Unlike Rick Perry’s (first) presidential flameout, Scott Walker’s on Monday came not with an “oops” but with a whimper. His debate performances were poor but not memorably so. His polls (according to CNN) went from 10 percent to 5 percent to, as of Sunday, essentially zero percent. He pulled the plug a day later.
What went wrong? Well, pretty much everything. Walker came across as a waffler to the base and a zealot to the big donors, exactly the opposite of the “unite all factions” reputation with which he began the race. And Donald Trump stole a big chunk of the working-class white electorate that was crucial to Walker’s prospects. But the truth is that the once-presumed frontrunner was never anywhere near as strong a candidate as he was imagined to be.
A huge portion of Walker’s early appeal came from the idea that he had won election three times in a blue state, and would therefore offer substantial crossover appeal while upholding conservative values. But as Alec McGillis documented at length in June 2014, Walker was in fact a spectacularly divisive figure in Wisconsin, polarizing politics on racial and ideological grounds to an unprecedented degree. His off-year gubernatorial victories in 2010 and 2014, fueled by right-wing talk radio, were the result of tremendous turnout in the white suburbs of increasingly black Milwaukee. The electorate that voted for Walker, in other words, was never the “blue” electorate that has gone Democratic in seven straight presidential elections.
Moreover, the whole “elected three times” boast has always been a peculiar one. That third election was, of course, his 2012 recall race. But a recall election is not something you “win” so much as something you survive. (Walker’s was only the third gubernatorial recall in U.S. history.) Genuine success as a governor lies not in surviving a recall but instead in the vastly more common feat of not being so divisive and unpopular that more than a quarter of registered voters sign a recall petition in the first place. (It’s worth noting, too, that Walker won in part by raising a remarkable $30 million, much of it from out of state.)
Indeed, the recall petition itself presented an opportunity for still greater political polarization in Wisconsin. Unlike election results, the petition is a public document, and Walker supporters took it upon themselves to create a database, by hand, of every one of the more than 900,000 people who had signed it. The resulting “enemies list” was used to go after Republicans who had signed the document, including a highly regarded judge who was ousted from office solely on the basis of his signature, and a young Republican personally appointed by Walker to the Board of Regents for the University of Wisconsin who subsequently had his appointment revoked. (This American Life covered the story here.)
Walker, in other words, was very nearly the opposite of the Great Uniter he was reputed to be coming into the presidential race. He was always going to be a factional candidate of the conservative wing of the party (as big donors discovered to their chagrin when they talked to him about issues such as gay marriage, where his vehemence reportedly surprised them). That base might have been enough to keep him afloat if Trump hadn’t come along and stolen it. But Trump did. And without that base—and with the help of a few campaign missteps and two lackluster debates—Walker sank like a stone.