Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

8 Reasons Why Walker’s Campaign Failed

Media analysts nationally have mostly missed the real story.

By - Oct 1st, 2015 11:09 am
Governor Walker and delegates from Badger Girls State take a break from their inauguration in Oshkosh to take a “selfie.” Photo from the State of Wisconsin taken June 19th, 2014.

Governor Walker and delegates from Badger Girls State take a break from their inauguration in Oshkosh to take a “selfie.” Photo from the State of Wisconsin taken June 19th, 2014.

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.

7. Overspending on his campaign: Walker had “a staff of about 90 people and payroll in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a month,” as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported. His campaign manager Rick Wiley has been blamed (legitimately, I’d argue) for not being more efficient, but Walker was equally grandiose is his sense of how to run the campaign. “For an everyman candidate,” Johnson writes, “his campaign events were often elaborately staged… Walker held a town hall at a family-style restaurant in Red Oak, a town with fewer than 6,000 residents in western Iowa. An advance team with a moving van of equipment arrived hours early to hang up flags, set up a sound system and arrange a stage with tiered seating to provide a backdrop of Iowans. Walker arrived with a large entourage: his security detail, campaign manager, personal aide, full-time campaign photographer, two Iowa-based staffers and a horde of low-level employees who handed out brochures… That’s the level of staging that Walker enjoyed during nearly every campaign stop during his first month… which worried some supporters, who considered the elaborate set-ups a waste of money so early in the campaign.”

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.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

23 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: 8 Reasons Why Walker’s Campaign Failed”

  1. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Great summary Bruce, and yes, Jenna Johnson’s piece and her coverage of Walker was very good throughout the campaign.

    Reason 2 explains a lot of the rest of the reasons. All of these flaws were apparently to those of us with a clue, but the state’s corporate media (and their bosses) had such a vested interest in advancing Walker’s career that they refused to investigate and/or covered up these obvious flaws, lies, and contradictions between rhetoric and reality.

    Once he got on the national stage, Walker was exposed as the fraud us on the left told you he was. But we were blown off as “partisans” with paid liars like Sykes and Icki to promote distractions and cover stories to insulate this buffoon.

    Those in charge of our state’s corporate media should also have their careers implode the same way Walker’s campaign did, as accomplices for the damage they allowed this state to take on due to their inability to tell the truth to the public.

  2. Dave says:

    The most damning thing about Governor Dropout’s epic failure is just how pathetic and weak Wisconsin’s media is. It took the national media barely 6 months to expose this parasite for the fraud that he is. Those of us from Milwaukee have known this for 20 years yet Wisconsin’s media lobbed him softball questions and completely failed to get him to deviate from his scripted talking points so the rest of Wisconsin could judge his intellect and preparedness.

  3. slammy says:

    Walker ended up an asterisk because the nation realized he’s a despicable phony. On top of it he’s just not too bright and has zero personality.

  4. beer baron says:

    Great piece! Even more descriptive is the photo. Notice there’s only one non-white face in that selfie and the gov doesn’t seem like he wants her in there.

  5. Tom says:

    Now he is back in Wisconsin with a 37% approval rating.

    Life would be even better in Wisconsin if he stayed on the campaign trail a little longer.

  6. old baldy says:

    I think #1 is the key. Walker may not be as smart as Bill Clinton, but he should have at least prepared himself for the run for president. His incurious nature, and “I’m always right, cuz I’m SKW”, attitude was clearly evident once on the national stage. Our son lives in DC, and has may friends in government. He says that WI is always held up as an example of what two guys (Walker and Johnson) can do to bring down the reputation of a state.

  7. AG says:

    Walker’s biggest mistake is related to item #2 on here.. but more than not being prepared, he changed what he stood for. He already moved more to the right when running for Governor, and then did even more so for President. By changing to the whims of what his campaign thought would be most successful, instead of what got him where he was already, they essentially made him into the non-prepared candidate he was.

    His pandering and moving further to the right has turned me off… I am part of the lowering approval statistic.

    Beer Baron, that pic is from Badger Girls State (as the caption reads). If you want more minorities in that picture, encourage more minorities to participate in that program. Then again, your comment fits in with the rest of the ridiculousness from the other comments.

  8. AG says:

    HA! Love this. Old baldy said: “Our son lives in DC, and has may friends in government. He says that WI is always held up as an example of what two guys (Walker and Johnson) can do to bring down the reputation of a state.”

    Anything that Washington politicians see as a negative is probably a good thing for the majority of the country. Walker and Johnson must be doing something right.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The statement repeated here that Walker’s sons already have spent more than $100,000 for college always puzzles me. One has a few years at Marquette, another has a year or so at UW-Madison — both in towns where they could live at home. Even if they did not, the costs for a year at Madison, for tuition and books, would mean that about 90 percent of that total went to Marquette. But the amount of financial aid awarded at Marquette for a family claiming the Walkers’ income would have made it difficult to rack up that much debt there.

