The rise of Donald Trump has scrambled the race for the Republican presidential nomination in myriad ways. But perhaps no candidate has been knocked off-balance as badly as Scott Walker.
The Wisconsin governor was once the odds-on favorite to win the Iowa caucuses, and most analysts put him in the very top tier of his party’s contenders. These days, he barely registers in the polls, and he’s been reduced to aping Trump’s anti-politics act in a desperate effort to regain momentum.
As the Republican field gets set for its second debate, Walker faces a barrage of headlines declaring him all but toast. Still, he has some important advantages that could come to the fore over the long run of a campaign that’s still four and half months—a lifetime in politics—from its first contest. Could it be too soon to count Walker out?
There’s no doubt he’s in a deep hole. Walker shot to near the front of the field back in January, when he gave a forceful and well-received speech at a gathering of Iowa conservatives. With his hard-right policy positions and record of accomplishment as the governor of a Midwestern swing state, many saw Walker as the candidate with the best chance of uniting the establishment, tea party, and social conservative wings of the GOP, potentially forging a powerful coalition. In July, eight out of 10 Republican insiders told Politico Walker would win Iowa if the caucuses were held then.
But Walker's poll numbers began falling in late spring as Trump’s shot up, and they’ve kept plummeting ever since. A Quinnipiac Poll released Friday found him at just 3% in Iowa, where he has all but staked his campaign. And a New York Times survey out Tuesday put him at just 2% nationally—good for 10th place.
Perhaps the clearest sign of how Walker has seen himself upstaged is his recent campaign trail rhetoric. He’s taken to promising that as president, he’ll “wreak havoc”—a transparent effort to steal away some of Trump’s anti-establishment cred, but one that may ring hollow when coming from a man who’s been running for elected office since his twenties. His release Monday of a plan to take on organized labor as president—“to wreak havoc on Washington, America needs a leader that has real solutions,” he declared—elicited mostly shrugs from the media.
It hasn’t just been Trump’s rise that has felled Walker—whose campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. His last debate performance was mostly bland and unmemorable. And he’s dug his own grave on the campaign trail by offering a series of equivocating non-answers that his staff often have had to clean up after the fact—on issues ranging from evolution to President Obama’s patriotism and faith. “[H]e was on three different sides of two-sided issues on a couple different occasions,” one prominent Iowa Republican told Politico recently.
Still, Walker’s campaign is a long way from dead. In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking if, by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around in February, he’s back in the thick of the fight.
Think of it this way: Trump may never suffer the kind of sharp and sudden fall that short-lived 2012 front-runners like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann experienced, but it’s still much more likely than not that he won't win the nomination. Political science suggests party leaders ultimately play a decisive role in nomination fights, ensuring that their party’s standard-bearer is someone who can be trusted to carry out its policy priorities once in office. And they’re arrayed in lockstep against the flamboyant real-estate mogul—thanks largely to his ideological deviations. Ben Carson, currently in second place, is unlikely to be acceptable to GOP elites either, for reasons of electability.
That means someone else has to win. And there’s reason to think that once the dust settles, Walker will have as good a shot at being that person as most of the other candidates.
First, there’s the money. Walker has a long and fruitful relationship with the Koch Brothers, who have pledged to spend $1 billion this cycle, and David Koch reportedly indicated back in April that he favors the Wisconsin governor for president. Just last month—with his slide in the polls well underway—Walker still won an informal poll of conservative mega-donors at a gathering organized by the Kochs’ political operation. If they chose to, the Kochs and their allies could keep Walker in the race almost indefinitely, just as super-rich backers did for Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did in 2012.
Though Walker hasn’t actively cozied up to Trump, as Ted Cruz has done, he’s also been careful not to alienate him, unlike former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. And despite his drop in the polls, he’s still well-liked, at least in Iowa, where his favorability rating is at 62%. That means he could be well-positioned to pick up Trump’s supporters if and when the businessman does fade.
Trump and Carson aside, none of Walker’s rivals look strong, either. Bush has emerged from the summer perhaps more diminished than anyone. He’s come off the worse in a string of confrontations with Trump—never a good look in a contest where many voters prize strength above all—and a series of campaign trail slip-ups have cast doubt on his basic competency as a candidate. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has struggled to create much excitement, and at 6 percent in the polls, he’s hardly a juggernaut. John Kasich and Carly Fiorina have both generated buzz lately, but neither seems likely to appeal to conservative voters, and their poll numbers are little better than Walker’s.
Meanwhile, the advantages that Walker has long been to seen to enjoy haven’t gone away. As the son of an evangelical preacher, he speaks the language of social conservatives fluently and casually. He has been elected three times in a key swing state that twice went for Barack Obama. He’s enacted a staunchly conservative agenda, highlighted by a successful fight to curb the power of organized labor, a reliable bete noir for the right. He spent time as a child in Iowa and has governed its northeastern neighbor for four and a half years.
And it’s not hard to find recent examples of winning candidates who were struggling or written off over the previous summer. In 2003, John Kerry, once the consensus front-runner, seemed to have been all but buried by a surging Howard Dean. Four years later, Arizona Sen. John McCain was fighting for air as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani led Republican polls, while Hillary Clinton seemed to be in a strong position against Obama. And for much of 2011, Mitt Romney seemed incapable of winning over Republican voters, who instead sided with a series of short-lived alternatives.
Perhaps the key point is: There’s time for plenty of twists and turns yet.