Scott Walker's risky strategy: Why going "full Iowa" could doom his presidential hopes

Can a frontrunner go all-in on Iowa without rendering himself unelectable elsewhere? We're about to find out

Published July 13, 2015 4:54PM (EDT)

Scott Walker                     (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Scott Walker (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

Scott Walker enters the presidential race today as a top-tier candidate along with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. (The rules of punditry, of course, mean that since this is the conventional wisdom the year before presidential primary contests begin, we'll all look back and laugh at these classifications in a couple of years when George Pataki or whoever is president.) Walker this year has been able to successfully transfer his on-paper qualifications -- crushing unions and winning three gubernatorial elections in four years, etc. -- into political support. There have been some gaffes along the way and questions about whether he's "ready for primetime," as if anyone is, but he's still well positioned to draw from a broad reservoir of potential support: social conservatives, business Republicans (rich donors), Tea Partiers, war lovers, and the assorted other fun types who make up the national GOP coalition.

So it comes as a little strange that his campaign strategy, in a nutshell, is to narrow that broad reservoir of potential support in order to win the Iowa caucuses.

It's almost bad luck for Walker that he's leapt to the top of polls in Iowa and become the early frontrunner there. Now the handicappers have set the expectation that he must win Iowa if he's going to win the nomination. He can't really back away from Iowa, where the target audience is social conservatives who terrify establishment and moderate Republicans and... pretty much everyone who is not a social conservative, which is most of the country.

National Journal has a piece up considering Scott Walker's Iowa strategy, and how it's basically about cutting off Ted Cruz et al. by adopting the most "severely conservative" positions, as Mitt Romney would say:

That answer depends on how Walker navigates the challenge of Iowa. He's the clear frontrunner in the state, but its socially-conservative electorate has no shortage of alternative options. If Walker refuses to adopt far-right positions, he could quickly bleed support to someone like Ted Cruz, who has been telling his team for months that Walker is "renting our voters in Iowa." But if Walker remains determined not to be outflanked on the right, his appeal could diminish among moderate voters in New Hampshire and beyond.

Walker is already tipping his hand. In the six months since he gave a dazzling speech in Des Moines that rocketed him to the front of Iowa polls, Walker has shifted his tone—if not his position—on a number of issues to align himself with Iowa Republicans. Once a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, Walker now says he opposes "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Once an opponent of federal ethanol mandates, Walker told an Iowa agricultural forum in March that he supports them. Once criticized by social-conservative leaders for airing that moderate-sounding abortion ad and declaring the same-sex marriage fight "over" in Wisconsin, Walker now frames his presidential launch by signing a 20-week abortion ban and arguing for a constitutional amendment to let states define marriage.

The thing about running Ted Cruz's "Full Iowa" strategy is that Ted Cruz has no other options -- by nature of both who he is and the limited pool of voters subject to his persuasions. "Presidential politics are often self-selecting," National Journal writes, "with candidates courting one constituency at the expense of another in order to at least gain a foothold." And Walker has several possible footholds. Why go all-in on the one that most alienates moderate Republicans and independents when you've already won conservatives' trust?

There is a second part to Walker's plan, though. A very innovative one for which the best consultants were paid ungodly sums. Hold onto your butts: After doing whatever insane things he'll need to do to win Iowa, he will then just flip-flop on everything to win other states and position himself for the general election. Tres magnifique! And how do we know this? Because, well, Scott Walker's people explicitly told National Journal that that's the plan.

"You start in Iowa and lock up conservatives, because if you don't do that, none of the rest matters," said one longtime Walker adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss campaign strategy. "It's much easier to move from being a conservative to being a middle-of-the-road moderate later on."

The adviser added: "In Iowa, you see the beginnings of that. He's capturing that conservative wing first and foremost, and then moving from Iowa to the other states and bringing other voters into the fold."

Why would Walker's people share something this cynical and juicy with political reporters? Presumably to reassure establishmentarians and rich donors not to fret; "Scott Walker: Iowa Version" will just be an act to confuse the rubes into voting for him, after which he'll return to being the friendly neighborhood union-crusher they've come to know and love.

"[A]ccording to Walker allies," National Journal writes, "he's going to pursue exactly the opposite strategy Romney used in 2012. Whereas Romney started in the middle and moved rightward throughout primary season, Walker is starting on the right and will shift toward the middle."

Do these "Walker allies," who think they've stumbled upon some sort of strategical brilliance here, remember that Mitt Romney won the nomination in 2012? Sometimes you feel like this historical fact gets forgotten in the conservative bubble. Why else would anyone crow about using "exactly the opposite strategy" that Mitt Romney used to win the Republican presidential nomination?

It doesn't really matter if you start right and move to the middle or vice versa -- as long as you say crazy nonsense that can go into future Democratic attack ads at some point in the process, the deed is done. We'd describe Mitt Romney's 2012 strategy in a simpler way: to win New Hampshire and then go from there, because winning New Hampshire shows that you can appeal to a broader group of voters than evangelicals in Iowa. John McCain used the same strategy in 2008, and Walker's top two rivals at the moment -- Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio -- are also keeping Iowa at arm's length.

The world is a silly place and so maybe Walker's strategy of doing what needs to be done to win the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2016 (yikes!) and then just becoming a totally different person will work. Either that, or he'll impose on himself, by choice, the same low ceiling of potential support that already dooms a candidate like Ted Cruz. Winning presidential nominations is hard.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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2016 Election Editor's Picks Iowa Mitt Romney New Hampshire Presidential Candidates Scott Walker