    Something does not compute. So, perhaps there is another source of family income that would lower financial aid. And the only financial statements reported are for Scott Walker. Does Tonette Walker have a source of income, perhaps from an inheritance, that is not reported?

  10. Edith Wagner says:

    As much as we don’t want Walker in the state AND it’s a long 3 years before his term is up (when a whole lot of people will have forgotten all of this), who is going to run against him? What Democrat is going to stand against him? Any ideas?

  11. edw says:

    Missed a few points – Ronald Reagan no longer resonates among voters. He was president 35 years ago almost 2 generations. Can’t run on Reagan’s record or economic philosophy when most were either not alive or were too young to remember Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Tell me that my 25 year old child cares that Reagan fired the air traffic controlers or that the Berlin Wall came down or that Reagan…
    Also, look at younger voters – they are drawn to candidates who know how to capitalize on social media – Facebook, Twitter, etc. They are also drawn to candidates with oratorial skills – ala Bill Clinton or Barrack Obama. Listening to Scott Walker drone on on fighting unions (which this generation do not belong) or repealing ACA which this generation is benefiting.

  12. Frank Galvan says:

    “Walker may not be as smart as Bill Clinton” ie…”dropout may not be as smart as Rhodes Scholar.” Thanks for the insight.

  13. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bruce, you must get paid by the inch, it is actually very simple. Most of the things you talk about are symptoms, you missed the biggest reason.

  14. blurondo says:

    The words “the common good” do not exist in his life.

  15. Jake formerly of the LPq says:

    AG has a take I’ve heard from other places in RW Bubble World- “Why did Walker change what he did in Wisconsin?” Got a dirty secret to tell you. HE DID NOTHING DIFFERENT.

    Walker’s always been a dishonest panderer. He’s always been a flip-flopping fool who can’t speak off-script. He’s always been divisive and tried to stir up the worst emotions in people to win elections. The difference is that Wisconsin media and the DPW wouldn’t take him off script and call out his hypocrisy and disgusting act. And if anyone tried, AM 620 and AM 1130 would cover up his flaws to the base, and Walker would claim they were “just playing politics.” Combine that with a massive amount of money for propaganda and ads, and it allowed just enough low-info voters to ne tricked, letting Walker win 52% of a lower-turnout midterm electorate.

    Once this act got to the big stage and he had to be critically examined against other GOPs, he looked ridiculous to those same low-info voters. But many of us saw nothing different than we’d seen for the last decade, kinda like another Dubya, come to think of it.

  16. Frank says:

    Timid local news coverage and a weak opponent made walker feel far more ready for a national campaign than he really was.

  17. Labitokov says:

    It’s a real lesson for all of us (well, at least for me)-the power of the regional/national media to drive the narrative even in this era of incredible diversity of media outlets.

    I am an unapologetic Walker opponent and news junkie and I completely overestimated his abilities on the national level.

    If only the local media would do some soul searching and come to the same conclusion.

    They will not however as the political economy of WI points to interests, that own the local media, that will call for more and more austerity as local elites have proven that they can get whatever they want from a population that has shown little ability to resist-ACT 10, the stadium deal, cuts to public education (both K-12 and the UW), etc…

    Without a significant progressive movement, much of the former industrial Midwest will become more and more like the South, with little social investment and massive inequality.

  18. AG says:

    Jake, what you heard from me is what you’ll hear from a lot of moderate’s and independents. People who could support his positions, or most of them, found themselves disagreeing with too much now. It’s pretty simple. Clearly you’re not a fan of his politics, but people in the center don’t see things the same as the extreme right or left do. Try to keep a level head, only 3 more years. 😉

  19. Barb- West Bend says:

    Thanks, Bruce. I am a member of a weekly discussion group, of approx. 35 members. I often print your articles and take them along to our meetings to help inform and spur discussion. Your articles provide more in depth reporting and factual material than the MJS.


  20. John Michlig says:

    If there were any sort of “comeuppance” or shame left in modern American life, the AM radio hacks who promoted Walker would be ridden out of town on a rail, exiled to careers as eccentric bloggers.

    Could they be more consistently wrong?

    And, given the wretched hive of scum and villainy that make up Scott Walker’s hiring decisions and compatriots (is he interviewing on-site at Mos Eisley Spaceport) who can defend this and keep a job as a “news person”?

  21. John Michlig says:

    A typo made my question a statement, but perhaps that’s the answer: Scott Walker recruits at Mos Eisley Spaceport.

  22. George says:

    Regarding a Democratic challenger: How about Robert Kraig from Citizen Action of Wisconsin? Bright, articulate, progressive, and able to energize a grassroots campaign.

  23. Vincent HannVa says:

    I think flip-flopping is overblown as a reason. Trump does it all the time and it hasn’t hurt him. Romney was infamous for it and he was still the GOP nominee in 2012. All politicians do it. There’s way more to it than that.

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