Scott Walker Should Be Leading The GOP Field. So Why Isn’t He?

A few months ago I was adamant in my belief that Scott Walker would be the GOP nominee. Despite my consistent stance that political professionals underestimate Donald Trump, I’m also not inclined to believe he’ll be the nominee in the end. Republicans tend ultimately to gravitate back to an establishment figure after making flirtations with a number of less stodgy candidates. But in this year’s unusual environment where the establishment is divided while the base is mostly united, the question is who that establishment figure is likely to be.

For a long time I was betting on Scott Walker. It made sense both on paper and terms of GOP establishment/base dynamics: Walker is a governor (usually better than a Senator) who survived withering liberal attacks to gain re-election. He’s an economic royalist above all, which should endear him to the billionaire class that wants all the money while impoverishing everyone else. He’s also nasty, vindictive and mean-spirited, willing to insult and attack teachers, college professors, women, minorities and just about anyone else on the “politically correct” hit list.

But rather than converging support from both sides, Walker has now dropped to 0% in polls after holding the lead in Iowa prior to the first debate, and his campaign is on life support. So what happened?

Andrew Prokop at Vox has a quick rundown. It’s partially that he annoyed the billionaire class by aping Trump’s anti-immigrant stance, but it’s mostly the fact that the debates have shown him to be utterly devoid of charisma:

Scott Walker simply isn’t compelling or attention-grabbing. I argued nearly a year ago that Walker’s lack of charisma would be his biggest problem “in a world where primary candidates rise and fall in the polls based partly on their performance in televised debates.”

Walker’s lack of charisma isn’t his only problem. He’s also proven unexpectedly feckless on the issues, changing his position on topics like immigration in various insincere-seeming ways. But it was when Republicans got a look at all the candidates onstage — seeing Walker live, rather than on paper — that his position in Iowa collapsed. He hasn’t stopped falling since.

So instead of overlapping nicely with the GOP establishment and its base, he turned out to be not establishment enough for the billionaires, and not charismatic and aggressive enough for the base. He’s seen as something of a phony with an inability to project the raw animal confidence a successful presidential candidate needs. Which is frankly fortunate for the left, because I still hold to the position that despite his economic failures in Wisconsin, Walker would still probably be one of the GOP’s most dangerous general election candidates–and one of their most vicious and destructive presidents.

It goes to show once again that politics at the presidential level is dominated less by candidate records, policy positions and bases of support, and more by charisma, authenticity and demeanor. It’s just the nature of the beast.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.