Why Progressives Shouldn’t Overreact to Scott Walker’s Rise in 2016 Polls

One week after Scott Walker was re-elected as Wisconsin’s Republican governor last fall, he told Fox News something he surely doesn’t want to hear now: that in “the past four or five” presidential elections, “people who poll high at the beginning are not the people who end up being the nominees.”

This week, as pundits like the New York Times’ David Leonhardt are giving great weight to Walker’s rising appeal in polls among Republicans in 2016’s early caucus and primary states (he is leading in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire), it is worth recalling what Walker said, because it still holds true for the crowded GOP field.

There's no denying Wallker has ruled Wisconsin like a thug, bullying unions, public employees, protesters, pro-abortion and gun-control, and winning a special recall election against a lackluster Democrat and re-election last fall. This makes him especially scary to progressives who have watched him consolidate power.

But a long view of GOP presidential primaries supports exactly what Walker told Fox and Friends last November. It’s not just that there's been endless polling among the GOP hopefuls all last year and would-be candidates such as Rand Paul, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee have all been in the lead—when the race is all about linng up donors and endorsements. More pointedly, the busiest Republican presidential contests in recent decades have been filled with mavericks who won in early states but ended up where most of them started—back on the air as right-wing broadcasters or serving in the U.S. Senate.

It's easy to forget this. Take Iowa, for example. Rick Santorum won its GOP caucuses in 2012 and Mike Huckabee won in 2008. Or New Hampshire, where John McCain won the GOP primary in 2000 and Pat Buchanan won in 1996. Or South Carolina, the third major contest state in 2012, where Newt Gingrich won. All of these candidates won a handful of states in those years, but not the Republican nomination or even the vice-presidential nomination.

Their campaigns fizzled for a mix of reasons. They were too ideological as they moved to more populous urban states. Or they were not embraced by the GOP establishment. Or they ran out of money and weren't organized in the next state as the race continued. Or they stumbled, or their protest vote vanished, or doubts among the public crept in. For different reasons, voters did not think these Republican rebels were ready for prime time—other than returning to their pundit roles or lower elected office.  

There are many reasons to heed Walker's words about not putting too much stock in early front-runners—including himself.

The latest polls suggest he might do well in Iowa a year from now—but even that is not a foregone conclusion as its state Republican Party, the New York Times reported Friday, has been undergoing “a purge, recruiting Republican activists to replace the libertarians and Christian conservatives who had taken over the party.” Walker's feet are firmly planted in those two factions.

The beneficiary of any swing to the center in Iowa is likely ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. But even if Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad doesn’t sweep the crazies out of the room, the 30,000-40,000 voters he needs to win the state's caucuses are not representative of most Republicans who vote later in the process, especially in larger blue states. Iowa is not where Republican presidential nominations are locked up. That typically comes after a dozen contests, unless a Republican president is seeking re-election.

So what we’re left with in these early states is frequently well-hyped ado that ends up being about nothing. Take Santorum, who in 2012 won in Iowa, lost the next five states in a row, and then won consecutively in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. He was trounced by Mitt Romney's sweep of big states. Does anybody recall that Santorum won 11 mostly red rural states in 2012?

Santorum beat Mitt Romney in Iowa by 34 votes, followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the libertarian father of 2016’s GOP contender Rand Paul. The fact that 57 percent of Iowa Republicans say they are evangelical Christians goes a long way to explain Santorum's early results. Looking to 2016, Walker checks those same boxes. His father is a preacher. He grew up in Iowa until the third grade. He proudly touts his rural roots.

When it comes to New Hampshire, Walker also could appeal to that state’s flinty rural Republicans, who are cut from a recalcitrant, leave-me-alone cloth. They are the "Live Free or Die" types, as the state's license plate proclaims, but beyond that bit of old New England vanity, they have little in common with Republicans in the state’s populous southeast corner, which is a Boston suburb, where establishment Republicans, like Romney in 2012 and possibly Jeb Bush, prevail.

What might make Walker attractive in these early contests could easily work against him as the primaries progress. His negatives are substantial. He is best known for his union-bashing victories and mockery of thousands of protesters, his anti-abortion and anti-gun control stances. He’s a college dropout and targeted in an active state-level corruption probe, in which several of his top aides have already pleaded guilty to charges. 

There’s another important factor that isn’t tracked in polls. Walker isn’t quite like Rand Paul, or Mike Huckabee, or Newt Gingrich, or other candidates who have been perpetually running for president. But his latest speeches have been brimming with grandiosity, bragging about being both the bully (taking on unions) and victim (of death threats by pro-union protesters), which might appeal to libertarian right-wingers and the Koch brothers, but there is an unruly quality about it that isn’t very presidential.

Walker also doesn’t have the experience of the Bush or Clinton clan, who have run repeated presidential campaigns—including losing the nomination (Hillary in 2008) and re-election (George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992). These political dynasties have come to know each important state’s vanities, how to sew up their party’s establishment, how to time their campaigns so they don’t peak too soon. That’s what Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are primarily engaged in today—the backroom work—and why Hillary won’t make any announcements until this summer.

Hillary Clinton knows, as 2008 taught her, that you can lose an early lead. Walker said the same thing on Fox last November. There’s many reasons why progressives should be concerned about Walker's rise—he is the Koch party's waterboy—but not overreact to his new momentum, especially as one of his latest talking points is bragging that he's the guy liberals love to hate.

A final statistic bears out that popularity in a few states is not the same as nationwide appeal. When averaging the results of all the GOP presidential polls taken between November 18 and January 27, RealClearPolitics.com found that Jeb Bush lead with 16.4 percent. Walker was sixth, with only 5.8 percent. The political pendulum might have swung toward Walker in recent polls in early states, but chances are strong it will keep shifting in coming months.

It's still a long way to 2016's first nominating contests, and a long way between the opening votes and choosing the nominee.


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