September 21, 2015
Scott Walker has officially completed one of the faster transitions from front runner to casualty in recent memory. We’ve discussed a number of definitions for front runner, but at the start of the summer, Walker met any reasonable one.
Leading national polls–check
Leading key early state–check (Iowa)
Plenty of donor/funding support–check
High favorability rating–check
Struggling competitors–check (Jeb)
Ideologically at center of party–check
Clear nomination path–check
I can tell you that Walker wasn’t my favorite candidate, can say that I thought Marco Rubio was a better general election choice, but anyone who tells you they thought the baseball regular season would last longer than a scandal-free Scott Walker is lying.
A lengthy, several-week analysis of past successful nominees indicated Walker had a low chance of success, but it’s likely the whole reason I noticed GOP governors don’t do as well as expected was Walker’s free-fall.
Recriminations will abound. Campaign manager Rick Wiley shouldn’t expect to run another national campaign soon. Donors were already calling for his head weeks ago. This isn’t on him, nor is it on Walker.
Apparently, the campaign was up to 90 full-time paid staffers. This is super-costly and it’s easy to look back and say if they’d just moved more slowly, focused almost completely on hitting all 99 counties in Iowa, limited expectations, and hoarded cash, he would have done better.
Disagree. While you can’t do any worse than Walker did, that likely wouldn’t have worked, even had it given him more time under the radar to perfect his pitch, read up on foreign affairs and try to peak later.
He was able to attract those donors because he gave off the appearance of a Top Tier national candidate. In an election with several other candidates, you can’t pass up the opportunity to get massive funding. Candidates don’t slog through Iowa because they want to, they do it when there is no choice.
If you want to give Walker the Sliding Doors treatment and see what would have happened if he had chosen a less visible approach, check out the Bobby Jindal candidacy. He’s still technically alive, but isn’t polling any better than Walker.
While I maintain Jindal has the wrong pitch and should stop sounding like a 99 cent store version of Ted Cruz, part of his desperate-sounding rhetoric is the need for exposure. Even in a Trump-free season, oxygen would be at a premium, with him, there’s limited room for someone to hit the back roads of Iowa in relative anonymity.
Futhermore, Walker is still employed as the governor of Wisconsin. Most of the candidates to win Iowa as underdog, grass-roots campaigners were out of office. Jimmy Carter (1976), George H.W. Bush (1980), Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012) all had the benefit of political unemployment.
Should he have waited until 2020 or later, after his final term in Wisconsin was done? No. Walker’s appeal to GOP voters and donors was at its zenith. Ask Chris Christie what happens when you wait too long. If a Republican wins in 2016, Walker would need to stay relevant long enough to contend in 2024. Not likely, and he’d have to face a VP too.
If he’d completely punted on the idea of ever running for president, Walker would have always wondered if he had what it took. Now he knows. Losing sucks, but Walker did his absolute best, made reasonable strategic decisions and fell short. Nothing to beat himself up over.
In the meanwhile, Tortoise Rubio is looking really good this afternoon, both as a candidate and a strategist. For months, he’s played it slow, making appearances in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but not the volume of some other candidates.
He’s ignored Trump more successfully than most, passing up many opportunities to enter debates with The Donald through the media.
He’s raised enough campaign and PAC money to compete, while being fairly frugal about national staffing and local offices.
Except for polling bumps after his announcement speech and each of the first two debates, Rubio has remained safely inside the Top 10, but is often outside of the Top 5. Since he’s never with the front runners, nor at risk of falling out of main debates, his poll numbers aren’t a daily conversation.
This was a brave approach to take, one not available to the less verbally adept Walker. As all political observers are aware, Marco talks well. Very well. This, combined with his somewhat under-the-radar approach means debates work very well for him. Rubio shows off his skills, without drawing front-runner fire.
By the time he starts taking the inevitable shots in a couple of months, he’ll have built himself a solid foundation in the minds of voters and one so-so performance won’t doom him. Odds are, he’ll be prepared anyway.
Walker is gone, Perry is gone. Jeb is still floundering. Christie has limited momentum, Kasich yet to kick into gear (assuming he can). The pure establishment side of the field is wide open. Rubio still has very strong favorability margins with outsider-preferring voters, so a nomination wouldn’t tear the party asunder.
Despite the good news over the past couple weeks, Rubio is keeping expectations low, mentioning to George Stephanopolous yesterday, that he wasn’t paying much attention to his newly improved poll numbers.
This is wise, as it is still early and Rubio’s numbers aren’t exciting enough to shout from the mountain tops about.
Carly Fiorina takes her turn in the spotlight. She’s the greatest threat to a Rubio nomination (unless Jeb suddenly develops strong communication skills). While mainstream conservatives and establishment types are not going to buy off on Trump or “no Muslim presidents” Carson, Fiorina is another matter.
She has plenty of establishment ties of her own, while retaining some support from voters who want a non-politician. The combination of her debate skills and outsider image are potentially irresistible in 2016.
However, waiting on others to implode has served Rubio well. With Walker out, some of that money goes to Marco (Carly will get her cut too). Fiorina will find herself under tremendous scrutiny over the next 2-3 weeks. If she survives it with reputation and favorability ratings intact, Rubio is in for a huge fight.
For now, he can sit back and wait, raising money and looking forward to the next debate. No other candidate was positioned to pull this strategy off, and he will need to hit the afterburners in 2-3 months, but for now, steady as she goes.