8 Reasons Why Walker’s Campaign Failed
Media analysts nationally have mostly missed the real story.
The disastrous end to Scott Walker’s presidential campaign came so suddenly that it has generated tons of stories nationally — a near mountain of blather — attempting to explain why. Yet perhaps only one writer came close to explaining the paradox of the confident, politically formidable governor who was so strangely inept and inert in a national race.
Walker’s collapse was truly historic. According to the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics, Walker’s 71-day presidential run is the third shortest since the modern primary system began in 1972. Sen. Fred Harris, D-Oklahoma, dropped out after just 48 days in 1972 and Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Connecticut, bailed out after 67 days. But neither started out as a leading candidate — Walker was for months near the top of the polls in the race, a seeming supernova that suddenly crashed and burned. How could he fail so badly?
1. A lack of intellectual preparation: Walker had never traveled much and simply isn’t very cosmopolitan. That’s not unlike George W. Bush, who was no intellectual, but before running for president had spent two years meeting with foreign policy experts. By contrast, Walker only began getting briefings by “an emergency crew of wonks” after he began running for president, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has written: “Shouldn’t that have happened first? Shouldn’t he have been paying attention all along, out of a genuine interest in this sort of material rather than a pragmatic one?” The result was a series of weak and indecisive answers by Walker to foreign policy questions that bit by bit, undermined his credibility.
2. A lack of preparation for the national media: In Wisconsin, Walker could count on fawning coverage from talk radio and could generally control when and what kind of interviews he did with the far-from-robust print and TV media in this state. But Walker couldn’t control the national media and seemed unprepared by the sheer onslaught of probing questions he received, even from conservative reporters at Fox. His steely discipline — a key asset — melted away because he too often was unprepared for questions, leading to evasions, slip-ups and contradictions that increasingly made him seem not ready for prime time.
3. Walker tried to run his own campaign: Walker has never had much of an inner circle of advisors, when running for governor or president. The New York Times did an entire story noting that Walker’s decades-long tendency to operate as his own campaign manager has served to “reinforce an impression… that he is a political lifer with a shallow grasp of policy who lacks the gravitas the presidency demands… To think like an operative, after all, is to find a way to appeal to the political marketplace at a given moment, to devise a way to win. But a fixation on salesmanship can also lead to shifting on issues.” And that constant flip-flopping was fatal to his campaign.
4. Walker was often exhausted on the campaign trail: Washington Post reporter Jenna Johnson, who covered Walker on the campaign trail, did easily the best (and most modest) story on his candidacy, including this description: “Days after launching his campaign, Walker pulled an all-nighter when his flight was diverted because of weather. During campaign stops in South Carolina the next day, Walker was visibly exhausted, his eyes red and puffy. He started slurring words, turning “Harley” into “Farley” and “ISIS” into “aces.” …The same was true as Walker rode a rented Road King through New Hampshire over Labor Day weekend, becoming frustrated and mixing up his words as he addressed a swarm of reporters…” Walker is only 47 and has never struck me as lacking energy (far from it), but he launched his race in January while trying to oversee the budget back in Madison. He was really handling three jobs: governor, presidential candidate and campaign strategist. The overload caught up to him and made him a tired, weaker candidate.
5. Candidate Walker was anything but “unintimidated”: His core message was that he was the politician who won’t back down on tough issues, but Walker’s constant flip-flops undermined this image and he increasingly looked like he was pandering. “This is a candidate who built his presidential campaign on the premise that he was a fighter — yet he seemed uncomfortable confronting people face to face, especially fellow Republicans,” Johnson writes. “Ahead of the first Republican debate, I watched hours of video footage from Walker’s previous debates in Wisconsin. In a few of these, Walker had the opportunity to ask his opponent a question and passed. Instead, he stuck to his talking points and avoided confrontation… On the early campaign trail, Walker ignored protesters, maneuvered out of conversations that turned testy, rarely held town halls and avoided follow-up questions from reporters whenever possible.”
6. The Union Issue Didn’t Catch On: The two candidates best known for bashing public unions, Walker and Chris Christie, both have been disappointments in the GOP primary. The reality is that federal employee unions lack the power of state and local employee unions, and whenever Walker raised the issue, it seemed irrelevant to the key issues being debated in the race.
8. Walker’s personal debt made him vulnerable: The overspending on the campaign left him in a position where he had to madly scramble to raise money at a time when his ranking in the polls had plummeted. His financial plight had to be particularly alarming to both Walker and his wife Tonette (who apparently was important in the decision to end the campaign) because Walker is not a wealthy man. “Financial disclosures revealed that Walker has tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, including a large balance on a card with an interest rate of more than 27 percent,” Johnson writes. “His two sons have taken on at least $100,000 in student loan debt and have yet to graduate from college.” Walker could not afford to add any debt through this campaign, and had no choice but to shut it down.
Yes, Donald Trump’s entrance into the race caused problems for Walker (which countless analysts repeated), but every Republican faced that problem and some, like Marco Rubio, who trailed Walker for months, have adroitly handled it. Walker’s problem wasn’t due to outside forces, but emanated from his own contradictory personality. The everyman candidate who “shops at Kohl’s” wanted a huge and costly campaign operation. The fighter who claimed to be unintimidated on the issues is actually uncomfortable with confrontation and often looked like a weakling who would pander on any issue to please the voters, particularly those in Iowa. The result left the media and Republican voters increasingly wondering just who Walker was and what he really stood for. Walker looked un-genuine, and that’s a problem that could continue to dog him, even in Wisconsin, if he decides to run for reelection in 2018.