated by Fox News’ poll-driven selection process to an earlier, second-tier showdown.
Unless those voters were watching the prime-time debate from their living rooms in Iowa, that is.
Jindal’s super PAC purchased local ad time during the broadcast designed to remind voters in the first caucus state that, despite his absence from the big debate stage, he’s very much a candidate — and very much focused on them.
As a camera cuts from a huge bank of television screens to a field of corn, a narrator declares that “the debate in Cleveland is all about a celebrity, but one candidate is moving up where it counts, in Iowa: Bobby Jindal.”
It then switches to Jindal speaking at some of the many town hall meetings he’s held in the state, and to gushing voters testifying that they liked what they heard. One woman approvingly notes how much time the governor has already spent there, and predicts that Jindal is “gonna become a Hawkeye if he sticks around here much longer.” Many of his own constituents would probably second that sentiment, given the governor’s busy travel schedule.
As irritating as the ad is likely to be at home, though, for Jindal’s purposes, such a laser-like focus on Iowa is a good move.
I’ve quibbled with many of the maneuvers Jindal’s made in his quest to become president — actually, with almost all of them, from his refusal to make hard financial choices for fear of how they’d be portrayed on the campaign trail, to a rigidly hard-right tack that may ingratiate himself with primary and caucus voters but is bound to alienate the broad middle.
On this, though, he’s right. It’s Iowa or bust.
Jindal’s only hope of rising above 1 or 2 percent in an unwieldy 17-candidate field is to pursue what campaign specialists call a “small-state strategy.” Campaigning in the early-voting small states is cheaper, so he doesn’t have to raise as much money as, say, Jeb Bush. It’s more grass roots, which plays to his natural strengths as a campaigner.
Iowa in particular holds two more advantages for the governor. It’s a caucus state, so turnout is bound to be low; the governor’s political team has said that a respectable showing would require only about 26,000 votes.
And Republican politics there are dominated by religious conservatives, the group Jindal is specifically targeting.
Jindal has certainly tried to build his national profile, what with his constant opinion pieces, interviews on Fox and other national outlets, and gimmicky statements and Internet appearances.
Just this week, he appeared in an embarrassing video on Buzzfeed, in which he competed in a push-up contest with people role-playing his nemeses: taxes, Obamacare and his horribly reviewed 2009 response to President Barack Obama’s first address to Congress.
It’s showing no sign of working; in fact, Jindal mostly comes off as desperate for attention.
Yet when it comes to Iowa, his team is onto something. Jindal performs very well in small settings, speaking directly to voters and answering their questions. He’s doing that all over the state, and has announced his intention to visit every one of its 99 counties before the Feb. 1 caucuses. Invariably he draws good crowds and earns strong reviews.
He’s doing the same in New Hampshire, although his politics aren’t nearly as good a fit there.
Still, that state’s opening primary happens a week after the caucuses, and an unexpectedly strong Iowa showing could give him some momentum.
How far that could take him remains a big question. Jindal’s harsh ideology will surely limit his appeal to voters who aren’t on the far right — as will his continued awkwardness on television, despite years of working on it.
That’s a concern for later, though, if he can manage to last that long.
From out here in the rest of the country, the primary process often doesn’t feel much like democracy, certainly not in the sense that everyone’s vote is supposed to count equally.
But Jindal should be glad that it doesn’t. Making his move in Iowa is his best — and probably his only — shot of punching his way out of the second tier.