Bobby Jindal's sad strategy: Why he needs another freak show to win the GOP nomination

Louisiana's GOP guv says the more's the merrier for the '16 primary. Here's the cynical reason why

Published May 22, 2015 12:57PM (EDT)

  (AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
(AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Now that he’s successfully thrown his zombie presidential campaign some anti-gay red meat to devour in order to prolong its interminable living death, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal looks like he’s almost ready to end the charade and make Jindal 2016 a real thing.

How can you tell? First, because he launched a “presidential exploratory committee” on Monday. Second, because he’s started talking about how a crowded field for the GOP presidential primary is “a great thing” — which is certainly true for him, but not necessarily the case for the party itself. But if you keep in mind Jindal’s recent poll numbers, as well as Fox News’s vow to keep its first presidential debate stage limited to “only” 10 candidates, the governor’s ecumenical spirit is quite understandable. To be blunt, grabbing a plurality against a historically large number of opponents is the only conceivable way Jindal could actually win.

Jindal’s not the only one, of course. It’s just much more embarrassing to see the guy who was supposed to be the GOP’s new hope — and then was supposed to be the one to persuade the party to stop being so “stupid” — basically relying on the same strategy as Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and George Pataki. But former Rhodes Scholar that he is, the governor’s no dummy. He can see as well as anyone else that if the GOP primary contest can stay on its present course, with the number of at least arguably legitimate candidates hovering near double-digits, then candidates with as little as 5 percent of the vote will be able to stay relevant far longer than is usually the case.

To some extent, the dynamic was present during the 2012 primary, too. It’s the only reason why you have any idea who Herman Cain is right now, and it’s the only reason why a figure as comically out of touch as former Sen. Rick Santorum — a man who nearly 10 years ago was defeated in a landslide by an uncharismatic nepotist — managed to finish in second place. It’s the only reason why ethically challenged television personality Newt Gingrich enjoyed a full 15 minutes as a possible dark horse; and it’s the only reason why a candidate as flawed and unpopular as Mitt Romney managed to ultimately win the nomination.

Yet for Jindal and the other official or soon-to-be official candidates in his second- or third-tier position — which, by my count, includes not only the aforementioned Fiorina, Carson and Pataki but also Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Chris Christie, former Gov. Rick Perry, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Sen. Rick Santorum — the melee strategy can’t work without one key precondition. The first-tier, establishment-friendly candidates have to be just as lackluster in the eyes of diehard conservatives as Romney was in 2012. If any of the serious White House aspirants, which I’d limit right now to former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Scott Walker, find a way to get the generic Republican excited, that crowded field will thin out — and quick.

Luckily for Jindal, it doesn’t look right now like that’s going to happen. It’s still very early, obviously, but Rubio and Walker have already had the polling boomlets you’d expect to follow their introduction to a national audience; and despite their not facing any significant criticism yet from conservative opponents, both have failed to maintain enough enthusiasm to wrest the frontrunner position from Bush’s hands. And that’s especially damning when you keep in mind not only that Bush seems to be pretty bad at running for president, but also that the party base has made it abundantly clear that while they’ll possibly accept Bush — like they did Romney — they will never love him. GOP voters are all but begging Walker and Rubio to give them an excuse to fall in love, but it still hasn’t happened.

All of which leads me to wonder if the makeup of the party primary might ultimately be decided less by voters than by conservative elites — especially the ones working at Fox News. As I mentioned earlier, Jindal’s biggest roadblock right now is Fox’s insistence on keeping the early debate stage merely over-crowded rather than letting it devolve into a teeming mass of humanity. Like the head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, the more politically-minded folks at Fox understand how a wild, free-wheeling and long debate season hurt the party in 2012 by showing too much of the country too much of its true face.

Maybe if it’s looking too much like another free-for-all, Roger Ailes will step in, cut the pretense of being a neutral observer, and winnow the field himself.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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