Scott Walker didn't lose or win the first Republican debate. Indeed, he didn't seem to make much of an impression at all — which goes to show that he still hasn't solved the biggest problem dogging his campaign. To win, people have to realize that he exists. He was so bland that he likely wouldn't even have stood out if he had been relegated to the afternoon debate with the second-tier contenders.
Update: Coverage of the second Republican debate.
The Wisconsin governor is generally considered Jeb Bush's top rival for the nomination, and he looks quite impressive on paper. He's been elected three times in a blue state, while fighting hard for conservative priorities in a way that's impressed both the GOP's base and its elites. It seems that all factions in the GOP would consider him an acceptable nominee (except, perhaps, wealthy financiers who support same-sex marriage).
There have been occasional indications that all this might help his candidacy take off. Walker has led Iowa polls for the year. Occasionally, he has tied or narrowly led Bush in national polls (though both now trail Trump). And while he didn't come close to matching Bush's massive fundraising, his own $26 million outside money haul was nothing to sneeze at.
But Walker is not a particularly good speaker and doesn't present a particularly compelling persona. (In the debate, he proudly quoted an article from RealClearPolitics calling him "aggressively normal.") So it's long been unclear whether he's personally exciting enough to stand out and command attention in a field full of strong personalities — or whether conservatives would instead rally around someone with more charisma.
There's been some buzz this year that Walker had been improving — he's been delivering his main stump speech without a teleprompter, and with a bit more energy. But that's also partly because he's repeatedly practiced the same speech, with the same jokes and the same delivery for those jokes, as Jimmy Fallon memorably pointed out (skip to 0:45 or so in the video):
The debate made it clear that when Walker's in an unscripted setting, little has changed for him.
Marco Rubio was young and charismatic, Ted Cruz was bombastic, Chris Christie was combative, Donald Trump was Donald Trump, and Jeb Bush was at least a Bush. Ben Carson didn't do particularly well, but he certainly piqued interest, and Rand Paul at least picked a few fights.
Walker, though, didn't stand out at all. When he was asked questions, he did ... fine. He emphasized that he wanted to secure the border, that he wanted a stronger foreign policy, and that he's been consistently pro-life. Those aren't answers designed to appeal to DC pundits choosing who won the debates, but they're perfectly acceptable for appealing to the GOP base.
Yet you don't stand out for blandly reciting standard conservative views on a stage full of candidates doing the same thing in more compelling ways — and Walker didn't stand out, as this analysis of Google search traffic by the Washington Post's Philip Bump shows. Walker was the second least-searched-for candidate on stage (topping only Mike Huckabee). He was essentially absent from the conversation afterward. He didn't particularly damage himself, but definitely failed to help his chances.
In an ideal world, this stuff wouldn't matter at all — none of it has any bearing on Walker's accomplishments or qualifications. But in a world where primary candidates rise and fall in the polls based partly on their performance in televised debates, it could seriously hurt Walker — as fellow Midwestern Gov. Tim Pawlenty was hurt by the inability to distinguish himself when he ran for president in 2011.
Now, this problem certainly doesn't doom Walker's prospects. What he needs at some point is a way to get people to pay attention to him. Standing out in the debates is one possible way to accomplish that, but it's not the only way. If Walker wins the Iowa caucuses, though, he'll get a huge boom of media attention. And Iowa can still be won through old-fashioned, shoe-leather campaigning and organizing from even candidates who are barely making a dent in the national polls, like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012.
Already, Walker has led 10 of the last 11 polls in Iowa, so he remains in a very good spot for the race overall. The question is whether he can hold on to that lead — or whether conservatives will be distracted by a shinier object.
VIDEO: Scott Walker on #BlackLivesMatter during first debate