The Stunning Demise of Scott Walker’s 2016 Campaign: A Timeline

Scott Walker Announces He's Ending His Presidential Bid
Scott Walker announces that he’s ending his campaign on September 21, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo: Andy Manis/Getty Images

In retrospect, the best thing about Scott Walker’s campaign was the anticipation. Nine months ago, after a single speech in Iowa, the Wisconsin governor became “Jeb’s most formidable opponent,” a “conservative who can win big battles,” and the key to “the GOP’s bright, fearless future.” Then in July, Walker finally announced that he was entering the 2016 race, and everything started to go downhill. Thanks to Donald Trump and Walker’s own mediocre skills on the national stage, the governor lost his long-standing lead in Iowa and went from front-runner to former candidate in less than a year. Here’s a look back at his rise and rapid decline.

Scott Walker drew national attention thanks to his successful fight to strip most collective-bargaining rights from government workers in 2011. After surviving a 2012 recall election and winning reelection in 2014, Walker could boast that he’d won three elections in four years in a state that voted Democrat in recent presidential elections — but in October 2014, a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll of likely 2016 Republican Iowa caucusgoers had Walker at the bottom of the pack, with only 4 percent.

Then the Walker campaign blew up with a single speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit. About a dozen candidates spoke, but Walker stole the show. Opting to walk the stage rather than standing at a podium, Walker fired up the crowd by recapping his union battle, his record of “common sense conservative reform,” and the GOP’s need to “go big and go bold” if they want to win national elections. As Slate noted, it may also mark the debut of his infamous Kohl’s shirt anecdote:

Perhaps the best moment was when Walker made an analogy about taxes by talking about buying a sweater at a discount at Kohl’s department store. He talked at length about cobbling together so many coupons and store rewards until “the next thing you know they are paying me to buy that shirt!”

Walker’s performance drew unanimous gushing from Fox News pundits, and a week later he surged to the head of the 2016 GOP field with 15 percent in the same poll of Iowa voters.

Walker celebrated by becoming the first candidate to lease office space in Iowa, though he was still months away from officially announcing his candidacy. Next he decided to test the voters’ newfound affection for him with a series of foolish gaffes. During a trip to London intended to boost his foreign-policy credentials, Walker refused to answer questions about how to combat ISIS, whether the U.S. should arm Ukraine, and the U.K.’s possible exit from the European Union. “I don’t think it’s polite to respond on policy in the United States when you’re in a foreign country,” Walker explained. When asked if he believes in evolution, Walker said, “I’m going to punt on that one as well.”

Yet, when other candidates avoided commenting on Rudy Giuliani’s claim that President Obama doesn’t love America, Walker jumped into the controversy, saying he doesn’t know if Obama loves America, or even if he’s Christian.

Finally, when asked how he’d address threats like ISIS as president, Walker said, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world.” Walker was accused of comparing union members in Wisconsin to terrorists, though he denied it.

Now this all feels like a preview of the Summer of Trump; despite his dodges and politically incorrect remarks, two polls conducted toward the end of the month found Walker was still leading the Republican field nationally with 25 percent of the vote.

President Obama inadvertently made Walker look like a more formidable candidate when he took at swipe at him for signing “right-to-work” legislation in Wisconsin. Walker responded, “Well, it suggests maybe we’re the front-runner if somebody is taking an active interest in what a state governor is doing.”

But there were also some troubling signs about the future of the campaign. The governor kicked off the month by announcing that while he once said he could support a pathway to citizenship, he no longer believed in “amnesty.” “My view has changed,” he explained. “I’m flat-out saying it. Candidates can say that.”

Plus, the New York Times highlighted another concerning fact about Walker: He’s allergic to dogs, and thus couldn’t participate in the tradition of presidential candidates fawning over their canine friends. 

Walker found the perfect thing to distract himself from his debilitating dog allergy: boatloads of money! (Or at least, the promise of boatloads of money.) The billionaire Koch brothers, who plan to spend $900 million to advance conservatives in the 2016 campaign, revealed that Walker was their favorite candidate. The governor didn’t get an official endorsement, but David Koch told donors that “When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” they would back him.

Walker ran into some minor trouble at home and abroad. Reporters noted that after his London gaffe, he avoided questions during his trip to Israel. Then as he gave campaign speeches and took meetings out of state, his approval rating dropped to 41 percent in Wisconsin, down eight points from the fall. “He seems to be stretched pretty thin,” Steven Davis, a political science professor at Edgewood College in Madison, told PolitiFact. “He’s doing the bare minimum in discharging his duties as governor.”

