Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, suggested in March that he might be the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Monday, he dropped out, months before any primary votes will be cast. The quick move from front-runner to left-behind status should remind us of a few things about the Republican race, and about politics generally.
▪ There is such a thing as peaking too soon. Walker had a great spring. After a successful speech at a gathering of conservatives in Iowa, he took the lead in polls there and even in New Hampshire. It was too quick a rise. It meant that Walker got the scrutiny that comes with being in the top tier of candidates before he had developed the staff, the familiarity with issues and the ease with national politics that such scrutiny demands.
A slower buildup to his campaign, one that would have allowed him to make early mistakes with less attention, would have served him better.
▪ There’s no middle lane in the Republican primaries. When he was at the top of the polls, Walker was doing well among both conservative and moderate Republicans. This was taken to be a sign of strength, but it was actually a weakness: It meant that he was likely to disappoint one or more of the groups who thought they liked him.
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In an article two weeks ago about what had already been a pronounced decline for Walker, my National Review colleagues Rich Lowry and Eliana Johnson suggested that he had tried and failed “to straddle the grassroots and the establishment.” Another way of putting it: He wanted to appeal both to those Republicans who place a high priority on executive experience and political realism, and to those who value ideological purity and combativeness above all.
But instead of combining these two groups, he got neither. He wasn’t pure enough for the purists, and his attempts to ingratiate himself with them — repositioning himself on social issues and immigration in particular — made him look unsteady to the realists. It didn’t help that Walker and his aides told reporters the political calculation behind every move.
▪ Charisma matters. Even Republicans disposed to like Walker wondered if he could “fill the stage” when he ran for president. Instead he disappeared: He was a nonentity during the two presidential debates in which he participated.
He tried to overcome the rap that he’s boring by stressing how tough he is. The title of his book was “Unintimidated,” and he tried to make a selling point out of how he faced down some hecklers on the campaign trail. This didn’t make him look interesting or exciting: It made him look like someone who knew he needed to come across that way.
▪ Republican candidates remain out of step with their voters on immigration. Walker stirred controversy by suggesting that legal immigration levels should be reduced. Commentators described this statement as part of a shift by Walker, and his party, to the far right.
But it’s not just a fringe that wants lower immigration levels: Gallup finds that 39 percent of voters favor it, and 84 percent of Republicans are dissatisfied with current levels. With Walker’s departure from the race, only two Republican candidates speak for these voters on this issue: Donald Trump and Rick Santorum.
Some of Walker’s fans are blaming Trump for knocking him out of the race (or blaming the voters who left a successful governor for a blowhard). But Walker’s decline in the national polls began before Trump’s rise. Walker was unprepared for a presidential race, and eventually that would have been exposed, Trump or no Trump.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.