2016 Republicans

The Incredible Shrinking Scott Walker

September 8, 2015

So where’s Walker?  Down to 3 percent in the most recent Monmouth University national poll, flailing in mid-single digits in Iowa, the Walker bubble is dangerously low on helium.  Is he just another casualty of the Trump Vortex?

Not exactly.  Though it’s hard to find any candidate helped by the Summer of Trump, (maybe Ben Carson), Walker’s issues have more to do with where his experience comes from.  Simply put, he has a very narrow background for a top-tier candidate.

Walker’s plan was to present himself as the Goldilocks candidate; more electoral experience than Ted Cruz (never mind the Trump, Carson, Fiorina Trio that was not expected to do this well), not poisoned by DC like Marco Rubio, more reliably conservative than Jeb Bush.

Having survived a union-sponsored recall in a blue-to-purple state before winning re-election, Walker had the 3 wins in 4 years argument, plus a record of getting conservative legislation passed.  It’s easy to see how many observers saw him as a strong contender.  As recently as 6 weeks ago, I would have given him the best odds in the field to get nominated.

But I missed something important.  Walker has spent the entirety of his adult life in Wisconsin.  He’s spent the entirety of his career in politics.  Since he was old enough to drink, Scott Walker has run for office and held office in Wisconsin.  In college (at Marquette) he spent much of his time in campus politics.

During this almost thirty year period, Walker spent his time either in the Greater Milwaukee Area or Madison.  Both have their charms.  Madison is a great college town in addition to being the state capital.  If you like Boulder or Ann Arbor, you’d like Madison.

Milwaukee is one of several very underrated Midwestern cities, with plenty of Lake Michigan frontage, friendly neighborhoods, multiple professional sports franchises and easy weekend access to Chicago.

I’m sure Walker was able to take advantage of the many summer resort communities that sit on one of Wisconsin’s numerous lakes, and he’s probably enjoyed more than a few Packer games at Lambeau Field.  For anyone who hasn’t checked that off their bucket list yet, I can say it wasn’t overrated, if you get the chance to go, you should.

Scott Walker knows his state.  He spent a decade as a state legislator, representing a Milwaukee area district, followed by another decade as Milwaukee County Executive (the largest county in Wisconsin) followed by his current stint as governor.

Though his old state district leans Republican, it isn’t rabidly so.  Though Wisconsin often elects Republican governors, Walker is the most conservative of them, perhaps the most so in state history.  Milwaukee County elects Democratic executives.  Walker succeeded and was succeeded by Dems.

In Wisconsin, Walker was very much the model of the most conservative candidate Republicans could hope to elect, a warmup for his national argument.  The catch is the protective bubble he’s spent his entire life in.

Though much larger than Rhode Island and way more populated than Wyoming, Wisconsin is a mid-sized state, both in size and population.  It’s not very ethnically diverse.  There’s one major metropolitan area, which Walker has spent most of his adult life getting to learn.

As mentioned above, the state capital and state university are in the same place, and he’s spent time there too.  With the exception of the Appleton-Green Bay Area, most of the rest of the state isn’t heavily populated.  This means Walker has spent his entire career trying to win over voters he’s extremely familiar with.

He knows where they live, where they work, what they drive.  He’s familiar with their hopes, their fears.  Any important Wisconsin event of the past three decades he experienced right along with them.  Walker has developed the perfect tone to get moderate Wisconsin voters to pick a conservative.

As his own lead strategist on previous campaigns, Walker knew everything a politician would ever want to know about which voters and neighborhoods to target in a general election.  He knew how far right he could go or world need to go in a primary and how far he could go back towards the center as needed.

Now Walker is very much outside the bubble.  Even absent The Donald, a national campaign is a very different thing.  Things move quicker, there are more variables.  It’s also not general election season yet.  Walker thrived on finding 52-55% of the vote, when someone else might have only pulled 48%.