Meanwhile, Walker made some questionable strategy decisions. He told Laura Ingraham that he didn’t plan to campaign in Florida, saying, “If we chose to get in, I don’t think there’s a state out there we wouldn’t play in, other than maybe Florida, where Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are.” And while other candidates began making big campaign appearances, Walker appeared to be pulling back a bit. New York’s Marin Cogan reported:

There’s a common feeling among Iowa GOP insiders that, as prominent Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats put it to me, “his campaign intentionally put in the clutch,” on Walker’s meteoric rise, for two reasons: One, to manage his momentum going into 2016 and keep him from peaking too early. The other, to give the candidate time to prepare for the scrutiny that being a front-runner brings.

Walker’s love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles finally helped him on the campaign trail when he was the only presidential candidate capable of accompanying Iowa senator Joni Ernst during her “Roast and Ride” event. According to Real Clear Politics’ polling averages, during most of the first half of 2015, Walker was among the top three GOP presidential candidates in national polls, and led in Iowa by a wide margin, prompting this Drudge headline:

Walker finally made his official entry into the presidential race on July 13 with a speech in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “We need new, fresh leadership, leadership with big, bold ideas from outside of Washington,” Walker declared. “The kind of leadership that knows how to get things done, like we’ve done here in Wisconsin.” By that point he was the 15th GOP candidate to enter the race, and it was becoming harder to distinguish him from the other Washington outsiders fighting to keep government small.

Walker got a modest bump from his announcement, inching up to second place with support from 15 percent of Republican voters in a Fox News poll. But he couldn’t keep up with the meteoric rise of the new front-runner, Donald Trump, who had 18 percent in the same poll. Trump gained on Walker in Iowa, too, taking second place in a Monmouth University poll.

Some outlets ran stories such as “How Scott Walker Will Win” and “Six Reasons Why Scott Walker Will Be Elected President,” but the Times raised the possibility that Walker’s shift to the right on issues like same-sex marriage, immigration, and ethanol subsidies to maintain his lead in Iowa was making him appear inauthentic and costing him elsewhere in the nation.

With Trump dominating the political conversation and a crowded field of 16 other Republican candidates, Walker’s campaign began imploding in earnest. After months on top, a CNN/ORC poll found Walker had dropped to third place in Iowa behind Trump and Ben Carson. Anthony Scaramucci, a national finance co-chairman for the Walker campaign, met with Trump and discussed the possibility of defecting. And worst of all, Walker’s appearance in the first GOP debate was unmemorable. Just before the debate, he had more than 11 percent in an average of the last nine national polls, but afterward he dropped below 5 percent.

When confronted by protesters at the Iowa State Fair, “Soapbox” Walker gave a passionate response that would have made a great campaign ad, saying, “I am not intimidated by you, sir, or anyone else out there.”

But it wasn’t enough. In August he drew the most media attention when he took three different positions on birthright citizenship over the course of a week.

The Walker campaign tried to rally by focusing on Iowa and South Carolina, but wavering on whether he would appear at the prestigious Republican conference on Michigan’s Mackinac Island and canceling his keynote speech at the California Republican Party convention at the last minute made him look weaker. “Nothing says your campaign is in a downward spiral like when you skip literally hundreds of activists across the state who have bought tickets to see you speak,” Jon Fleischman, a former executive director and former vice-chair of the California Republican Party, told Politico.

The second GOP debate was seen as make or break for Walker, and his campaign assured donors and supporters that this time would be different. While his performance improved, and he came prepared with a Trump jab (“We don’t need an apprentice in the White House. We have one right now”), he wasn’t asked a question for 90 minutes and spoke for only eight and a half minutes, the least of any candidate.

Following his second lackluster debate performance, donors began pushing Walker to make staff changes (though he denied this), and some started considering other candidates. While he had a few wealthy backers, such as TD Ameritrade heir Todd Ricketts, he was never as strong as candidates like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz when it came to fund-raising, and the Times reports his advisers were believed to be burning through cash. In a conference call with donors last week, the governor insisted his campaign was still strong, but said he would pull out of other early primary states to focus exclusively on rebuilding his lead in Iowa.

But a CNN/ORC poll released Sunday was the final straw, showing that Walker had dropped to less than one percent, putting him in the same league as George Pataki and Jim Gilmore. On Monday night, he officially suspended his campaign, explaining, “I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field.”

The Demise of Walker’s 2016 Campaign: A Timeline