4 Reasons Walker Went From Conservative Hero to Zero
It happens every presidential election: a candidate who looks good on paper gets into the race with high expectations but in the end turns out to be a paper tiger. Tim Pawlenty was that guy in 2012. It was Fred Thompson in 2008. They joined a long list that includes John Connolly (1980), John Glenn (1984), Jack Kemp (1988), and Pete Wilson (1996).
Now, surprisingly, we can add Scott Walker’s name to the list. The two-term governor of Wisconsin, who had been viewed by the political chattering class (including yours truly) as one of the more formidable candidates this cycle, announced last night that he is suspending his campaign for president.
Early last year Walker appeared in New York, where he took questions from a panel that included Ed Rollins, the veteran political operative who ran Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election campaign in 1984. It was striking to hear Rollins refer to Walker as “one of his political heroes,” a term, he said, that he did not use lightly. Rollins was one of many Republicans who held the governor of Wisconsin in such high esteem.
So how did Walker go from conservative hero to zero – the percentage support he had in the most recent CNN poll – in such a short period of time? Here are four reasons things went so wrong so fast for Walker.
(1) He wasn’t a very good campaigner. Despite all the praise heaped on Walker for his ability to win three hard-fought elections in Wisconsin in five years, we learned again (for those who might have forgotten) that a presidential race is a far greater test than anything a senator or governor faces when running statewide. From the wide array of domestic and foreign issues a candidate must master to the harsh scrutiny candidates face from the national media, nothing can fully prepare even the most tested statewide elected official for the maelstrom of a White House bid.
He botched early questions about Obama’s religion on his first trip abroad and made a complete hash of his position on birthright citizenship last month, Walker constantly underperformed. Unlike the persona he had cultivated in Wisconsin as a conviction politician who would stand on principle and fight for his beliefs, Walker seemed reactive, undisciplined, and unable to chart a steady course during his brief presidential run.
(2) Walker’s campaign set high expectations and quickly went about the business of failing to meet them. Raised in Iowa, Walker’s aides spoke openly of his need to win the Hawkeye State, but the candidate acted as though all he had to do the carry the state was show up there a few times and remind Republican voters of his local roots. Iowa’s complicated caucus system requires a much more deft approach—and a consistency of message that Walker lacked.
(3) Money became an issue. Walker’s money problems were a direct result of his flaws as a candidate. His performance on the trail and during the two Republican debates spooked donors, and his inability to right the ship left his campaign trapped in a financial death spiral. In a field this large, “hard” money donations (the stuff that pays the staff and keeps the lights on) is a scarce commodity, and by most accounts it dried up on Walker in a hurry after his last debate performance.
(4) Donald Trump ate his lunch: In fairness to Walker, none of the candidates could have predicted at the outset that Donald Trump would jump into the contest, or how his entrance would affect the dynamics of the race. They’ve all struggled to deal with the unprecedented political phenomenon that is The Donald. Still, Walker seemed to be the candidate who was most unnerved by Trump, and was among the most willing to modify his positions (specifically immigration and China) in reaction to Trump’s overt nativism. This made Walker look like a waffler at best and an unprincipled politician at worst, which undermined the very rationale of his candidacy. At the same time, Trump managed to steal Walker’s “outsider” appeal as well.
There was always a question of whether the cornerstone of Walker’s resume in Wisconsin – his victory over the public sector employee unions – was enough to base a presidential campaign on. Walker’s team thought they could broaden his appeal, which, coupled with strong showing in Iowa in February and other Midwestern states in March, would give him a clear path to the nomination.
Instead, Walker’s poor showing on the stump and in the debates created the worst of all worlds, raising questions about his competency and his conviction, and damaging his image with primary voters and the donor class. In the end it was a stunningly rapid fall for Walker: from conservative hero to zero in just 70 days as an official candidate for president.