Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Walker’s Curious Debate Strategy

His strategy was to “largely ignore” Burke. That may have been a mistake.

By - Oct 14th, 2014 09:41 am
Gov. Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker

Going into the first debate between Gov. Scott Walker and challenger Mary Burke, I expected Walker to wax her. Walker is famed for being able to give speeches without a teleprompter, he’s the most silver-tongued governor this state has seen since Republican Lee Sherman Dreyfus more than three decades ago, and he handily beat Tom Barrett in all those 2010 and 2012 debates.

Burke? She’s green as grass. As a reporter for the leftist Mother Jones wrote, in her early days of campaigning, “Burke looked wooden on TV, rehearsed and uncomfortable in front of crowds.” As late as September, he noted, “Burke spoke at a campaign fundraiser in a cavernous hall at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery… She flubbed her applause lines, her timing was off, and she looked ill at ease in front of a large audience.”

In short, Burke should have been easy pickings for someone like Walker. But she wasn’t. From the outset, Burke offered strong challenges to his record and throughout the debate, she usually gave as good as she got. I doubt that Walker or his handlers expected this. I doubt anyone in the state did.

Walker’s strategy, he told the media, was “largely to ignore my opponent and really spend my time talking to the people of this state.” That might make sense if you’re way ahead in the polls, if you’re a Tommy Thompson-type governor with tremendous bipartisan appeal. But Walker is a divisive candidate whose approval rating has typically been below 50 percent during his time in office and is in a race that’s a dead heat. He has to show Burke is a poor alternative to him.

Ideally, Walker needed to show that Burke lacked stature or a command of the issues compared to him, and simply wasn’t ready for the job. He didn’t.

Both candidates had strong moments. Walker was very good on Act 10’s impact, touting his tax cuts and describing how he would handle the long-term deficit the Legislative Fiscal Bureau has pointed to. Burke was very strong on issues like the minimum wage, abortion and Walker’s turndown of an estimated $500 million in federal health care money. (The topics selected by members of the media seemed to play to her stronger issues.)

In the aftermath of the debate, Walker’s supporters offered a summary that essentially damned him with faint praise. His tireless promoter on talk radio, Charlie Sykes, declared that “as expected” the debate did nothing to change the race, and conservative blogger James Wigderson offered a similar take. But of course it wasn’t expected that Burke would hold her own.

Republicans made much of what they called Burke’s “long pause” before answering the last question, “what is the one thing your opponent brings to the table you see as a positive in leading the state forward?” I timed it at 4.5 seconds. Certainly not a great moment for Burke, but hardly earth shattering.

Meanwhile, Walker offered a howler, telling us he intended to serve four years as governor. This is the man who had done everything possible to plan a run for president while repeatedly refusing to promise he would finish out a second term for governor. When asked about a 2016 presidential run, his friend and political adviser of over two decades, John Hiller told GQ magazine, “Of course he’s going to look at it. Why wouldn’t he?”

Walker’s interest in the race is so well-known the Marquette University Law School poll has asked respondents in a couple different polls what they thought of him running for president. When asked, “Do you think any governor can run for president and still handle their duties as governor?” 65 percent said no—a figure that included 52 percent of Republicans. That was in a May poll, yet Walker for months declined to rule out a run.

I recorded the TV debate, so I was also able to listen to some of it on the radio. I could imagine radio listeners might pick Burke as the winner: She sounds more compelling then she looks. Walker tended to be less responsive to the panel’s questions and went over time repeatedly.

But TV is a visual medium and Burke’s hooded eyes make her seem less direct and warm and to compound that, she rarely smiles. Walker was more at ease and friendly-folksy, but his balding crown is really starting to show. Is that cruel? Yes, to both candidates. But TV is a merciless medium.

Interestingly, both Burke and Walker were very competitive, multi-sport athletes in high school and it shows. No one expected Burke to run so close to Walker but for months they were in a dead heat and while the last Marquette Poll showed an edge for Walker, the experts who average all polls show it as “too close to call” at and a “toss-up” at Real Clear Politics. The first debate was a huge opportunity for the far-more-experienced Walker to change the race’s dynamic and take Burke out. He didn’t come close.

Short Takes

-The governor found every opportunity to mention his wife Tonette, as a way of reminding voters what a regular guy he is, compared to single and never-married Burke.

-Walker actually had nothing good to say about how Burke would lead the state forward as a governor, which is what the questioner was asking. He likes her as a philanthropist, we learned.

