Some have suggested that Scott Walker's presidential campaign is failing
S.E. Cupp says the Wisconsin governor may have more staying power in the presidential race
Editor’s Note: S.E. Cupp is the author of “Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media’s Attack on Christianity,” co-author of “Why You’re Wrong About the Right” and a columnist at the New York Daily News. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
“Our strategy is, keep our heads down and hustle.”
That’s what a Scott Walker campaign aide told me Tuesday in a lengthy discussion about the Wisconsin governor’s presidential campaign, which has become the subject of beltway and campaign trail chatter in recent weeks as Walker’s poll numbers – in Iowa in particular – have fallen.
As bewildered as the media is about the unexpected and inexplicable Summer of Trump, it is decidedly resolved about Walker – ask anyone in a television greenroom or reporters scrum on the campaign trail and they will tell you flat out: Scott Walker is finished.
The Walker campaign has other ideas – more on what they told me about their rumored demise in a minute.
First, take a look at a few recent headlines.
It’s only September – of 2015. And yet reporters see little possibility of reviving a campaign once full of so much promise (according to the same reporters) with 14 months to go?
This narrative is actually taking hold in some corners, even among supporters. I found myself parroting it recently, and for no good reason other than I hadn’t heard much about him recently. And then I realized you could say the same of any other candidate not named Hillary or Donald.
While some of his organizers and backers are panicking, others seem to be using the media to channel messages to the candidate. Stanley S. Hubbard, a Walker donor, scolded his candidate in the Washington Post: “If he’s smart, he will get back to basics and get back to what he did in Wisconsin, get off the social issues.”
Others have decided Walker’s strategy appears now to be aping Trump with his recent comments on immigration and China.
And others still have decided Walker’s “missteps,” including a discussion about securing the Canadian border, are unrecoverable ones.
But once you start to question this neatly-wrapped storyline even a little, it begins to unravel pretty quickly.
Let’s take it from the top. Has Walker really been on the social issues, as his supporter suggested?
Not really. In the months since he announced his candidacy he’s rolled out numerous policy plans, including his health care plan, a foreign policy plan, his plans to secure the border and his plan to terminate the Iran nuclear deal if elected president, among others.
In his stump speeches he focuses mostly on jobs and the economy – his slogan is “Let’s get to work,” not, for example, “Let’s end gay marriage.”
He’s said that his focus is on reforming government, growing the economy and securing the homeland.
He talks about his solid conservative record of “getting things done” in Wisconsin – cutting unemployment in half, ending mandatory union membership, giving voters $2 billion back in tax cuts, signing a concealed carry law, expanding school choice.
On the occasions that he’s asked about abortion or gay marriage by reporters, he answers bluntly, but hardly with the kind of controversial rhetoric that some other candidates have.
As for trying to out-Trump Trump, this also falls a little flat upon closer examination.
Walker aides point out that he’s been talking about issues like immigration and China – both of which Trump seems to think he discovered – for months, long before he or Trump announced their candidacies. Like every other candidate, he’s had to take positions on emerging issues, like ending birthright citizenship and a coming China state dinner, and he’s been joined by other candidates on both issues – Rubio on China, and as many as seven other candidates on citizenship. Why, when Walker’s taken a hardline on these issues for months, is he the only candidate “aping” Trump?
And what of those “missteps”?
One of the first reported gaffes was when he refused to answer a question about evolution while in London in February. To be clear, he was in London on a trade trip and actually responded to a totally irrelevant question about a non-policy issue with impressive ease and humor, saying:
“I’m here to talk about trade, not to pontificate on other issues. I love the evolution of trade in Wisconsin.”
The most recent is his interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, who repeatedly interrupted him to ask if he’d build a wall on the Canadian border. Let me repeat that. Chuck Todd asked him if he’d build a wall on the Canadian border. Walker didn’t raise the issue, and his team says he was broadly suggesting that securing the northern border “is a legitimate issue for us to look at.”
Hardly the gaffe of the century, but the media has since decided Scott Walker called for a wall.
By the way, Hillary made very similar comments in her 2007 primary debate. When asked by the debate moderator, “Why not build a wall on the Canadian border?” she responded: “Well, actually, I do favor much more border-patrolling and much more technology on both of our borders, and in certain areas, even a physical barrier, because, I think, we’ve got to secure our borders.”
Regardless of whether Walker has answered the media’s often-boneheaded questions – which have also embarrassingly included “Would you attend a gay wedding?” – as adeptly as they’d like, one thing’s for sure: If no one’s counting Trump out because of the things he’s said, it seems pretty unfair to count out Scott Walker.
For their part, Team Walker is pushing ahead. And they think they have a few big things going for them.
For one, they like Walker’s numbers, in particular two sets of them: his favorables and his unknowns, both of which are high.
In the Des Moines Register poll he’s one of only two candidates to have favorables above 70, and, polls show there are large numbers of voters who aren’t familiar with Walker.
“We see that as an opportunity,” an aide told me, “to introduce Walker to voters and know that when we do, they like what they see and hear.”
They are drowning out the beltway noise and insist that what they hear on the campaign trail, from actual voters, sounds nothing like what you might hear on “Morning Joe” or read in Politico.
“The response we get at grassroots events is terrific.”.”
Though he’s not packing stadiums like Trump, the Walker campaign believes Trumpmania isn’t sustainable.
“Regardless of the noise and shiny objects, we’re going to plug and play, work hard, put our heads down, and tell the American people what we stand for and what we’ve done.”
Which, incidentally, is what many other candidates, including Marco Rubio, are doing as well.
The Walker camp is also quick to tamp down expectations, which they say they never raised in the first place.
“We never thought it was sustainable to stay at 30% in Iowa for 15 months. We always knew things would move around.”
Walker’s is tied for third in the Des Moines Register poll behind Trump and Carson, and only 15% of Iowa caucus goers say they’ve definitely decided who they will vote for.
Now, there is an argument to be made that despite all this reassuring news and confident campaign talk, Walker is still at least fighting the perception that he’s deflating, and if politics is perception, he has an uphill battle.
If he allows the media to define him – as a lost cause, as a Trump-wannabe, as not ready for primetime – it will be very hard to rewrite those storylines.
But Walker aides say they are sanguine, especially with recent history in the rearview mirror. “Walker’s been counted out many times before. He won three elections in four years. He weathers storms, that’s just what he does.”
Only time will tell if Walker’s long-game strategy will work. But for now he is keeping calm and carrying on. Good advice for all of us.