Scott Walker’s ascension to the first tier of Republican presidential candidates was quickly followed by the typical stumbles of a candidate suddenly thrust into the national limelight. After former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani stoked a controversy by questioning the president’s patriotism, Walker joined in by refusing to repudiate the mayor’s comments and later pleading ignorance when asked whether or not Obama is a Christian. While such doubts about Obama’s patriotism and religion are widespread amongst Republicans, the comments drew the ire of pundits and editorialists alike and forced Walker to play defense for a few days. In the marathon that is a presidential campaign, this minor slip-up is unlikely to have a lasting impact, and may even help Walker with GOP primary voters who sympathize with his viewpoints. The whole episode, however, does reveal potentially serious weaknesses with a candidate who is very much outside of his comfort zone.
Proponents of Walker are fond of pointing to his electoral success in Wisconsin, a state that has supported a Democrat in seven consecutive presidential elections, as an indicator of his broad appeal. The reality, however, is that Wisconsin is one of the most politically balkanized states in the country, and Walker’s success has less to do with attracting crossover votes than it does with his ability to motivate conservative voters. His strongest base of support in the state comes from three strongly conservative counties outside Milwaukee that constitutes the red half of an extremely polarized metropolitan area. Seventy-three percent of the voters in these three counties (Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee) voted for Walker in 2014, providing him with a 146,000 vote cushion in an election he won by just under 138,000 votes. On one hand, Walker’s support from these areas demonstrate his ability to turn out the base, which is obviously an asset, particularly in the primaries. On the other hand, these counties are 95 percent white, wealthier than most of the country, and rich in demographic subsets (i.e. gun owners, home owners) that are generally more sympathetic to Republicans. Given the struggles of Mitt Romney, the former governor of a comparatively diverse state, to reach voters beyond the Republican base, it’s hard to see Walker as a candidate who can expand the GOP’s appeal.
The native political habitat of Walker may also hurt his chances in other respects. As someone who’s built a political career speaking to the conservative base, he often has the benefit of communicating through friendly media outlets. The governor has a good relationship with conservative talk radio hosts in the area, namely Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, and often attracted laudatory coverage from national conservative outlets during his battles with the unions and the subsequent recall effort. After watching the governor unnecessarily insert himself into the Giuliani controversy and indignantly chastise the press for asking him about Obama’s religion, it’s fair to wonder whether Walker is ready to handle questions from the national media.
These issues, Walker’s inexperience with reaching out beyond the base and dealing with the national media, will not knock him out of contention in the primary. The primary contests will reflect the Republican base and draw older, whiter, and more conservative voters than the general election. Contentious exchanges with the national media may even help his cause and build his reputation as the uncompromising conservative in the field. Beyond the primary elections though, it seems unlikely Walker will be able to address the problems that have dogged Republicans in the past two election cycles. The exit polls from Walker’s reelection campaign reflect many of struggles the GOP had in 2012, as the governor struggled to win over women, younger voters, minorities, and lower-income households. While he may attract adoration from the Republican base, at this early stage the Walker does not look like the strongest general election challenger for the GOP.