Why Scott Walker's supernova campaign burned out
As Scott Walker leaves the stage, the GOP battle between outsiders (like Donald Trump) and insiders grows sharper.
Michael Zamora/The Des Moines Register/AP
By the time Scott Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race Monday, few in the political world were surprised.
The Republican governor of Wisconsin was running out of money. His campaign staff was bloated and in disarray. He failed to impress in the debates. And GOP voters had abandoned him. By Sunday, he was a mere asterisk in the new CNN/ORC poll, coming in at less than one-half of 1 percent among Republicans.
Just a few months ago, Governor Walker was the golden boy of the Republican field, widely seen as a top-tier prospect for the nomination and leading the polls in Iowa, the crucial first nominating state. He had won three elections for governor in four years, including a recall vote, after a hard-fought defeat of public sector unions. In January, a fiery speech at a conservative conference in Iowa wowed the GOP base.
But when Walker began the tough slog of trying to impress a wider audience, it wasn’t pretty.
His campaign holds a number of lessons for this campaign season – some old, some new. Being a governor did him little good, as was the case for Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012. And a big money super political action committee couldn't save his campaign, as was the case for Mr. Perry this year.
His departure makes the likely GOP showdown between outsiders and insiders sharper. But more fundamentally, it shows that – insider or outsider – successful candidates need to be competent campaigners.
In a series of tweets Monday afternoon, when word spread that Walker was probably about to drop out, former aide Liz Mair charged him with multiple failings, including “not educating himself fast enough on issues outside governor’s remit.”
On a trip to London in February, Walker dodged questions on foreign policy and wouldn’t state whether he believed in evolution. At another conservative confab, he raised eyebrows when he compared fighting the Islamic State to taking on the labor unions.
By August, he was still struggling to deliver a coherent message. In one week, he took three positions on the issue of “birthright citizenship” – the 14th Amendment principle that grants automatic US citizenship to most children born in America. Walker also earned ridicule when he said building a fence on the US border with Canada was a “legitimate” idea.
“I know it’s a cliché, but I don’t think he was ready for prime time,” says Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
The rise of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and now Carly Fiorina – none of whom has ever held elective office – has also, for now, eclipsed the GOP’s more traditional candidates. Mr. Trump’s outsize personality left the mild-mannered Walker, in particular, gasping for political oxygen. In the last debate, Walker failed to assert himself on stage, and scored the least amount of speaking time.
But to suggest that Trump prevented Walker from making an impression in the debate is false. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – another career politician, like Walker – was seen as a big winner in the last debate, along with Ms. Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.
The Sept. 16 debate was do-or-die for Walker, and he died. Without a strong debate performance, he lacked the buzz needed to win the campaign cash infusion he desperately needed. Walker is a man of modest personal means, and could not write himself a big check to stay afloat while he regrouped. And he was apparently loathe to go into debt.
And so, like the first GOP contender of the cycle to drop out, former Texas Governor Perry, Walker leaves the stage a humbled man. Also like Mr. Perry, Walker has demonstrated the limits of the new Wild West of political fundraising: The super PAC that raised $20 million to support Walker, but which could not by law be used to fund Walker’s campaign directly, now sits in stasis. Perry’s super PAC contained $13 million when he dropped out on Sept. 11, and that money has already been returned to its donors.
The fact that Perry and Walker were the first to go is telling. Both have long experience as governors, and in theory, had the profile as chief executives that would seem tailor-made for a presidential bid. Just like past governors of the modern era who took their statewide experience national – Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ronald Reagan of California, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, George W. Bush of Texas – Perry and Walker on paper looked promising.
Ditto former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) of Minnesota, who entered the 2012 presidential race as a top-tier contender, but floundered and dropped out early.
And especially after the experience of President Obama, a first-term senator who ascended to the Oval Office with little executive background, the early betting in the 2016 cycle was that governors would dominate the GOP field. But not all governors and former governors are created equal. The leap from statewide to national and international stage is, for some, too high.
Perry failed, again, to impress. After his not-ready-for-prime-time performance in the 2012 cycle, he proved the adage that you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. For Walker, the same principle held: After falling effectively to zero in the polls, regaining momentum seemed impossible – especially with such a large field – or at least financially too risky.
For now, the likely beneficiaries of Walker’s departure are Senator Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Already, some key Walker supporters (such as a New Hampshire co-chairman) have gone to Rubio.
In his announcement Monday that he was “suspending” his campaign – politics-ese for dropping out – Walker pitched himself as a “leader” in the effort to “clear the field” and take on the negativity of the campaign, a veiled attack on Trump.
"Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field," Walker said in the Wisconsin capital, Madison. "With this in mind, I will suspend my campaign immediately."
It was an unusual rationale for ending a campaign. And it gave new meaning to the phrase “leading from behind.”