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Eye On Candidates
September 22, 2015

Lessons From Walker’s Early Exit

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker exited the race yesterday evening, bringing to an end a campaign that started at the top and within a matter of months fell to asterisk territory, failing to register above one half of one percent in the most recent national poll by CNN. A number of media outlets and pundits are offering their thoughts on how someone thought to be one of the top contenders fell apart so quickly, and what other candidates can take away from his collapse. Josh Kraushaar at National Journal had a couple of thoughts, excerpted below:

5 Takeaways From Scott Walker’s Withdrawal

  1. Hard money (and spend­ing dis­cip­line) mat­ters. It’s iron­ic that, in the age of the su­per PAC, when it’s easi­er than ever to raise out­side money, two ac­com­plished big-name gov­ernors dropped out in the sum­mer in part be­cause they couldn’t raise enough hard money to sus­tain their op­er­a­tions. Walk­er, who entered the race Ju­ly 13, had the sup­port of a well-fun­ded 527 (which raised $20 mil­lion at the end of June) and the ex­cite­ment of many of the wealth­i­est donors in the party. Now, be­fore he even has a chance to file his first fun­drais­ing re­port, he’s out of the race be­cause he couldn’t get enough donors to com­mit to his cam­paign. “No amount of su­per PAC $ can suf­fice for hard dol­lars,” a Walk­er ad­viser told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an email…. 
  2. Long-term strategy, not short-term tac­tics, will win the GOP nom­in­a­tion. From the be­gin­ning of the race, Walk­er viewed him­self as his own best strategist—a glar­ing red flag that fore­shad­owed his prob­lems. In real­ity, Walk­er un­der­stood tac­tics, but didn’t have any­one on his cam­paign payroll that was fo­cused on long-term strategy.

Another fatal error, according to multiple observers, was Walker’s failure to study up on issues and hone his speaking style and message, leading to several occasions where he simply seemed out of his depth or to be reversing himself. From Politico:

Liz Mair, a former Walker aide who was fired earlier this year, took to Twitter on Monday to enumerate the mistakes her one-time boss had made — and said he often seemed overmatched by the velocity and information overload inherent in a modern presidential campaign.

At the top of her list: “Not educating himself fast enough on issues outside governor's remit” and “Not training himself out of tics incl[uding] instinctively answering 'yes' and 'absolutely' to things, comparing lots of things to union fight….”

Walker’s campaign had been imploding for weeks, but his public low point — and one that made him vulnerable to charges of weakness — was his stumbling response to the birthright citizenship proposal, a quixotic bid to challenge the 14th Amendment guarantee that all people born in the U.S. be given citizenship rights. Over the course of seven days in August, Walker rattled out no fewer than three positions — a call to challenge the amendment, a solid “no” when asked if he planned to challenge existing laws, and a call for the status quo.

That last sentence isn’t actually correct – Walker held a single position, he simply did a horrible job communicating it, starting several responses on the issue with the “yeah” preface that Mair alluded to that many assumed to mean he agreed with the premise of the question. But campaigns tend not to be forgiving of such verbal “tics” and Walker was clearly hurt by this.

The Wall Street Journal offers an interesting observation on Walker’s fundraising woes that potentially applies to other candidates as well:

Mr. Walker’s exit, coming less than two weeks after Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign, is exposing weaknesses in the new way campaigns are being financed. All of the leading GOP candidates spent more time in the spring courting wealthy donors who could underwrite a friendly super PAC, rather than working voter events in early primary states and building lists of small to midsize donors needed to sustain a campaign. The suspension of Mr. Walker’s campaign was a surprise to some of his financial backers.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have created similar hybrid campaign operations that, when combined with anemic poll numbers, could make them vulnerable in a primary battle that still has more than a dozen candidates.

Walker’s Iowa-specific strategy also comes in for criticism in the article:

From the beginning, Mr. Walker and his advisers had bet the farm on a strong performance in Iowa, but his decline there fed the perception that he might not even make it until the first ballot was cast.

‘This demonstrates that campaigns and candidates have to be prepared to go the distance, and a one-state campaign can make that difficult,” said Tim Albrecht, an adviser to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad who is now helping Mr. Bush, who also happens to be the best financed of any candidate in the Republican and Democratic primary fields.

Some are pointing to factors outside of Walker’s control to explain what happened, including Jonathan Last in The Weekly Standard:

So what happened to Walker? The short answer is: Donald Trump. Trump’s candidacy has been a tremendous disruption—in the Silicon Valley sense of the word. His support is drawn from such a broad expanse of the party that he’s destabilized not just the support of one wing of the party, but of pretty much everyone running. He unsettled every candidate’s coalition with his rise and changed the topography of the race.

There are other factors, too. Walker burned through too much money, too fast. He might have gotten a bad break by popping too soon over the summer. He wasn’t nimble enough to adjust his campaign to the new political reality and find angles. But at the end of the day, if Trump wasn’t in the race, then Walker still would be.

Walker is the first casualty of Trump’s rise, but will probably not be the last. Because even if Trump collapses, too, the dissipation of his supporters will change the race again.

The long answer is that the very size of this field was probably destined to make for an unstable and unpredictable race. Nate Silver made this point a couple weeks ago: We get so caught up looking for “game-changing” moments that it’s easy to overlook the obvious factor that makes this race fundamentally different from every other. Because it’s so obvious, people will tend to discount it. But they shouldn’t: The size of this field—even at 15 candidates—is still way outside the historical norm.

Ultimately though, even without Trump and a large field, it seems likely the same factors cited in the other articles would have still brought Walker’s campaign to an unsuccessful end, if only at a later date. The early focus on super PAC donors and lack of spending discipline, failure to bone up on the issues, and the decision to act as his own chief strategist were all made well before Trump entered the race. And while the large field is unusual, it alone doesn’t seem to have forced other candidates to exit the race either.

Walker entered the race a frontrunner and left an asterisk, and there are lessons for other campaigns in what happened. Ignoring them is likely to lead to further “lessons learned” postings as they drop out too.