'Regular guy' style costs Walker in polls

Scott Walker entered last week’s Fox News debate as a card-carrying member of the GOP presidential field’s top tier, with strong polling, measured excitement, a record of an surviving tough election challenges and a burgeoning super-PAC war chest. 


Never considered the most charismatic candidate, Walker’s “regular guy” style may have cost him.

Already dropping in national polls from first place in late March to third place before last week’s debate, Walker has seen his top standing in what seemed like the most certain state for him — Iowa — slip away to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpWSJ editorial board: 'Purging Liz Cheney for honesty would diminish' GOP DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates The Memo: Biden moves into new phase of COVID-19 fight MORE.

“The debate is like the front door of your house: It’s the first thing people see when they are thinking about buying your house,” said Doug Gross, a Republican strategist and lawyer in Iowa who served as Mitt Romney’s 2012 Iowa campaign chairman. 

“The first thing they saw was all beige with him and they probably don’t even remember they saw his house, so he has to find a way to be more distinctive.”

David Birdsell, a political science professor and debate expert at the City University of New York's Baruch College, told The Hill that while Walker’s performance was “not a disaster by any measure,” he didn’t do anything to “re-craft” or re-energize voters’ perspectives of him. 

“Standing in place is losing to people that are showing something different in the debate — and there were others that did just that,” he said.

He specifically pointed out Sen. Marco Rubio’s (Fla.) widely praised performance as dangerous to Walker, as well as that of Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas).

Just four days before the debates, Walker was nearly 6 points ahead of Trump in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. But just days later, Trump overtook Walker in Iowa, according to polls by Suffolk University, CNN and the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP).

Suffolk’s numbers suggest that the debate may have played a role — just 5 percent of Iowa Republicans who followed the debate found Walker the most impressive candidate.

Gross believes that dip may have come in part from Walker waiting until July to announce his candidacy, despite high praise for a speech he gave in Iowa back in January.

His announcement came just a few weeks after Donald Trump upended the race with his entry and one week before Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another conservative governor, launched his campaign.

The polling results prompted Trump to take a victory lap Tuesday on Fox News, chiding the “common wisdom [that] Scott would win Iowa because he’s from an adjoining state” and accusing him of having a huge budget deficit in Wisconsin.

Walker hit back that same morning on “Fox and Friends,” accusing Trump of using “the Democrat talking points” and casting aside the PPP poll as a “left-leaning poll.”

Iowa state Sen. Julian Garrett (R), a member of Walker’s state leadership team, defended the governor by noting that his pitch to voters is one of results, not just rhetoric. While he thinks Walker would “have liked a little more time” — he had the second lowest speaking time of the debate, according to PBS — he noted that’s tough to do when Trump is “dominating the news.”

“It’s a difficult thing for someone like him that’s more of a doer than a talker,” Garret told The Hill. 

“Things don’t get settled by one debate like that even though it did attract a lot of attention.” 

Matt Strawn, a former Iowa GOP chairman, didn’t buy the notion that Walker came off bland and praised him for a “strong performance” that kept him unscathed. 

“I didn’t see that. I saw the Scott Walker that I’ve seen in Iowa,” he said. “It is a style that is suiting him very well here.”

He also questioned Trump’s gains over Walker in Iowa, noting that many Iowa activists are “waiting for the Trump fever to break” and that Trump’s “ultimate test” is whether he can convince those who back him in polls now to caucus with him come February. 

Walker's campaign says his new 65 member Iowa leadership team, which includes more than one third of the state senate's GOP members, is indicative of his lasting support in the state. 

"Iowa is all about organization and actual caucus-goer support, not the ebb and flow of polls," a Walker aide told The Hill.   

"Look at the recent leadership rollout and you’ll see a glimpse of the strength of Governor Walker’s overall support where it matters right now and where it will ultimately matter most."

Both experts and Walker allies agree that there’s plenty of time for the Wisconsin governor to regain ground

Birdsell said Walker could roll out a new major policy position, take on other candidates more aggressively, emphasize his victories against unions in Wisconsin or reach out to voters that may not know his story. That way, he can show “there is something other than the achievement and competence argument.”

“The Republican candidates who want to claim efficacy based on their governmental experience are in something of a bind here because their constituencies don’t really like government experience,” he said. 

“Just saying 'I’ve won a couple of times' doesn’t have the same resonance with this audience than it may with others.” 

And for Strawn, he thinks Walker is still better positioned to win Iowa than anyone else thanks to its “organizational foundation.” 

“I would much rather be Scott Walker’s campaign in Iowa than anyone else’s,” he said. 

“My advice would be largely what they are already doing — keep an eye on the long game, not overreacting to momentary blips in public opinion. Keep your head down, build your organization and introduce yourself to Iowans.”