Scott Walker and the Transience of Primary Leads

Scott Walker, the current Governor of Wisconsin, has been an interesting case in the wildly entertaining 2016 Republican Party primary contest. For a long time, in fact since the time he overcame efforts to recall him through a vote in the middle of his first term in June, 2012, Scott Walker has been considered as the one candidate who could bridge the gap between the pro-business fiscal conservative wing of the party and the evangelical Christian conservatives. His record was emphatic: he won elections thrice in four years in light blue Wisconsin (a state which has not voted for a Republican president since 1984) in spite of taking on and crushing the public sector unions there. He had also, like a host of other Republican Governors, shrunk the state budget, cut Government spending on a massive scale, reduced taxes and had seen employment rates gradually rise up as the American economy recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. At the same time, he was considered a devout Christian with positions well resonant with the social and religious conservatives on most social issues.

But as the Republican field began to take shape in late 2014, the media was still not very convinced about a Scott Walker candidacy. Attention was drawn to the fact that even though Wisconsin slightly favours democrats at the presidential level, it remains a deeply polarised state and all of the elections won by Scott Walker came in non-presidential election years where the low turnout typically favours Republicans. And then, his economic record, it turned out, had not been that exemplary, with neighbouring states like Minnesota notching up higher growth in employment numbers than Wisconsin. But the major concern remained that in spite of having a good resume on paper, Scott Walker may have too much of an average Joe persona to inspire the gravitas that is supposedly required of a successful presidential candidate.

A number of journalists drew comparison to fellow mid-westerner Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota Governor, who ran for the Republican ticket in 2012. He also had a similarly appealing resume but looked unimpressive on the stump and was too cautious on the debate stage. He ultimately bowed out in August, 2011, more than four months before the first ballot of the primary season was cast.

This is what Andrew Prokop of Vox, had to say about Scott Walker post his acceptance speech after winning the Governorship of Wisconsin in November, 2014:

The very beginning is nice, as Walker thanks God for his win and gets some applause. But it’s all downhill from there. His delivery is stilted. His facial expressions are alternately blank and smug. He chooses strange words to emphasize (“that’s just not the American dree-eeam,” he says twice). Overall, he looks and sounds like a whole lot like a Milwaukee County Executive — and not at all like a potential president. I’ve seen Walker speak before and knew he wasn’t the most charismatic guy around, but watching this speech during a truly great week for him really drove this weakness home to me.

Walker thus remained some sort of a dark horse in the race –a candidate with excellent record and resume but one who might be too uncharismatic to be a frontrunner in the presidential race.

RCP Iowa Poll Average Between July, 2014 and December, 2014

RCP Iowa Poll Average Between July, 2014 and December, 2014

All of these changed on 24th January, 2015, at the Iowa freedom summit, a cattle call of potential Republican presidential candidates, where Walker delivered a powerful speech, emphasizing his accomplishments as a Governor and speaking passionately about the personal threats he had to overcome, to himself and to his family, while taking measures to curb the rights of unions in Wisconsin. It was a speech that immediately changed media perceptions about Walker. From a potentially good candidate, he was pitch forked to ‘one of the front runners’ status. The media, especially the conservative media including talk radio hosts, could not stop gushing about Walker, and all the Tim Pawlenty comparisons stopped.

Walker’s poll numbers saw an immediate bump, especially in Iowa. Walker, of course, had a natural appeal in Iowa, being a social conservative and the Governor of a neighbouring state; but he was till the Iowa freedom summit lagging behind other social conservatives like Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson. But after the speech, his poll numbers increased and settled at around 20% part, which in a seventeen member Republican field, was enough to give a cushion of around 6% to 8% from the nearest competitor.

RCP Iowa Poll Average between Jan, 2015 and Jun, 2015

RCP Iowa Poll Average between Jan, 2015 and Jun, 2015

For the next six months, Walker’s poll numbers and lead atop the Iowa polls remained steady, even as one after another candidate threw his or her hats into the ring, each pledging to be more conservative than the other. Walker, in the meantime, committed some foreign policy gaffes in interviews scheduled subsequent to the Iowa speech and then went back to Madison, keeping a low profile figure and preparing in earnest for the White House run. Primarily driven by his strength in Iowa, the pundits put him along with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, as one of the top-tier candidates in the Repubican presidential race.

Compared to Bush and Rubio, Walker had one great advantage. He looked to have a solid strangle hold on Iowa, the first state to caucus in the primary calendar. Bush was only a nominal frontrunner in New Hampshire, the second state in the calendar, and his poll numbers did not look too solid. Rubio looked a great candidate on paper, but was not leading in a single early state primary and did not have a clear path to nomination.

On 16th June, 2015, Donald Trump, businessman and real estate tycoon, declared his candidacy from the presidency. With no experience in politics and his claim to fame being controversial comments and a reality show, Trump was widely ridiculed and dismissed by the mainstream media as a non-serious candidate. However, his tirade against the illegal immigrants, Mexico, trade deals and politicians, constant media attention and high name recognition captured the attention of a large part of the Republican electorate who had strong reservations about career politicians. As a result, his poll numbers surged and from a mere 3%-4% of the national Republican vote share, his numbers went up to 24%-25%.

