Imagine, if you will, that a young Republican governor of a Southern state is thinking about running for president. He’s wildly popular at home — on his way to winning re-election with 66 percent of the vote. He’s Indian-American in a party that desperately wants to reach out to nonwhite voters. He’s got rock-solid conservative credentials, and he would be entering a historically weak primary field.
But he doesn’t pull the trigger.
Four years later, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is unpopular in his home state. He’s trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton there in a hypothetical 2016 matchup (Mitt Romney won the state by 17 percentage points in 2012). Jindal plans to officially enter the Republican primary today, but this year, he hasn’t polled higher than 2 percent nationally,1 2 percent in any Iowa caucus survey or 3 percent in any New Hampshire primary poll.
In other words, Jindal missed his best chance to run for president. He’s jumping into a much tougher primary.
First, there was less competition in 2012. In the summer of 2011, just 47 percent of Republican voters were at least “somewhat satisfied” with their choices, according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey. That dissatisfaction allowed Rick Perry to enter the race pretty late and shoot to the top of the polls, and it might have provided an opening for Jindal.
Today, it’s a different story. According to a YouGov poll conducted last week, 73 percent of Republicans are satisfied with the Republican field. It’s not the type of election where Republican voters are likely to leap at the next alternative. There could be up to 13 recent statewide or national officeholders running, depending on whether Chris Christie, John Kasich and Scott Walker ultimately join the fray. That would be the most since the implementation of the system of selecting nominees through caucuses and primaries in 1972. The primary four years ago featured just six recent statewide or national officeholders.
Worse, Jindal has little new to offer. There could be up to seven other current and former governors running — many more than in 2012. Jindal also would have been the only serious candidate younger than 50 in 2012, but he’s joined by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Walker in 2016.
And most importantly, Jindal’s ideological space is already occupied.
In 2012, Jindal would have mainly been competing for the affections of social conservative voters with Michele Bachmann, Perry and Rick Santorum. Only the latter two had ever won statewide office, and they both had their own problems. Now, Jindal has to go up against five other candidates for the social conservative vote, including four who have won statewide office before.
All in all, 2016 is a much tougher game than 2012. But it’s not just that this field is stronger, Jindal is also weaker.
Even after his subpar State of the Union response in 2009, Jindal was quite popular with Republicans. According to a 2010 Gallup poll: 45 percent of Republicans nationwide viewed Jindal favorably, and 9 percent viewed him unfavorably. In three live interview polls conducted so far this year, he’s averaged just 30 percent favorable and 15 percent unfavorable. That is, more Republicans dislike him even as fewer people can form an opinion of him. His net favorability rating, +15 percentage points, is among the worst of the Republican candidates.
Debate criteria make Jindal’s lack of name recognition especially damaging. Jindal would have been on stage in 2012. According to what we understand about the criteria for the first televised GOP debate (sponsored by Fox News), Jindal wouldn’t make the cut. In fact, with an average of 0.6 percent in the last five national live interview surveys,2 Jindal is polling dead last among 16 possible candidates. He’s even trailing George Pataki. That’s a big problem; debates are one of the best ways for a relatively unknown candidate to make some noise (see Mike Huckabee, 2008).
But what if Jindal managed to bring up his name recognition? Four years ago, we might have had reason to think that increased exposure would significantly improve his chances: The Republicans who knew Jindal best — Louisiana Republicans — really liked him. In a 2010 Public Policy Polling survey of Louisiana Republicans, Jindal earned 44 percent of the vote and led his nearest competitor by 29 percentage points in a hypothetical Republican presidential primary. By June 2014, he had fallen to 12 percent and fourth place in Louisiana. No one has ever won a major party nomination when polling below 25 percent with voters in their own state at this point in the campaign.
Indeed, Jindal has managed to perturb many former allies in Louisiana, thanks to budget slashes and shortfalls. He has a Martin O’Malley problem: Jindal is unpopular at home. His approval rating among Louisiana Republicans is just 54 percent, down 25 percentage points from 2012.3
When you put it all together, it’s unclear why Jindal is running. He has little shot of winning, and other candidates are articulating his ideological views. He shouldn’t have waited for 2016. He should have run in 2012.
Check out our live coverage of the second Republican debate.