The suits at Fox News and CNN surely consider the two recent Republican presidential debates smash hits. Both attracted record audiences, 24 million and 23 million, respectively, the kind of numbers that major sports broadcasts often draw. Both spawned memorable moments, most of them involving show-stopping frontrunner Donald Trump.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t also failures, in at least one important way.
It was the networks that decided to divide the unwieldy field into two, according to poll numbers that were often so close as to be statistically insignificant. So it was the networks, not the voters, who got to declare some candidates winners and some losers before any of them had opened their mouths. Now that the first big debates are over, it’s clear that those labels stuck. Gov. Bobby Jindal, of course, spent both debate days participating in the undercard match-up, or at what was often derisively described as the kids’ table. Both showdowns got decent ratings, but neither drew the epic audiences, wall-to-wall coverage or serious analysis that the two main events did.
Instead, each was generally treated as some sort of cross between a civic obligation and a joke.
On the more serious side, Carly Fiorina’s strong performance in the first warm-up debate earned her a promotion to the big stage.
Then there was the comedy about the remaining candidates’ desperate attempts to follow her lead, including a bit from Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show” picturing Jindal staring longingly at his top-tier competitors from a window of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One, the backdrop to the debate stage.
“Bobby Jindal, we see you, dude. Give it a rest,” host Larry Wilmore said.
Now, regular readers of this column know I’m no fan of how Jindal’s running his campaign. His background may be in policy, but he’s resorted to gimmicks and outrageous, extreme arguments to try to break out of the pack — or into it, given that the Fox and CNN debates showcased 10 and 11 candidates, respectively. The impressive record he describes on national television is a far cry from the one most of his constituents would recognize.
In a new CNN/ORC poll conducted after the debate, Jindal scored less than 1 percent in both the first- and second-choice categories among likely Republican voters. That’s a feat matched only by Jim Gilmore, the former Virginia governor who, unlike Jindal, is showing no interest in running an actual campaign.
Even so, the poll put Jindal within the margin of error of most of the rest of the field, and there’s no way of knowing whether he might have picked up a point or two had he been allowed to compete with the big boys, and girl.
Perhaps he might have chimed in on the alarming exchange between Trump and Ben Carson over vaccinations; Jindal has mostly coddled those who believe in conspiracy theories during the race, but at least he’s spoken out in favor of vaccinating kids against deadly disease. Or, to be less optimistic, maybe some voters would have nodded as he decried identity politics or insisted that the “idea of America is slipping away,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
He may not sound serious when he’s saying such things, but then, his competitors often don’t either. Take Mike Huckabee, who claimed that the jailing of a Kentucky county clerk for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses amounted to the criminalization of Christianity (Jindal, too, has stood up for Kim Davis’ right to collect her government paycheck even as she refused to do her job). And take Trump on any number of issues. Really, just take him, please.
Nor are the candidates who made the main stage necessarily living up to their advance billing. A number of once-touted fellow governors have been struggling, none more than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who seemed to think his union-busting experience was a qualification to fight terrorism. He exited the race Monday.
The good news for Jindal, and for democracy, is that this phase of the campaign may be over. There are more GOP debates scheduled, but so far the organizers seem reluctant to adopt the two-tier format.
That probably won’t save Jindal, whose campaign has many problems other than this.
But if he’s going to remain on the margins — and if he’s going to continue to be the butt of late night comedians’ jokes — it should at least be for reasons of his own doing.