- Jim Young
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has notably shifted his strategy and rhetoric over the past few weeks.
It’s evident enough that a lot of political observers and even some of Walker’s donors are starting to notice he is sounding a lot like the man he is trying to catch at the top of Republican presidential primary polls: Donald Trump.
“Some of the things that he and other candidates are doing to try to associate themselves with positions being taken by Trump or other more ‘exciting’ candidates are hurting them, though,” said veteran Republican strategist Liz Mair, who briefly worked for Walker’s campaign. “Why vote for the guy perceived as the copycat or watered-down version of something as opposed to the real deal?”
And according to poll after poll lately, Walker is looking like a watered-down version of his former self – a Republican candidate thought to be among the three most likely challengers to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Walker has seen his national poll numbers tumble, as Trump’s – and those of other candidates, including retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who attract similar types of voters – have continued to rise.
A new Public Policy Polling poll released on Tuesday showed Walker with 5% support nationwide. That’s a massive drop from the second-place slot Walker nabbed when 17% of Republicans nationwide said they supported him in last month’s PPP poll.
A Monmouth University poll released on Thursday showed Walker plummeting to an eye-popping 3%, down 8 percentage points from the previous month.
But perhaps the most ominous batch of poll numbers came Saturday, when a poll found the governor’s support cratering in a state that has long been seen as a linchpin to his White House path: Iowa.
In a May Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll, Walker led the field with 17% of the Republican vote. The same poll taken in August found that his support has been cut in half, with only 8% of likely Republican caucusgoers saying they still supported the governor.
That puts him in a distant third to Trump and Carson, who lead the polls in the state with 23% and 18%, respectively. It’s a far cry from the months of February through mid-July, when Walker led every public poll of Iowa except one.
- REUTERS/Joshua Lott
If there’s a bright side for Walker, it’s that the numbers still give him hope of turning things around. As his supporters and some pollsters will tell you, Walker isn’t getting noticeably less popular. He’s just not garnering the kind of excitement of antiestablishment Republican rivals like Trump and Carson.
His image remains popular. In Iowa, 71% of Republican voters view Walker favorably – a number that has actually gone up 5 percentage points since May, when the most recent Bloomberg Politics/DMR poll was conducted.
He is also many voters’ second choice. In the PPP national poll, Walker clocked in at 10% when voters were asked who would be their second choice for a nominee, trailing only Carson and Trump.
“That increase in visibility has translated into more favorable and unfavorable feelings,” J Ann Selzer, who conducted the Bloomberg Politics/DMR poll, said in an email. “Only Ben Carson has a higher favorability score. So, it’s easy to conclude that Walker is not turning voters off as much as they are turned on to other candidates.”
For its part, Walker’s campaign has sought to downplay the results of the early polls. A campaign representative told Business Insider in a phone conversation on Thursday that the campaign was playing the long game, steadily laying the groundwork for a grassroots campaign and working behind the scenes to garner endorsements.
“We’re doing what we need to do on the ground, and we’re doing what we need to do to get Republicans engaged and motivated,” the Walker representative told Business Insider. “That is work that you don’t always see in the news but certainly pays dividends in the end.”
The representative also said the campaign was looking to exploit some facts reflected in the polls – that many Republicans still don’t know Walker and haven’t settled on a candidate yet. Thursday’s Monmouth poll, for example, found that 42% of Republicans nationwide had no opinion of Walker, theoretically giving him room to grow as the campaign wears on.
“Gov. Walker is very high among Republicans nationally and in the early states, and we see that as an opportunity to introduce him,” the representative said.
But Walker has been unable – at least so far – to capture the undivided antiestablishment enthusiasm of tea-party voters who identify as very conservative.
The latest PPP poll suggests that Walker voters are also very interested in Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. And he continues to lose ground to Trump and Carson.
“Trump has completely passed him by with those groups,” PPP pollster Tom Jensen said in an email. “Those folks still like him – they’re just for the time being more excited about Trump and increasingly Carson as well.”
Some strategists say Walker could be helped by the fact that Trump’s supporters appear to be as unpredictable as the candidate they support – and may not show up when it’s actually time to vote. But pollsters note that the fact Trump’s support is higher among people who don’t usually caucus could actually work in Trump’s favor.
“Trump’s support is stronger among people who don’t have a record of caucusing than people who do,” Jensen said. “That might mean those people won’t turn out – but it also might mean he’s just bringing new people into the process. Doing that was certainly a key to Obama doing so well there in 2008.”
At the moment, some observers have noted that Republicans’ best strategy against Trump is to hope that he somehow implodes when conservative voters realize that he is espousing positions that don’t toe the party line.
I have yet to hear a pundit lay out a theory of how @realDonaldTrump fails to win the nomination other than people come to their senses
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) August 31, 2015
That may be Walker’s best bet, too.
“The good news for him is that if Trump and Carson eventually stumble as these nontraditional candidates usually do, he still has the popularity to get back some of the supporters he’s lost over the last few months,” Jensen said.
“Of course, nothing about this campaign so far has been ‘usual.'”