He never won a tough primary.  The only time he was not heavily favored (or running unopposed) for a nomination was his 2006 attempt for governor.  Walker dropped out and endorsed his opponent before the primary election.

The Walker Tone is reasonable.  It’s how he can govern as a conservative in a moderate state with some liberal leanings.  It’s how he beat the unions.  They took things too far and moderates who may not have completely agreed with Walker saw him as the adult in the room and someone doing what he thought was best for Wisconsin.

He brought this same tone into the first debate and lost ground.  Walker is not a sound bite candidate.  Without union bosses to create them for him and in the shadow of Cirque du Trump and those who respond to him, Walker is getting lost.

Even without Trump, other candidates like Cruz and Fiorina would have drawn attention away.  John Kasich is more compelling for those who are willing to accept occasional apostasy.  Marco Rubio is the better orator.  Though Walker would likely fare better without Trump, the same is true of other candidates, but in this case he’s a symptom, not the disease.

It’s not too late.  While Walker’s odds have dropped precipitously, and having his entire career inside of government is not tailor made for 2016, his overall approval ratings among GOP voters remain high.  Few have completely dismissed him as an option.

Particularly in must win (or at least place or show behind Trump and/or Carson) Iowa, plenty of voters are persuadeable.  He needs to finish ahead of all the mainstream candidates and probably Trump or Carson too, but he can.  A good 40% of voters are in play for Walker and he only needs 20-25%.

In late 1987, Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt found himself in a very similar fix.  Much like Walker, Gephardt’s strategy was based on winning nearby Iowa and launching himself forward. Previously considered at least a strong contender, after a seemingly good start and months of campaigning, he found himself at 6% in Iowa polls as Christmas approached.

Though Gephardt was beginning to enter the House leadership, he’d represented the same part of St. Louis since he was elected Alderman just out of law school.  As Walker knows Wisconsin, Gephardt knew his corner of Metro St. Louis.  Like Walker, he had an effective style and tone for his constituents, but often washed out in debates.

For Gephardt, the silver bullet was a commercial talking about a $48,000 Hyundai Excel, a car selling for under $10,000 at the time.  Donald Trump didn’t invent talking about unfair trade practices, and Gephardt’s point about South Korean auto import tariffs scored.

Combined with some extra energy on the stump, and plenty of free media on his topic, Gephardt recovered and won the Iowa Caucus with 31% of the vote.  He then finished second in New Hampshire, a state he shouldn’t have done particularly well in.

The good news ends at that point.  Soon after, the electoral schedule moved south, and Gephardt, who was out of money and having trouble raising more until his Iowa win, didn’t have the resources to compete on Super Tuesday.  Within weeks he was done.

Walker has more of a national footprint than Gephardt did and his Wisconsin public employee union battles gave him access to national donors.  If he wins Iowa, follow-up is easier than it was for his predecessor.

In 1988, Democrats were not super-motivated to prop up Gephardt to stop Dukakis.  In 2016, a good percentage of Republicans will want to stop Trump (or if he fades, Ted Cruz).  With Walker still fairly acceptable to much of the GOP, he still has a path.

Trump will continue to take up more oxygen than anyone else for the foreseeable future, but Ben Carson has proven it is still possible for another candidate to build momentum.  Walker will need to choose an issue and make it his own, something he may have hesitated to do in trying to stay viable for everyone.

His position has changed, and Walker will need to take some calculated risks.  He needs to stand for something in particular.  Not sure what his $48,000 Hyundai is, but Team Walker needs to find it by Halloween or so.

As you kick that around, keep in mind Walker’s narrow background.  Even Gephardt served in DC for a decade before beginning his campaign.  No other candidate in this year’s contest has as tight a focus.

Trump, Carson and Fiorina may have never held elective office.  Cruz may act like he hasn’t, but none are as limited as Walker.  As we sit here wondering why those uninformed, lazy, bitter voters aren’t doing the smart thing and picking one of these great governors, we need to remember the worldly and wise chose as one of their great hopes someone who in many ways is far less prepared than those supposed outsiders.

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