In the newest national poll, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker leads the Republican presidential pack with 25% — eight points better than Jeb Bush, who runs in third place. In the newest Iowa poll, Walker is also in first with 25%, almost doubling up his nearest rival. And in the most recent New Hampshire poll, Walker is in second place, just three points behind Bush.
In other words: Going strictly by the poll numbers, no one is off to a better start than Scott Walker. And yes, it’s easy to dismiss this — it’s so early. There were polls that showed Herman Cain ahead last time! The establishment candidate always wins in the end! But there’s also a good case to be made that it’s much more than a fleeting blip and that Walker is a genuine contender for the GOP nomination — maybe even (gulp) the favorite.
This is a testament both to Walker’s strengths and to the vulnerabilities of Bush, who is generally regarded as the front-runner and who is quickly establishing himself as the favorite of the party’s donor class.
Start with Bush’s weaknesses. As I wrote recently, he’s vacuuming up cash just as efficiently as his brother, George W. Bush, did when he staged a dramatic takeover of the Republican Party in his 2000 campaign. But the conservative base’s interpretation of W’s presidency has created deep grassroots resistance to Republican politicians who break with conservative orthodoxy on key issues and a pronounced appetite for leaders who aren’t connected to the party’s Beltway establishment.
For Jeb, this has translated into early poll numbers that are strikingly weak when you factor in his famous name and the enormous expectations surrounding his candidacy. His support in national polls is running in the mid-teens. To put that perspective, just look at how recent GOP nominees were faring in polls at roughly this same point in their campaigns:
* In January 1987, George H.W. Bush led the GOP field with 36% – 21 points better than his nearest foe, Bob Dole
* In March 1995, Bob Dole was at 60% – 47 points above second place Phil Gramm.
* In March 1999, George W. Bush polled at 53%, compared to just 16 for closest rival Elizabeth Dole
* In February 2007, John McCain was at just 19%, with Rudy Giuliani leading at 40.
* In February 2011, Mitt Romney was at just 16%, two points behind Mike Huckabee (who ultimately declined to run)
Jeb’s current poll standing fits the profile of McCain and Romney, both of whom were forced to endure much trickier paths to the nomination than Bush 41, Dole and Bush 43. The trouble for Jeb – and this is where Walker’s strengths come in – is that the bizarre and fortuitous circumstances that boosted McCain and Romney may not be present for him.
McCain benefited from the fact that each of his three main primary opponents all had glaring weaknesses: Giuliani with his liberal views on abortion, guns, immigration and gay rights; Romney, the one-time Massachusetts moderate, with a conveniently-timed ideological makeover that aroused deep suspicions among conservatives; and Huckabee with his almost nonexistent appeal beyond white evangelical Christians. This left just enough space for McCain, despite his own considerable flaws as a candidate, to maneuver his way to the nomination.
Similarly, Romney seemed to face a polling ceiling of somewhere in the mid-20s throughout 2011, when at various times Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich all zoomed well ahead of him. Romney’s saving grace was that each of them proved to be spectacularly unprepared for primetime and quickly receded as soon as the spotlight was on them. Ultimately, the Romney challenger with the most staying power was Rick Santorum, who ended up winning 11 primaries and caucuses. That Santorum, a former senator who’d been drummed out of office by 18 points, was able to do so well was testament the base’s profound appetite for a non-Romney candidate; the fact that Romney still outlasted him was testament to Santorum’s own shortcomings.
But now think about Scott Walker. He doesn’t share any of Giuliani’s liberal social views. He’s stuck to the same conservative ideology since entering Wisconsin politics more than two decades ago — no sudden Romney-ish transformations for him. He speaks openly of his Christian faith without hemming himself in demographically like Huckabee. His family life appears in order and with the John Doe investigation seemingly going nowhere, he lacks the profound personal and ethical baggage that undermined Gingrich. And he’s run and won three bruising, closely-watched elections in a blue-tinged state — meaning that he’s vetted and accustomed to the media crucible in ways that Cain and Perry weren’t.
In other words, he lacks all of the major flaws that kept McCain’s foes from capitalizing on his vulnerability in 2008 and that kept Romney’s from doing the same in 2012. More than that, Walker brings to the race a story that both Republican purists and pragmatists can get excited about – a governor who pulled his swing state sharply to the right without sacrificing his electability. More than any Republican who opposed Romney or McCain, Walker has the potential to occupy that sweet spot where the party base and establishment meet.
Bush will have an enormous war chest, and the significance of that can’t be overstated. For as long as he’s a candidate, Walker figures to be playing catch-up on this front. But Bush’s poll numbers indicate that the GOP faithful are just as eager for an alternative as they were with Romney four years ago. Romney caught a break because all of those alternatives ended up being spectacularly unviable. Bush may not be so lucky.