Mike Huckabee’s support in Iowa started to climb in late 2007. The Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas governor was stuck in the single digits in the polls in the summer and early fall, but steadily gained momentum as the year came to a close and the 2008 Iowa caucuses approached.
During the 2012 primary season, Rick Santorum took even longer to find a foothold in the Hawkeye State. As late as November 2011, Santorum was in second-to-last place in Iowa with just a few percentage points of support.
Both candidates won Iowa, and both candidates relied on socially conservative voters to do it. Indeed, candidates who rely on Christian conservative support tend to peak late in Iowa. Which is why I sort of agree with this tweet from The New York Times’ Nate Cohn:
I’m not sure Jindal benefits from Scott Walker’s recent exit from the Republican race, exactly, but I do think the Louisiana governor is a sleeper pick to win the Iowa caucuses.1
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.” Earlier this year, he screened the controversial videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal tissue donations on a loop outside the governor’s mansion in Louisiana.
The case against Jindal: He has only 3 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa polls. And some social conservatives have fallen flat in Iowa — Gary Bauer in 2000 and Michele Bachmann in 2012, for example. There’s also a lot of competition for the religious vote this year. In our graphical representation of the factions that make up the GOP field — what we call the five-ring circus — Jindal shares that space with Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Huckabee and Santorum.
But again, there’s that history of late surges. There’s also the fact that very conservative candidates have tended to outperform even their final polling averages.
And beneath the headline horse-race numbers, Jindal is making noise. His net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) among Iowa Republicans is fourth-best in the GOP field, according to an average of the three live-interview polls conducted over the last month (by the Des Moines Register, Loras College and Quinnipiac University).
Note that the only three candidates with a higher net favorability average (Carson, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio) are all in the top five in the Real Clear Politics Iowa average. Carson and Fiorina, in particular, have seen their numbers surge recently. In an average of the Loras and Quinnipiac polls, only Carson and Huckabee had a higher net favorability than Jindal among voters who identified as born-again or evangelical Christians (the Des Moines Register poll did not publish results for that group).
A good net favorability rating early in the race doesn’t always translate into winning votes. Neither Democrat John Glenn in 1984 nor Republican Phil Gramm in 1996 won a single primary or caucus, despite having high net favorability numbers early. Jindal could end up being a well-liked also-ran.
Jindal, though, seems intent on avoiding that fate; he’s going all in on Iowa. He’s attended 85 events in the Hawkeye State since Nov. 17, 2012, according to the Des Moines Register. The only Republican candidate with more events is Santorum.
The super PAC backing Jindal has also invested a lot of money on the Iowa airwaves. Through the beginning of September, no other candidate had more ads put up on his or her behalf in Iowa than Jindal. Even in the past week, only the Jeb Bush-aligned super PAC has been competitive with Jindal’s on Iowa television.
Whether or not Jindal’s efforts eventually pay off with higher polling numbers — and maybe even a win in the Iowa caucuses — is impossible to say. But in a large field in which the ground seems to shift daily, betting on a guy in Jindal’s position to at least improve his standing isn’t the worst bet in the world.