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Scott Walker could be the John Kerry of 2016

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Having just read two premortems on Scott Walker's underperforming presidential campaign — one from the Atlantic's Molly Ball and the other from Rich Lowry and Eliana Johnson at National Review — it's worth pointing out that not only is it still awfully early in the 2016 race to be counting anyone out, but Walker really is in better shape than his poll numbers suggest.

The basic case for Walker is still intact

Think back to six months ago before the Summer of Trump. The basic sketch of a case for Scott Walker was this:

  • He has a more consistently conservative record than does the frontrunner, Jeb Bush.
  • He is a well-qualified presidential candidate who has won three statewide elections in a blue-leaning state.

Nothing has changed to alter that basic two-point argument. If you want someone who is more consistently conservative than Bush, Donald Trump is still not your answer. Ted Cruz has still not managed to make himself look like a serious, electable option. Marco Rubio is still basically identical to Bush in terms of ideology. If you want the GOP to nominate a very solidly conservative, conventional politician, Walker is still the guy you want.

The Trump/Jeb War could be good for Walker

People tend to forget this, but not only was John Kerry not leading the polls for the Democratic nomination at this point in 2004, he wasn't even close. Instead, Howard Dean was in first place, followed by a fading Wesley Clark and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who was especially strong in Iowa. Gephardt and Dean got into a vicious pre-Iowa dogfight that seems to have damaged both men in voters' eyes.

Up until that point, the relatively low level of attention being paid to Kerry was hurting him. But inattention to Kerry ultimately meant that nobody was bashing him, and his negatives remained very low. After he gutted out a win in Iowa, he suddenly had plenty of attention and managed to rocket into first place in no time.

By the same token, it certainly feels right now like Walker is barely relevant to the race. But the more Trump and Bush slam each other, the more likely it becomes that some above-the-fray third force will arise.

That could easily be Rubio, with his Bush-like ideological positioning. But given that there's evidently a lot of resistance to Bush among elements of the GOP base, it could equally be Walker — the most consistently conservative of the serious candidates in the race.

Conservatives remain sympathetic to Walker

Reading between the lines of the Lowry/Johnson article about Walker's campaign, you can see that despite disappointments he hasn't yet really alienated his potential supporters. They don't argue that Walker's poor answers to questions show he's secretly been an idiot this whole time. They argue that he's been underbriefed and underprepared (in part due to a need to focus on his 2014 reelection and a 2015 budget fight) and also that Trumpmania has taken some of the wind out of his sails.

This is, fundamentally, a sympathetic and optimistic critique.

And it both reflects and reinforces the underlying strengths of the Walker campaign. From day one there has been a distinct lack of enthusiasm about a second Bush restoration from the most committed conservatives in the party. And Trump is not considered an acceptable choice by large and influential blocs of the conservative movement. Walker fits the bill best on paper, and the people who ought to like him most haven't written him off. Winning a presidential election is hard, and Walker might well fall short. But it's way too early to count him out.

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