CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — It looks like a Bobby Jindal campaign stop, but there’s something strange afoot.
Believe Again, not Jindal 2016, has rented out an Amvets hall.
Believe Again, not Jindal, kicks off the evening Monday with free T-shirts that read “America did not create religious liberty, religious liberty created America,” and a promise that the candidate will talk a lot about this.
“When I say super PAC, how many people think of a nameless, faceless, shady organization that bombards your television with commercials?” asks Jill Neunaber of Believe Again.
Most of the 109 people in the room raise their hands. Good enough: Neunaber explains that Believe Again is a “different kind of super PAC” that has invited Jindal to “have a conversation with you.”
Shortly thereafter, Jindal arrives, and the conversation begins. Cowboy boots tucked under his jeans, the governor of Louisiana gives a notes-free speech that hones the most popular lines from his other notes-free speeches. “My daddy wasn’t president,” he says, whacking Jeb Bush. “It is time to fire everybody,” he says, whacking — well, everybody. He tells a voter worried about sharia law that Louisiana has banned it, and he tells one who’s angry about the Supreme Court that Congress should make liberal justices recuse themselves.
It’s a stitched-together campaign, a swaggering conservative message — and it may be starting to work. According to the campaign-tracking group Democracy in Action, Jindal has spent 55 days in Iowa, tied with 2012 do-over candidate Rick Santorum for the most Hawkeye State turf time. Neither candidate has received any national lift. Both have been relegated to the “undercard” debates that only Carly Fiorina managed to escape.
But a new NBC/WSJ poll found Jindal rising to 6 percent in Iowa — “tied with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio,” as Neunaber happily put it. In the average of polls collected by RealClearPolitics, Jindal has escaped the bottom tier. Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Iowa-based Family Leader, has even written a letter to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, telling him to cram another lectern onto the debate stage for Jindal.
“A lot of times when people talk to me about the race, they will talk about whoever’s in the news,” Vander Plaats said. “After we’ve been talking, they’ll say, ‘I really like that Bobby Jindal.’ And historically when you’re a lot of people’s second choice, that bodes very well for you.”
Jindal has gotten there by remixing campaign tactics that have survived the chaos of this primary. Only Donald Trump has taken more shots at his rivals. Only Jindal has held a news conference with no purpose other than to attack a rival (Trump).
And few campaigns depend more on a super PAC. Jindal’s third-quarter financial report revealed just $261,000 in the bank. The campaign raised $574,438 in that reporting period; it spent $832,214. But Believe Again hauled in close to $4 million, much of it from a mysterious nonprofit called America Next, and it’s all being sprayed across Iowa.
The downside, said former Iowa GOP political director Craig Robinson, is a campaign that has marched across Iowa rather than marching with Iowans.
“It’s very much a closed-loop system of Jindal loyalists, where one of the smartest things to do in Iowa is to get someone to help show you the way, to help you run the traps,” Robinson said. “If he had taken a more traditional approach, find some Iowans right away willing to help him in the process, I have no doubt he’d be higher in the polls.”
The skills that persuaded Robinson were on display in Cedar Falls. Like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Jindal moves effortlessly between cornball jokes — “my wife was my high school sweetheart, but I wasn’t hers” — and sulfuric attacks on the “establishment.” Like Trump’s, Jindal’s tax plan is estimated to deprive the Treasury of $9 trillion over 10 years. Like Cruz, Jindal sarcastically praises the Democratic Party for elevating Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and says the opposition is “honest,” whereas Republicans lie to their base and govern like liberals.
“When they lost their 60th vote, Harry Reid didn’t give up on Obamacare,” says Jindal, calling for the end of the Senate filibuster. “If the other side is willing to shove Obamacare and socialism down our throats, somebody on our side needs to fight just as hard for freedom.”
The Jindal stump speech is a litany of ways to dismantle Washington; the Jindal Q&A is a way for him to repeat that, more loudly. Jindal, who turned against Common Core education standards after the right rejected them, tells a woman worried about the feds and schools that the Obama regime doesn’t think “we’re smart enough to run our own lives.”
“There’s only three things I think the Department of Education should be doing,” Jindal says. “One on deregulation, secondly on transparency, and thirdly, true civil rights enforcement — not all the political stuff.”
Jindal’s say-anything-conservative approach pulls out exactly the crowds he’s looking for. (Believe Again, naturally, did most of the outreach, sending cards to the homes of potential voters.) When Jindal asks for “the worst thing President Obama has done,” at least two people cry out, “He was born.” One loping question about gun rights — Jindal believes in no restrictions — turns out to be motivated by fear that a military training program called Jade Helm 15 was part of the president’s dark design.
“Some of the troops have already been trained for Jade Helm 15,” Kris Oberheu, 61, explains after the speech. “Obama’s goal — and he totally is a Muslim — is to get the police out of the way and have martial law. If he has martial law, he doesn’t have to leave office.”
Oberheu, like everyone else at the speech, got to stick around for a conversation and a photo. Jindal refuses to leave his events until the last hand is shaken. He’s talking to voters long after the Believe Again curtain has been rolled up and the T-shirts given away.
In an interview, he’s downright cheerful about the economists screaming about the trillions of dollars his tax plan would cost.
“I think that’s great,” says Jindal. “That was intentional. You’ve got to shrink the size of government.” Any suggestion that he is pandering to the most active conservative voters in Iowa is dismissed as pure snobbery.
“There is this arrogance on the left,” Jindal says, still smiling. “People used to respect each other’s differences. Now, too many people on the left think if you’re conservative, you can’t be smart.”