Why Scott Walker failed: the price of pandering
Seventy days. That’s how long Scott Walker’s presidential campaign lasted. Just shorter than the shelf life of many of Wisconsin’s finest cheeses, but just a bit longer than the average Kardashian marriage. Scott Walker entered the race late in July as a frontrunner, but before the summer even rolled into autumn he had suspended his campaign. Going into 2015, Scott Walker was largely unknown. Some conservative activists heard he was the governor who fought unions and survived a recall election; beyond that, few had heard of him. Walker roared into the 2016 election in February, delivering a fiery speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit in February. Many pundits suggest he could unite the GOP: Walker, as an evangelical conservative who was not too far right to scare off the establishment, had a clear path to victory.
Except that never happened. Walker entered the race late, slipped in the polls behind Bush, Trump and half a dozen others, and after two lackluster debate performances saw his numbers fall to zero percent nationally, prompting him to drop out. How did that happen?
First were simple practical failures. He failed to hire nationally experienced campaign strategists, leaving much of the strategizing to himself. He spent too much money on everything-ravel, rallies, food, salaries-causing his funds to dry up. Finally, Trump’s entry into the race stole much of Walker’s thunder, and he became lost beneath the unceasingly headlines heralding the latest movements of the Donald. However, despite the Trump surge, some candidates, like Bush, Rubio, Cruz and others, found themselves weakened, but still stuck around. What was different for Walker?
As mentioned, Walker entered the race without a clear national reputation. Voters knew he was conservative, but didn’t have a clear idea of what exactly he stood for. Evidently, Walker wasn’t clear on that either. He initially supported immigration reform, only to back away after the party’s base turned on the idea. After Trump entered the race, Walker tried to outflank him on the right, calling for possible limits on legal immigration, and explored the idea of building a wall on the Canadian border as well (just to be safe; America might become overrun with low cost medication, maple candy, and decent people). When far-right candidates like Trump and Carson surged in the polls, Walker responded by racing to the right. He denied his past belief in climate change, twice questioned if President Obama is actually a Christian, wouldn’t say whether or not he thought Obama loved America, and called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
This wouldn’t be a problem if he were Ted Cruz or Ben Carson, and entered the race marketing himself as the staunchest conservative of the race. Walker, however, entered as a conservative who wasn’t dangerously far right. His shameless lurch to the right seemed like nothing more than pandering. And it didn't even work: he wasn't outrageous enough to outdo Trump, but was too conservative for most voters. It’s not uncommon for candidates to try to appeal to the party’s base during the primaries, but Walker, who came out in support of ethanol upon showing up in Iowa, and would don his Harley jacket whenever he heard a motorcycle pull up, crossed the line from politicking to pandering.
The cynics would say politicians must pander to win. It’s a staple of politics as established as kissing babies or chowing down corn dogs at a state fair. The truth is that voters hate blatant pandering. Voters want candidates to be authentic; they can stomach disagreements on policies, so long as they know those are honest disagreements. That’s why Bernie Sanders is riding high in the polls, and why John Kerry and Mitt Romney could never become President. Further, voters will not abide a candidate assuming a false persona. Walker became a ‘Reagan guy’ in California, a ‘Harley guy’ on the highway, and ‘a union fighter’ in the cities. A candidate’s personality is their singularly unique advantage; to forsake that and assume a different personality to appeal to voters is a sure short to defeat.
In light of his deficiencies, the bigger question should be ‘why was Walker ever a frontrunner?’ instead of ‘why did Walker fail?’ Republicans were so eager for a second coming of ‘St. Ronald’ that they placed their hopes on a man who was clearly in over his head, and was far too willing to assume new principles if it promised the chance of temporary political expedience. None of this means Walker was a bad governor: he just wasn’t ready for the national stage. Perhaps Walker, like Reagan before him, will learn from his mistakes and run again for President. He could take the next ten weeks to think about it. After all, a lot can happen in seventy days.