Trump not only went to the top of the national polls but also began to lead to New Hampshire and South Carolina, two critical early state primaries, relegating Bush and Rubio to the background. In Iowa though, Walker remained a steady frontrunner, even as candidates around him lost their support to Trump. Only one poll in Iowa before the debate showed Trump leading Walker.

Going into the first presidential debate on 09th August, 2015, Walker seemed to be in a comfortable position relative to the rest of the field. He had a solid lead in one of the early states even as the other states were being led by a candidate who provoked outright animosity from the Republican establishment. Walker had extremely high favourability ratings among Republican voters, among the highest in the field. And his positions were considered to be in line with the average Republican voter i.e. he was neither too extreme nor too moderate for the electorate.

And in many ways, the emergence of Trump actually helped Walker. Bush’s lead in New Hampshire and South Carolina had collapsed dramatically and Trump was leading by double digit in both the states. But, Trump is a complete outsider to the Republican Party. He used to hold liberal positions not long back and most of his policy ideas are any way either incoherent or not known. He is also deeply unpopular among a large section of the party. In other words, Trump is a complete anathema to the Republican establishment and they would probably do anything to block his candidacy.

Now consider this scenario – Walker wins Iowa as expected and then Trump emerges as the winner in the New Hampshire and possibly, South Carolina as the current polls suggest. The Republican Party elites would be so spooked at the prospect of a Trump candidacy that they would unite behind the only viable non-Trump candidate acceptable to the broad swath of the party. And in absence of any other early state winner that candidate would be Scott Walker. Blessed by the support of the establishment and other candidates dropping out and endorsing him to keep Trump out, he would crush Trump and win the candidacy.

So far, so good. But the key part of the plan was that Walker had to maintain his lead in Iowa, a lead that was based almost entirely on the basis of one speech at the Iowa freedom summit. For Walker had generated hardly any headlines since then, apart from a low key official declaration of candidacy. But a large part of the media and probably even Walker’s own team had become complacent that Walker’s lead in Iowa was durable. In fact, Walker was also being compared to Mitt Romney who in 2012 had a solid lead in New Hampshire throughout the cycle even as there was a free for all in Iowa

On 06th August, in the first Republican presidential debate, one of the most rated debates ever with an audience of over 24 million, Iowans had another look at Walker. And they did not like what they see. In a study, only 5% of Iowans came out impressed with Walker’s performance. Although he gave reasonable, confident answers and avoided any major gaffe, he also failed to say anything memorable. It was an average, workman like performance that seemed to be aimed at keeping alive his front runner status in Iowa and rekindled the debates about his lack of charisma. The Tim Pawlenty comparisons were back.

Over the last one week, the post debate poll numbers have come out. The result is bad news for Walker. He looks like the candidate most hurt by the debate performance, even though the likes of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Rand Paul also took in some flak for their performances. His lead in Iowa has come crashing down in the last two weeks. Meanwhile, candidates like Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina have gained some voters after their impressive debate performances and are currently either ahead of him or are sniping at Walker’s heels.

RCP Iowa Poll Average from Jul, 2015 to Aug, 2015

RCP Iowa Poll Average from Jul, 2015 to Aug, 2015

The problem with Walker now is that his entire presidential candidature was built on the strategy on winning in Iowa. He has staked out extremely conservative positions, often changing his previous moderate positions, to win over the evangelical Christian voters in Iowa. All these worked fine when he was leading in Iowa. But the fact that his lead was based on a single speech performance was lost to lot of people. And now that he could not replicate his bravura performance there, his support came down dramatically.

None of this is to say Walker cannot recover in Iowa. After all, there are eight more debates in the primary cycle. And his favourability numbers are still very high. But, Walker will have to deliver performances that will erase memories of Tim Pawlenty. Also, Trump is now currently leading in Iowa. If his lead continues to the end of 2015, opponents are going to air ads attacking his moderate positions and past associations with Democratic candidates. And republican establishment will begin to gang up against Trump. Both these scenarios shall play to the favour of Walker (remember, how Gringrich was leading in Iowa in late 2011 and was then destroyed by a combination of attack ads of Romney and volley of criticism from the party elders).

The major risk for Walker is that he has now led Iowa for so long that it is difficult to contemplate a viable Walker candidacy without him winning in Iowa.

The moral of the story is that poll numbers in a primary race, especially so early, are dangerously fickle. Candidates like Mitt Romney and John Edwards were leading the Iowa race in August, 2007 from the Republican and Democratic side respectively. None of them went on to win the Iowa caucus in 2008. In 2012, the Iowa caucus was won by Rick Santorum, a candidate who was polling in low single digits till late 2011. Walker’s numbers in Iowa similarly point out that even though he had a small but stable lead in the state till recently, his numbers were based on a good first impression and were subject to change after voters had a good, second look at him.

What this also means is that Donald Trump may look like a favourite today, based purely on his poll numbers. But, it is very likely that a single event could lead his numbers astray and his support could just collapse in a matter of days, if not weeks. We may not know what and when this collapse will come. But, this is a story which has repeated itself with a number of candidates over almost every primary cycle. This has happened with Walker in Iowa and there is no guarantee that it shall not happen with Trump.

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