In May and June, an emboldened state Legislature forced him to accept changes to the state budget. In July, news stories reported that other Republicans were outdistancing him in the early polling for the 2016 campaign for president.
Undergoing the toughest stretch of his 5½ years as Louisiana’s chief executive, Gov. Bobby Jindal is trying to reconnect with Louisiana residents by methodically visiting each of the state’s parishes, an initiative he kicked off as summer began.
He has not used the appearances to introduce new policy initiatives. Instead, Jindal has signed bills, announced plant expansions and inaugurated infrastructure projects, as cameras from local television stations rolled and local newspaper reporters scribbled notes.
“It’s clearly part of an effort to shore up his approval rating,” said Kirby Goidel, a Louisiana State University political science and communications professor who oversees an annual “State of the State” survey. “They want to show they’re everywhere.”
Indeed, Jindal’s team is calling it the “64-Parish Tour.”
Jindal has traveled frequently as governor, including similar tours throughout Louisiana in 2009 and again in 2010-11. In 2009, he called it the “Louisiana Working Tour.” In 2010-11, it was the “Building a Better Louisiana for Our Children Tour.” But things were different then: He was popular.
Jindal described the purpose of this year’s “tour” at an Aug. 8 press conference in New Orleans.
“I’m a firm believer that the governor needs to get out of Baton Rouge to go meet with folks, to listen to folks, and to hear their everyday concerns,” Jindal said. “I think it’s important to go to each and every parish. … This is my fifth year of doing it. It’s nothing new for me.”
That may be true, analysts said. But the low approval ratings in the last independent poll, in March, infuse this year’s travels with special urgency.
“For an executive in politics, such as a governor or the president, the more popular you are, the more political power you have,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “You can say: ‘The people are behind me. You need to get on board with my campaign.’”
The March 2013 poll, by Southern Media & Opinion Research, based in Baton Rouge, showed Jindal with a bleak 38 percent approval rating among likely voters, down from 51 percent in October 2012 and 61 percent in March 2012.
This year’s poll showed that about 75 percent of voters opposed more cuts to the state’s health care system or to the state’s colleges and universities. Half of those polled gave Jindal a D or F as governor. Half also said he spends too much time traveling out of Louisiana.
“The tour is to bolster his image,” said Buster McKenzie, Southern Media’s pollster. “He’s trying to get the message out that things are being accomplished in Louisiana, that prosperity is returning to Louisiana.”
Jindal failed to sell legislators on his top priority this year, a revamping of the tax system. The Southern Media poll found that 63 percent of voters opposed his plan to eliminate the state’s income tax and replace the lost revenue by raising sales taxes. Few lawmakers voiced support.
On April 8, six days after the poll was released, Jindal inaugurated the legislative session by announcing that he would “park” his tax plan — a gentle way of saying that he was scrapping it, for lack of support.
In the following weeks, a conservative faction in the state House, the so-called Fiscal Hawks, outflanked the governor to his political right, accusing him of gimmickry that violated conservative principles of fiscal sound management. They then allied with Democrats to force changes in the budget.
The session ended on June 6. Jindal kicked off his tour 11 days later, saying in a press release:
We’ve made incredible progress over the last five and a half years, by making Louisiana a better place to do business, improving our education system, overhauling our ethics code, revamping the workforce development, and cutting taxes, but we’ve got more work to do, and I want to hear from Louisianians firsthand about issues that matter most to them. The people of Louisiana shouldn’t have to come to Baton Rouge to see their Governor.
While billing his travels as a “tour,” Jindal typically arrives from Baton Rouge, holds the event and then returns to Baton Rouge. Sometimes he meets with local officials to hear their concerns before returning home.
The first event on the tour, on June 17, was a bill-signing ceremony in Alexandria for a measure authorizing the state’s technical and community colleges to spend $250 million to upgrade their campuses.
On July 17, Jindal traveled to Nicholls State University in Lafourche Parish to highlight a $1.2 million project to improve drainage on Nicholls’ football fields.
On Aug. 16, Jindal traveled to Hammond to speak at a deployment ceremony for the Louisiana National Guard. He then traveled to Lake Charles to highlight the opening of the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center.
“He’s been here three or four times in the past year,” said Lake Charles Mayor Randy Roach, a Democrat. “He’s not a stranger to Southwest Louisiana.”
Nor to Northeast Louisiana. “He’s been up here three or four times this summer,” said state Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, who attended a July 30 event in Ruston.
Jindal’s stop in Iberville Parish Tuesday for a jobs announcement marked the 23rd parish he has visited so far, Sean Lansing, the governor’s press secretary, told The Lens. Lansing did not provide an end date for the gadding about.
Bogalusa Mayor Charles Mizell said he appreciated the governor’s Aug. 13 visit to announce the upcoming completion of a major pipeline. “When the governor comes, it’s a big day for us,” said Mizell, a Democrat. “Every elected official in the parish was there.”
Mizell said that Jindal met with them for 90 minutes afterward to answer questions.
Not every visit has been glitch-free.
State Rep. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, got only a day’s advance notice for the Aug. 16 event in his town and could not attend. State Rep. Clay Schexnayder and state Rep. Johnny Berthelot, both Republicans from Gonzales, said they didn’t hear about the July 15 event there until afterward.
In the meantime, Jindal hasn’t neglected his out-of-state travels, mixing appearances as head of the Republican Governors Association with events aimed at improving his standing with important Republican constituencies. He has visited key Republican primary states such as Iowa. He went to South Carolina, another early primary state, for an event Monday night.
The parish tour has national ramifications for Jindal’s presidential ambitions, said Verne Kennedy, a Florida-based pollster who has worked for Democrats, Republicans and business groups in Louisiana.
“If Jindal still has aspirations to be the Republican candidate for president, it’s imperative that his poll numbers in Louisiana improve significantly,” Kennedy said. “If the people at home don’t like you, that’s the sign of a poor candidate.”
Will this year’s tour boost Jindal’s ratings in Louisiana? Recent history does not provide much comfort. Despite the relentless in-state travel, Jindal’s overall approval rating has continued to sag. In 2009, Southern Media’s poll marked slippage from 67.6 percent in March to 64.4 percent in October.
In 2010, Jindal dropped from 61.4 percent in April to 55.4 percent in November, setting the stage for the further drop to 38 percent in March this year.