Does Scott Walker Have What It Takes to Win in 2016?
June 26, 2015 · 10:37 AM EDT
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is widely viewed as a top-tier hopeful for the GOP presidential nomination. But it’s less clear he has the right profile to knock off the likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Walker’s strength in the nomination race comes from his positioning in the Republican Party.
The governor’s proposal limiting public sector employees’ benefits and collective bargaining rights — and his eventual victory over their unions — gave him an important credential with Republican voters of all stripes, and the combination of a conservative agenda and a less militant style makes him one of the few GOP hopefuls with potentially broad appeal within the party.
Walker, who has said he will make his announcement after the state passes a budget, wouldn’t start off as the favorite of most tea party conservatives or libertarians or establishment types, but he may well be able to attract some support from each of those constituencies. More importantly, as candidates drop out along the way, he has the potential ability to reel in those Republicans looking for an acceptable (even appealing) second or third choice.
Since he has never run for president before, we don’t yet know how Walker will handle the media scrutiny or perform in debates. But he should be competitive in fundraising, and his political team is experienced. Early polling certainly suggests he starts off as one of the favorites in the Republican race.
But while the two-term governor of Wisconsin definitely has a path to the nomination, the road after that is less certain.
Obviously, winning the nomination in a crowded race — and defeating top-tier candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida — would give Walker added stature and prove his ability as a campaigner. But it would not resolve all doubts about his prospects in the fall election.
The big question is whether the Wisconsin Republican could renovate the party’s current image as a party of older whites (and particularly older white men), enabling him to attract non-whites and younger voters who have grown to feel unwanted by, and uncomfortable in, the GOP.
Walker won’t be 49 years old until six days before Election Day 2016, which would make him the youngest Republican nominee since Richard M. Nixon in 1960. His age contrast with Clinton, who will turn 69 fewer than two weeks before the election, could make him look even younger.
That certainly is a plus for the governor. But it may not be enough to attract 18- to 29-year-old voters.
The Wisconsin governor is a mainstream conservative whose views on major issues are completely in sync with his party. That won’t have great appeal to voters, including younger ones, who didn’t support the past two Republican nominees. (See Peter Beinart’s more extensive take in The Atlantic here.)
In other respects, it is also difficult to see Walker’s profile as having appeal to voters who didn’t warm up to Mitt Romney or John McCain. That is, the Wisconsin Republican doesn’t exactly run counter to type when Republican presidential nominees are considered.
Demographically, Walker is the quintessential white-bread candidate in the field — a straight arrow from the Upper Midwest whose father was a minister and whose family roots are in the United Kingdom and central Europe. He should do well with white voters, but that is no longer automatically a route to victory in a presidential race.
Romney won 59 percent of white voters in 2012 but lost the election, and it is difficult to believe Walker can grow that percentage against Clinton in 2016. The only Republican to do better among white voters than Romney was Ronald Reagan in his 1984 re-election (66 percent). In 2004, George W. Bush won 58 percent of white voters.
On the surface, at least, Walker doesn’t have particular appeal to Hispanics or Asians, two groups that are increasingly important in the electorate. Nor has he shown marked strength among African-Americans.
Walker drew 10 percent of black voters in Wisconsin in his 2014 re-election race, not significantly above McCain’s 9 percent showing against Barack Obama in Wisconsin in 2008 or Romney’s 6 percent showing in the state in 2012. And Walker wasn’t running against an African-American opponent.
Of course, if Walker can make the general election into a referendum on Obama’s failings or demonize Clinton the way Democrats did Romney, then the Wisconsin Republican certainly could narrowly win the general election. As a governor from the upper Midwest, he has plenty of assets in a national contest. At this early point, it would be ridiculous to dismiss Walker’s chances of winning the White House next year.
But it is also true that Wisconsin’s chief executive will have to overcome unfavorable demographic changes in the electorates of eight or 10 key states in order to win 270 electoral votes. And it is far from certain that he can do that given his background and positions, as well as his party’s current image among some key demographic groups.