-Will Walker take a tougher approach against Burke in the second debate? That will be interesting to see.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Right Wisconsin claimed Mary Burke’s pause took 12 seconds.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

21 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Walker’s Curious Debate Strategy”

  1. PMD says:

    How many undecided voters actually watched this debate and used it to determine who they will vote for in a few weeks? The number has to be tiny, and maybe that’s why Walker coasted through it. I still don’t think Burke has a chance. Not unless turnout in heavily blue regions is much higher than expected.

  2. Allison says:

    Bruce-You say in this blog that Walker is a great debater and “handily beat Barrett in all those 2010 and 2012 debates”.

    Yet you also blogged before the recall election that if you were scoring the 2012 debate between Barrett and Walker you would have given it to Barrett on points.

    So which one do you believe?

  3. allison says:

    Here is the blog where you say Barrett beat Walker on points

  4. bruce Murphy says:

    Allison, wow, I’m complemented, you’ve got a better memory of my writing than I do. That was one debate, which I rated as very close, of probably six or so the two candidates had, all told, in 2010 and 2012. Still, I think the general perception was that Walker was better overall in the debates, perhaps heightened at this point by Walker’s election triumphs.

  5. Allison says:

    Thanks-I always do not agree with what you write but I do try to follow your viewpoints.

    The other issue I had with this blog was that I think it is very hard for Walker to “take Burke out” as you say. The Walker team is very sensitive right now towards their push to get women voters. They have a large gender gap, as you’ve written. Him coming off as mean or going after a female candidate would not go well, so I thought he played things pretty well. So I doubt anyone’s minds were changed after the debate, but have not seen any post debate polls either.

  6. PMD says:

    How many people actually watched it? Is that information known?

  7. bruce murphy says:

    Certainly a concern. But Walker is very good at taking issue with an opponent without looking mean or personal. I will be very interested to see if he does more of that in the next debate.

  8. Biff says:

    Apparently it hasn’t sunk in yet over at the Urban Milwaukee offices that Burke’s candidacy is now clearly a big joke, which was obvious to many from the start. Despite the best efforts of this website, along with other larger media like the JS, simply trying to ignore her laughable career history, complete with ever changing dates and nothing to back up any of her claims of success at anything, her refusal to answer any policy questions for months, saying they’d all be answered by her official plans which when released, turned out to be lifted directly from other former candidates, despite all that effort the truth of her being a joke for holding high office made it through! The ONLY reason she’s even within a mile in the Marquette poll now is because Democrats here would rather elect someone with zero qualifications than to bear another 4 years of Walker bringing the real world to the paychecks of government employees and ending their little fantasy world. The all important voters in the middle however seem to have figured out this joke as well.

  9. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    He did good job, she was much better than I thought. She memorized her talking points well and managed to demonize all of the people that we need to provide jobs. You cannot build a business without ideas, knowledge and capital. she hates those people like her father.

  10. PMD says:

    A person who is part of a family with a successful, well known Wisconsin-based business hates people who provide jobs and build businesses? That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

  11. Observer says:


  12. David Blaska says:

    The real howler was Mary Burke saying she’d serve 16 years. But her campaign should sue the lighting crew for that debate stage. It was cruel. In any event, if you support the candidate, you hope he/she reaches the heights. No one was too upset when Barack Obama served only four of six years as U.S. Senator from Illinois.

  13. Bruce Thompson says:

    The moment I recall is Walker changing the subject when asked whether he supported raising the minimum wage. I think he realized that either yes or no would hurt him with people he needed to win–yes with his funders, no with the voters. In tomorrow’s J-S he is still struggling with that. Also interesting that Burke had adopted the Ron Unz argument–that the taxpayers are subsidizing low-wage employers.

  14. tim haering says:

    Thanks for the analysis, Bruce. I dint [“didn’t” in Manitowocian] watch or listen, so I trust your scorecard. Burke remains an afterthought to me, no better than 45%, when push meets shove. She a nice lady and well intentioned, but she’s a small bike builder with no govt or govt-services chops. She has just recently mastered her 5 talking points. That’s why the question about Walker’s good side threw her. She’d have made a terrible lawyer. Maybe that’s a good thing. But she’s over her head and gripping her seat cushion, as the DC-9 suggests. What I wanna know is how you feel about Simonson’s death. Lost a great reporter, like Shook 2 years back. Gesundheit, mein freund. Don’t be next.

  15. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    C’mon, let’s tell the truth here. Walker did what he did BECAUSE HE CAN”T SPEAK OFF SCRIPT! That’s why he refused to answer questions, because he didn’t want to look like the mediocre intellect and lowlife that he is! Look at how he answered this unprompted question on Medicaid this week,

    Sarah Palin thinks that’s an incoherent answer. He can’t even answer questions on a policy he put in place, and ends up contradicting himself. Let’s call a spade a spade here.

