Wisconsin governor and cardboard cutout of himself Scott Walker went into Wednesday’s debate with a mission. He needed a breakout performance to reestablish himself as a legitimate candidate for the White House after seeing his once-formidable polling numbers plummet into the low single digits. And to kick things off, he employed the reliable tool of the attention-desperate debate participant: the zinger.
Mustering the trace amounts of bile his pasty Midwestern frame is capable of producing, Walker turned to Donald Trump – the 2016 candidate whose political fortunes have risen as Walker’s have cratered – and delivered his carefully prepared zing payload. “We don’t need an apprentice in the White House,” Walker said, “we have one right now.”
It was a reference to Donald Trump’s former show, “The Apprentice,” but Walker seemed to be under the impression that the “apprentice” referenced in the show’s title was Trump. That’s not how the show worked; Donald Trump was not “The Apprentice.” The joke made no sense. A few people in the audience laughed, probably because they’re idiots who laugh at anything. Jeb Bush, standing between Walker and Trump, paused for a moment to work out what Walker was getting at, then offered a sympathetic nod and closed-lip “good job, good effort” smile. The canned line had flopped, and Trump remained wholly un-zung.
This misfired zinger would be Walker’s high point for the debate. For the remaining two-plus hours of the event, he would field just two direct questions and spend less time speaking than any other candidate. For a candidate looking to use Wednesday’s debate to reassure his restive donors that everything is OK, it was kind of a disaster.
Facing mounting questions about his uncertain political future and his persistent inability to meet expectations, Walker is tweaking his campaign strategy and focusing all his efforts on winning Iowa. “I think we’re putting all our eggs in the basket of Iowa,” Walker told MSNBC following the debate, “we’re committed to Iowa, and I think that’ll help us make the case all throughout the country.” Winning Iowa was always a key component of Walker’s strategy, but now he’s moving staff and resources from other states and planning to double the amount of time he spends within Iowa’s borders. Team Walker is insisting that this was always going to be their plan, but it’s hard to believe that the redoubled focus on Iowa isn’t a reaction to his 10-point drop in the Iowa polls since late May.
It’s a risky strategy. First of all, it puts Walker in the same company as some other famous losers who peaked early, flamed out, and pegged what dwindling chance they had on winning Iowa – people like Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. It’s hard to view what Walker is doing as anything other than a forced downscaling aimed squarely at political preservation, and the track record for success for candidates who’ve made a similar calculation is not good.
Another reason a tight and obsessive focus on Iowa is dangerous for Republican candidates is that it forces you to be crazy. Iowa Republicans are very white and very conservative, which makes the state the preferred playground for low-polling, also-ran candidates who want to make the case that they are the only true conservative in the race. To win the hearts of the Iowa GOP caucus-goers, you’re competing against candidates who are forever shifting further and further to the right to win over social conservatives – think about Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus, whose 2016 campaign has thus far been a series of insane attacks on gay marriage and the Supreme Court. There are more serious threats in candidates like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, who speak the language of social conservatives and make strong claims to “outsider” and “anti-establishment” credibility. Walker will have to out-compete all these nutbars while overcoming his complete lack of any discernible personality.
And then there’s the question of what comes after Iowa. When you’ve set up Iowa as the MUST WIN state for your campaign, you’re setting the expectation that anything other than resounding victory will doom your chances. A strong showing won’t do. And even if he does win, it will likely come with significant liabilities. Spending several months catering to hard-line conservative voters in Iowa makes it very difficult to inch back toward the center without looking like a hypocrite or a flake.
But Walker doesn’t really have a choice. Earlier in the year he set up Iowa as his contest of choice, the state in which he would demonstrate his effortless dominance of the Republican field. Now that he’s crashing in the polls, it’s serving as his (very crowded) lifeboat.