Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Fall of Scott Walker

How the man who could have been both outsider and insider became neither

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball September 21st, 2015

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News broke Monday afternoon that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is dropping out of the Republican presidential race. Walker’s star had clearly been fading — a recent CNN national poll showed practically nonexistent national support. Walker is someone we identified early as a major presidential contender, and for a while, he appeared to be just that. Even recently, we had him listed second on our list of GOP candidates, though we were preparing to heavily downgrade him in our next update. Still, it appears that we overrated him.

Going back to our first assessment of the Republican field way back in April 2013, we listed Walker as the first name in our top tier, even while suggesting that there really was not a clear Republican frontrunner (which is still true today). We noted that the Wisconsin governor, who at that point had just survived a recall attempt the previous year, had become something of a folk hero among Republican activists.

Walker would lead our rankings into 2014. In February of that year, we wrote: “We continue to like Walker’s combination of blue state electoral success and conservative bona fides, but let’s face it: We have little idea how he would handle the crucible of a national campaign.”

We have a better sense of that now, and it is: not well.

Walker did not have any out-and-out terrible moments: There isn’t a Rick Perry “oops” on his presidential scorecard or, for our older readers, an equivalent of George Romney’s “brainwashing” on Vietnam in the 1968 Republican contest. Rather, it’s been death by a thousand cuts for Walker.

His campaign motto was “unintimidated,” but he was hardly unshakeable in his beliefs. A small sampling of his missteps and flip-flops over the last few months: He seemed open to the idea of building a wall along the Canadian border, which opened him up to ridicule, and he may or may not have softened his immigration stance in private while sounding hawkish about the subject in public. There are many other examples.

Earlier in the cycle, we thought the best-case scenario for Walker would be that he could unite both the conservative grassroots and the establishment, becoming an outsider-insider candidate, or “a consensus choice whose nomination would avert a GOP identity crisis,” as we described it in August 2013. Unfortunately for Walker, there does seem to now be a consensus among both GOP insiders and outsiders: Walker didn’t suit either camp.

Walker’s lack of support amongst the Republican establishment has become clear over the past many months. One telling sign was when Walker supported restrictions on legal immigration, a maximalist position that has zero backing among the GOP business class. Walker also responded to the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling by urging passage of a constitutional amendment that would allow states to define marriage individually. Again, it’s clear to us that national Republicans want the same-sex marriage issue behind them. By taking these two positions, Walker aligned himself with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania on immigration and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas on same-sex marriage. Those two candidates have no support in GOP establishment circles.

The larger point is that Walker spent the first half of 2015 throwing away whatever chance he had to get significant Republican establishment support.

Complicating matters is that he didn’t have a firm grasp of many issues, and it showed. The voters may not be paying attention to every little thing, but the donors, the media, and the party most assuredly are, and Walker often didn’t perform well when he had to compose a position on the fly. Presidential politics is in a different and much more high-powered league than state-level politics, and even the scrutiny of three statewide elections in four years was not preparation enough for the big stage.

Still, running as an outsider might have been a decent approach for Walker, particularly if he could have won Iowa, where he was leading the polls into the summer. But then: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina happened. Walker could claim to be an outsider against the likes of a Jeb Bush, but that trio of candidates with zero elected experience made him seem like an insider by comparison, given that he’s spent almost his entire adult life in elective politics at the local and state levels.

Even those most skeptical of Trump, Carson, and Fiorina would have to acknowledge that they have had a profound effect on the race. Without those three, it’s easy to imagine Walker doing well in Iowa (he and Cruz might have shared first and second place in polling) and remaining a clear first-tier candidate, despite his alienation of the party establishment and his flailing campaign. But with those outsiders in the race, dominating news coverage and speaking time at debates, Walker became an afterthought. And now a once-promising prospect has slipped off the greasy pole to the presidency. It’s worth noting: There are no gubernatorial term limits in Wisconsin, so he could run for a third term in 2018.

Every election cycle, there are candidates who look great on paper but fail to live up to their promise once they hit the campaign trail. Scott Walker is the latest textbook example. Scott, we hardly knew ye.