    I bet you Walker backers said the same garbage about another Dubya- “Oh, he’s plain-spoken. Oh, he’s a leader.” NO HE’S NOT. He’s repeating lines he’s been told by his puppetmasters, whether they have a connection to reality or not.

    There’s no “silver tongue” to saying prerehearsed answers that don’t relate to the question at hand. At least not to those of us who live in a world of substance and results over style.

  16. David says:

    When Mary Burke was asked the final question about saying something good about Walker, it was an honest delay and expression. People of decent, honest, compassionate hardworking backgrounds have real trouble actually finding anything positive about Walker. He is the most divisive, corrupt, con-artist politician holding higher office in our lifetimes’. He has had decades of practice enhancing the art and speaking skills of the con-man as life of a preacher man, and politician earning a living off taxpayers and a walking talking insult to the human race. There really is nothing good to say about him.

    Politifact has documented that Walker will lie 77% of the time, and the remainder he just repeats something without answering the questions. Walker is clearly unfit to serve the people of Wisconsin.

    Mary Burke did a credible job covering many of the questions and for someone that has not had a lot of speaking time in public. Many of us have a decent education and knowledge of the issues, but are not well practiced, especially when compared to a well scripted con-artist Walker that has Wisconsin on a worst in the Midwest rating and a continued downward spiral.

    Walker’s jobs program is to find all his corrupt cronies jobs in his administration.

  17. Observer says:

    Tim I read your take on this and it occurred to me that I could do a 180 using your analysis.

    Mary Burke brings a much needed small manufacturers outlook to state government.

    The life long politician with no business sense is proving by any useable criterion that not having private enterprise experience is a big reason for Wisconsin’s failure to take part of our nation’s economic recovery.

  18. Mia says:

    I think independents are not going to be romanced by how one speaks eloquently, or how at ease one is in front of the crowd. Mary Burke benefits because she is a political novice and therefore is not expected to be as well spoken or well oiled like Walker, who has won several elections. I don’t think Doyle is going to be a factor into this race. Mary will be judged on her mistakes and strengths alone. I think Walker’s idea that job skills are the problem and a minimum wage isn’t an issue is just ridiculous. Yes, it is nice that there will be jobs that will make 2 or 3 times the minimum, but we all know very well that not everyone will be able to get a 20 dollar an hour job. It just won’t happen. If they are out there, they are taken, If they are created, they will be taken. All those who aren’t able to get one — and many won’t will be forced to take what is out there. Those who are barely surviving still have to make a living while obtaining job skills. Wisconsin just doesn’t have enough of them, which is why the larger cities are doing better.

    So, Mary messed up on her jobs plan. None of that has been put into actual law and administered. Scott Walker has implemented laws that has affected the quality of life, and this is what I am judging. So, yes, it is more of a vote against Walker than for Burke for me. But I’ve decided that the policies in place aren’t benefitting us. Of course there is the possibility of electing a female governor that might swing some, but may I remind you that I wasn’t particularly swayed to vote for a woman when she ran for President. I vote on the issues.

  19. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I really feel sorry for some of you people. Your hatreds steal away your life.
    I have known every governor, back to Vern Thomson, well, and by far the worst was Doyle. The best were Tommy, Knowles and Gaylord. Walker will prove to be one of the best when he gets through with next term. He has successfully turned the schools around from the hands of the Unions, who have helped ruin them. Notice half of the people bailed as soon as they could. Look to see where we were in 1970 and where we are now. The Feds and the Unions helped the kids little. In MPS the kids cannot ever read.
    Doyle/Burke governed for 8 years. In that time Tommy added almost 500,000 jobs while Doyle lost 130,000. A difference of 630,000. Scott has change the course, under Doyle it was straight downhill as manufacturers looked to Red states to bail out. Doyle down hill 1500 or so per month while Walker up about 2,000/mos. Big difference. Scott did what should have been done years ago, brought public employee salaries and bennies somewhat into line with private jobs, plus you cannot fire a public employee.
    This state has always been split, between the greedy and those that are not in the state’s employ.

  20. David says:

    If anyone plans on viewing the debate this Friday and can stand looking directly at the evil corrupt politician without their eyes burning, check out how Walker twists his mouth to the side when weaving his lies. Dick Cheney did this all the time for his lies.

    His handlers and speech writers may have been working on this “liars tell” with him but he still slips into actually talking out of the side of his mouth.

  21. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    David you are really sick, disgusting person.

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