Jindal’s struggle to stand out
© Greg Nash

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal may be miles away from the GOP presidential nomination, but he’s the only undercard candidate making a play in an early-nominating state.

A new Iowa survey from Public Policy Polling (PPP) puts Jindal in the top five, ahead of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and businesswoman Carly Fiorina. 

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He has held more events in the Hawkeye State than all but former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), the 2012 Iowa caucus winner who has also been trapped in the undercard debates but hasn’t gained traction.

With limited funding and a crowded lane for the evangelical vote, Jindal faces an almost insurmountable hole in other primaries. But he has put virtually all his chips down in Iowa as he adheres to the playbook that has, in the past, rewarded the long shot.

“Where he is spending his time speaks volumes as to where he thinks his best opportunities exist. He’s been a constant presence around the state this entire year,” said former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matthew Strawn, who is not affiliated with any candidate.

“I joked to somebody [this week] that when I sat down to dinner with my family over the weekend, I half expected Gov. Jindal to be at the table as well.”

Jindal’s campaign has held 122 events in Iowa over 70 days, according to The Des Moines Register, and his 70 days spent on the ground are more than any other candidate on either side of the aisle. An aide told The Hill he has four paid staffers in the state, compared to 10 for Jeb Bush.

“You hunt where the ducks are. The first votes are going to be cast in Iowa, so that’s where we are focusing our time,” Kyle Plotkin, Jindal’s communications director, told The Hill.  

“If there was a national primary, we would sit in green rooms in New York and in D.C. and focus on that. … Our play is to hustle on the ground in Iowa, meet as many people as possible, make our case, and we’ve seen that start to pay dividends in the polls.”

It’s the only play for a candidate with limited resources. Jindal’s campaign raised less than $600,000 for the third fundraising quarter, less than the $830,000 it spent, with only $260,000 on hand.

His allied super-PAC, with $2.5 million reported on hand as of the last reporting period in July, has helped to buoy his bid in Iowa. It has held at least 30 different town halls inviting Jindal to speak with Iowans since he launched his bid, according to the group’s online events listing.

“That’s the purpose of Iowa. It allows people without
extraordinary PAC, super-PAC or own personal resources to potentially break through,” said Doug Gross, former chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R).

“It’s a caucus state, so it has a relatively few number of participants, and you can do a lot of face time with those people to effectively shrink the electorate,” said Gross, who is not connected to a campaign.

Plotkin said the strategy is to use the momentum from a strong showing at the Iowa caucuses to ramp up support in the Southern belt of states, nicknamed the “SEC primary” after the collegiate athletic conference in the region.

“When you really think about it, SEC states make total sense. He’s a Southerner. South Carolina, similar values to Bobby,” he said.

“Compared to folks who have just bet it all on Iowa in the past, they have had trouble with the rest of the primary map.”

Jindal is still a far cry from the top echelon in the Hawkeye State, with GOP candidates Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE and Ben Carson continuing to dominate, and his polling is still inconsistent. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polling shows him tied with former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.), the 2008 caucus winner, in seventh place with about 3 percent.

Even if Trump and Carson’s campaigns collapse, it’s still not likely that voters break for Jindal in droves instead of candidates such as Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump argues full Supreme Court needed to settle potential election disputes Press: Notorious RBG vs Notorious GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy MORE (Texas), who is in third place in recent Iowa polls. There is a wealth of Republican candidates fighting for an evangelical vote that made up almost 60 percent of 2012 caucus-goers.

But the Jindal camp is encouraged by the recent uptick in support in Iowa, a marked improvement from his national appeal.

The PPP poll showed him tied with Huckabee for fifth place at 6 percent, and a Loras College poll from last week showed him ahead of Huckabee and Fiorina with 5 percent compared to their 1 and 2 percent, respectively. That put Jindal just 1 point behind Cruz for fifth place.

And most recent polls, even those where he doesn’t perform as well show him toward the top of the field in favorability.

Jindal has been a permanent fixture of the undercard debates, never scoring above 2 percent in a major national poll since he started his presidential bid and frequently failing to garner even a percent.

His campaign’s pleas to include early-state polling in debate rankings — he’s the only undercard candidate who has any momentum in an early-nominating state — have fallen on deaf ears.

Strategists agree that his bid has been severely hampered by his absence on the main stage. But since there’s no sign that networks will give in, the Jindal campaign has to just keep on trucking. 

“Even though we’ve been in the first debate, or whatever you want to call it, our message and our work in Iowa is still resonating,” Plotkin said.

“Every inch matters for us, and that’s how we are approaching it.”