Though not on the Nov. 6 ticket, Gov. Bobby Jindal's political path nonetheless will be determined by the results of the election. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

What’s next, Bobby?

In a career marked by a series of stepping-stone jobs – with the White House increasingly apparent as the ultimate goal –  Gov. Bobby Jindal’s future will depend on who wins November’s presidential election.

Ironically, a victory for his party’s standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, would force Jindal to postpone his presidential ambitions until 2020 because Romney would inevitably seek re-election in 2016.

A Romney victory next month would make Jindal a leading candidate for a cabinet position, but no president since Herbert Hoover in 1928 has used the cabinet as a trampoline into the White House.

Jindal could decide instead to challenge U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2014 when she is up for re-election.

Jindal has shown no signs that a Senate job would interest him, but two factors could push him to run. Landrieu is the last Democrat elected statewide in an increasingly Republican state. And Jindal would face diminished access to the media and donors if he doesn’t hold elective office. He loses his keys to the governor’s mansion in three years.

If Romney loses next month “you’ll see Jindal begin running for president immediately,” said Ron Faucheux, a Washington-based pollster and political analyst who served as a Democrat in the Louisiana state House in the 1980s and later worked for Landrieu.

“He’s clearly someone aiming for a national political base,” he said. “He spends a lot of time and effort campaigning for Republicans around the country.”

Jindal traveled to Nevada and Colorado this week to campaign for Republican candidates there.

Faucheux said he expected Jindal would spend much of 2014 and 2015 campaigning to win the Republican presidential primaries that will begin in January 2016, when he would leave office.

Prominent Republicans have already touted Jindal as a potential candidate.

“If Mitt Romney loses, the spotlight will shift to the next generation of Republican leadership,” said Mark McKinnon, who served as President George W. Bush’s media consultant in 2000 and 2004. “Jindal is competitive in that landscape.”

Contacted by email, Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin did not provide a comment and did not return a phone call. Jindal has said repeatedly that he has the job that he wants.

Jindal sought to position himself to be Romney’s vice presidential pick by speaking to Republican groups nationwide and making himself readily available to national reporters. But after supporting Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the primaries, Jindal didn’t make Romney’s short list for vice president. Rep. Paul Ryan from Wisconsin got the nod, and he would begin the 2016 campaign as the early GOP favorite.

Ryan has become popular among conservatives nationwide and has a headstart in wooing big-money Republican donors. That means Ryan would eclipse Jindal among Republicans favoring a prized political profile: a fresh-faced policy wonk. (Ryan is 42; Jindal is 41.)

Republicans generally back the party favorite heading into a presidential election, including then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988, Sen. Bob Dole in 1996, Sen. John McCain in 2008 and Romney this year.

“Republicans tend to support the next candidate in line,” Faucheux said.

Still, Jindal retains major political assets after scrupulously following conservative Republican orthodoxy against taxes, abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, the Obama administration’s economic-stimulus program and the expansion of the government-mandated health care health plan.

“The general view of Bobby Jindal (within the Republican Party) is that he has enormous credibility, especially in terms of policy,” said Gordon Hensley, a Washington-based Republican campaign strategist who has worked in Louisiana. “His personal story is interesting and sets him apart from the rest of the GOP field. The Jindal brand is associated with policy and substance.”

The son of Indian immigrants, Jindal won a Rhodes scholarship and since then has always seemed in a hurry to move up to the next job. He got an audacious start as a public servant in Louisiana at the age of 24 when Gov. Mike Foster named him to run the state Department of Health and Hospitals. That was in 1996.

Jindal moved on to three increasingly important government jobs before running for governor in 2003 and losing by four points to then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Jindal won an open seat to the U.S. House of Representatives the next year representing Jefferson Parish and easily captured the governor’s office in 2007. He became the country’s first Indian-American governor.

Jindal won re-election last year in the open primary when Democrats couldn’t even field a major candidate. On the down side, with fewer voters turning out, Jindal received 3,000 fewer votes than when he was defeated in 2003.

Jindal’s five-year stint as governor is longer than any other job he has held.

The governor is approaching a career-shaping decision at a time he remains popular in Louisiana but less so than before.

His approval rating was 51 percent in a poll of 600 registered voters released on Oct. 2 by Southern Media & Opinion Research, down from 64 percent a year earlier. His current disapproval rating: 45 percent.

Bernie Pinsonat, of Southern Media, said Jindal retains strong support among Republicans – an 80 percent approval rating – but has lost favor among white Democrats and independents – down now to about 40 percent.

Pinsonat said those voters are turning against Jindal because of fears that budget cuts for health care and higher education – especially at Louisiana State University – will take away cherished services. Jindal has forced those budget cuts by his strict line against raising taxes, but this stance has also put him in a political box by making it increasingly difficult for state government to continue to provide services that people expect.

So while Jindal has created a reputation as an opponent of government spending, “he is trying desperately not to cut more,” Pinsonat said, noting that Jindal got the state Legislature this year to balance the budget by using one-time money over the opposition of the conservative “fiscal hawks.”

“Jindal knows that the more he cuts, the more people he irritates,” Pinsonat said.

The pollster also said that Jindal’s frequent trips out of the state – despite Louisiana’s enormous problems – are hurting him.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards got a laugh this week when he joked to the Louisiana Retired State Employees Association that Jindal would have spoken to them if “you could have had your convention in Iowa or Michigan,” The Advocate reported.

As governor, Jindal has revamped the state’s ethics rules, accepted the Legislature’s plan to repeal a tax increase primarily on upper income Louisianans, won high marks by appearing calm and poised during Hurricane Gustav and pushed the Legislature to expand the state’s education voucher program.

Changing the state’s tax code appears to be Jindal’s major agenda item for 2013. He has said he favors ending tax exemptions and using the money that raises to reduce individual and corporate income taxes.

Officials in Baton Rouge familiar with the Jindal administration’s thinking say that his top advisers have yet to settle on specifics. Businesses and trade associations whose members enjoy tax breaks have already begun to squawk, indicating the tough sledding he would face.

Roger Villere Jr., chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, said Jindal’s popularity among Republicans nationally would grow if he could get the Legislature to revamp the tax code.

“His future is pretty unlimited,” Villere said.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....