It was predicted before the 2014 election that if Scott Walker were re-elected by a single vote, the governor of Wisconsin would claim a mandate to run for president in 2016.
So it will not come as a surprise to anyone that—after winning his third statewide run by roughly 135,000 votes out of almost 2.5 million cast—Walker is claiming much more than a new term. His Reaganesque victory speech may have been cheered by his Wisconsin supporters Tuesday night, but it was written for national consumption and delivered with an eye toward jump-starting a bid to be his party’s next nominee.
Walker, who has already written the obligatory presidential campaign book, appeared in Iowa and New Hampshire, bid for the favor of billionaire Sheldon Adelson and built a national fundraising network, was not exactly subtle in his victory speech. Pre-election references to Wisconsin were suddenly replaced with post-election references to America.
But Republicans would be wise to consider the numbers before they presume that this rigidly conservative governor steps onto the national stage with a mandate from Wisconsinites to bid for the presidency. Polling shows that the vast majority of Wisconsinites—87 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents and 39 percent of Republicans—do not want Walker to seek national office in 2016.
If he does make the run, Walker will have to explain why he has not been able to expand his appeal in Wisconsin.
Usually when a governor seeks the presidency, that governor makes the case that he or she has a winning approach to governing—with a style and policies that can turn doubters into supporters. That’s what George W. Bush did when he sought the presidency in 2000, noting that he won his first term as governor of Texas with 53 percent of the vote and his second with 68 percent.
But Walker cannot claim that his is an expansive appeal.
In fact, the governor won a lower percentage of the vote this year than he received in the 2012 recall election, and he did no better in 2014 than in his 2010 run. This is not to deny Walker’s victory but rather to note that, after four years as governor and somewhere in the range of $100 million in spending by the governor’s campaign and its “independent” supporters and enthusiasts, he does not appear to have convinced anyone who wasn’t with him in the first place.
Compare that with the previous Republican governor of Wisconsin. In 1986, Tommy Thompson was elected with 52 percent of the vote. In his second gubernatorial run, Thompson won 58 percent. In his third campaign, Thompson hit 67 percent.
For Walker, the record is 52 percent, 53 percent, 52 percent.
Walker’s “divide-and-conquer” ethic—which he famously described in a taped conversation with one of his biggest donors—does not require an expansion of his base in Wisconsin. The rigidly conservative, anti-labor and pro-austerity governor is satisfied to win at any cost and by whatever margin he attains.
But for Republicans beyond Wisconsin, who are interested in growing their base in 2016, “divide and conquer” might not sound like a winning strategy. And a party that has won a majority of the national vote in only one of the past six presidential elections has to think about these things.
So, as Walker pivots toward presidential politics, watch for a rapid rewrite of the Wisconsin story—and the Wisconsin numbers.
There is little reason to doubt that Walker will soon enter the formal hinting stage, go through the “exploratory” stage and start bidding for the Republican presidential nomination. Throughout the process, he will make grand pronouncements about his appeal in a supposedly “blue” state—glossing over the fact that Wisconsin is actually a classic swing state that sends a conservative Republican to the Senate along with a progressive Democrat, that backs Democrats for president but that often elects Republican governors and that polls suggest is more bitterly divided than any in the nation.
What Walker won’t note is that, despite all of his campaigning, despite all of his spending, his appeal has not grown. Nor will he mention that he has never been tested when a high-turnout presidential race has been on the ballot.
Republicans who actually look at the numbers will ask themselves why they should get excited by Scott’s Walker’s ability to win 52 percent of vote in a swing state during the same “Republican wave” election when another prospective candidate from a swing state, Ohio’s John Kasich, who won in 2010 with 49 percent of the vote, was just re-elected with 64 percent.
Indeed, while it is unlikely that Scott Walker will actually be the Republican nominee for president, his selection by the GOP would in all likelihood produce another progressive moment in Wisconsin. Just as Paul Ryan’s addition to the 2012 Republican ticket failed to carry Wisconsin for the GOP, so polls have regularly suggested that a Scott Walker-led ticket would very probably fail to carry the state in the higher turnout presidential election of 2016.
Perhaps Republicans are starting to recognize this. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll has Walker in last place among Republicans, a wee bit behind Rick Santorum and Bobby Jindal.