4 Things That Took Scott Walker From Frontrunner to Longshot Candidate

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidates Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Donald Trump take the stage for the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena Aug. 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Republican presidential candidates Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Donald Trump take the stage for the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena Aug. 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.

When Scott Walker entered the 2016 presidential contest, he was considered one of the most promising Republican contenders for the White House.

A governor with a record of conservative reforms in the purple state of Wisconsin, Walker launched to the top of the polls in Iowa following a fiery speech at January’s Iowa Freedom Summit and stayed there for the better part of the year. So when he officially entered the race in July, Walker seemed like a near shoe-in to win the first in the nation caucuses in the neighboring state.

But today, just two months after launching his campaign, the polls tell a very different story. Walker ranks near the bottom both nationally and in Iowa. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll ranks Walker with 2 percent support nationally, down from 11 percent midsummer. And in Iowa, Walker garnered just 3 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll released Friday compared to 18 percent at the beginning of July.

While Walker's campaign points out that his likability remains strong, such as Friday’s Quinnipiac poll giving Walker a 62 percent favorability rating, the narrative driven by polling has been a downward spiral for Walker’s White House ambitions. So what happened? Here’s a look at some of the factors that have contributed to Walker’s fall:

1. Trump’s Rise

Walker’s fall in the polls has coincided with Trump’s unpredictable rise.

Walker is not the only candidate to have taken a hit in the polls since Trump’s climb, but he has fallen the furthest. And it’s taken some of Iowa’s most seasoned political watchers, including the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party Richard Schwarm, by surprise.

“Everybody including me fully expected him to be fighting it out in the top spot in Iowa and he still may,” Schwarm told ABC News. “He has a good organization and working hard, but the poll number collapse is mind boggling, and I don’t understand it.”

“The only thing that I can see is that when he made that speech in January that I felt was really inspirational,” Schwarm continued, referring to Walker’s speech at the Iowa Freedom Summit, “Iowans hadn’t seen Trump on the stump yet and he changed the dynamic.”

But if it’s a Trump-like candidate that the Republican electorate decides it wants, it’s hard to imagine how Scott Walker will again find appeal. In many ways, Walker is the anti-Trump. The Wisconsin governor has a low-key Midwestern persona and almost exclusively wears clothes bought on sale at Kohl’s department store. By comparison, Trump flaunts his lavish wealth and has found success in applying his brash style of doing business to the campaigning.

2. The First Debate

Walker’s lackluster performance in the first Republican debate on FOX News did not help his candidacy.

While Walker didn’t have a major stumble in the first debate, he also wasn’t able to break through and stand out on the crowded stage. Part of the problem of course was that he found himself standing beside Trump, but taken on its own merits, Walker’s performance came across to many observers as overly cautious and scripted. Sticking closely to his talking points throughout, Walker spoke quickly when it was his turn and didn’t use up all the time he was allotted. To the extent that Google search data offers insight into how voters responded to candidates' debate performance, Walker's name was one of the least searched during the debate.

With the second debate now drawing near, Walker is aware of what’s at stake and has promised to be a more vibrant debater when he takes the stage at the Reagan Library on Wednesday. “If somebody wants to see somebody that is going to go out and wreak havoc on Washington, I'm going to lay that out there in the next debate and every chance I get,” Walker told FOX News' Sean Hannity recently of his plan for the next debate.

3. Shifting Positions

When it comes to dealing with the press, Walker has at times struggled to clearly articulate his positions and has shifted his stances before arriving at his final conclusion on some issues.

In the most recent example, Walker now says that he is against the U.S. accepting more refugees fleeing from Syria and other war-torn countries in the Middle East. But early last week, Walker declined to take a position on the issue and dismissed questions on the topic as “hypothetical” since he is not currently president.

But his biggest problems have come on the topic of immigration. Last month, after Trump rolled out his controversial plan to build a wall along the Mexican border and end birthright citizenship, Walker seemed to echo Trump in telling MSNBC that he supported ending birthright citizenship. But over the course of the week, Walker walked back his position on the issue -- taking a total of three positions –- before concluding to ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that “no,” he isn’t calling for a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship.

Then, in responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on the concept of building a wall on the northern U.S. border with Canada, Walker said it was a “legitimate” issue worth reviewing. In the days that followed, Walker had to clarify his response and said that he wasn’t talking about building a wall but was instead referring to the idea of increased federal personnel to support local law enforcement along the northern border.

4. Out of His Comfort Zone

The issues on which Walker’s candidacy ride are not the issues that have been driving the conversation.

While Walker is acclaimed for his record of reeling in the power of public unions and pushing through bold, conservative fiscal reforms in his state, a good deal of his time on the campaign trail has been spent talking about issues on which he has no personal governing experience, such as foreign policy and immigration, and don’t play to his strengths. There has also been a good deal of time spent talking about Donald Trump.

Publicly, Walker has written off his recent poor showing in the polls -- likening it at times to a motorcycle ride full of ups, downs, and curves –- and blaming the media for what he sees as a focus on issues that aren’t most important to voters.

“I think what’s hurting anybody in the polls is that the media wants to talk about issues that the public doesn’t care about -- or I shouldn’t say doesn’t care about -- the media wants to talk about issues that aren’t at the top of the list that people want to talk about,” Walker said. “People here want to talk about power and how it goes from Washington back to them, they want to talk about how the economy is going forward.”

As Walker prepares to head into the second televised debate this week, his campaign is trying to refocus the conversation on the Wisconsin governor's record in reeling in the power of unions by pledging to bring his battle to the national level if elected. Under Walker's plan, unveiled Monday, federal government unions would be eliminated along with the National Labor Relations Board that overseas union elections and labor practices. Walker also calls for implementing a federal right-to-work law that states would have to opt out of in order to avoid.

ABC News' Josh Haskell contributed reporting.