By Jessica McBride Special to Published Aug 17, 2015 at 4:26 PM

The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

A new Fox News poll came out, and it shows what a slew of other polls revealed after the first debate: While the media obsessed over whether Donald Trump was "over" because he once called Rosie O’Donnell a dog, the most surprising post-debate trend turned out to be the fact that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has tanked in the polls.

While Trump held onto his lead after the debate, Walker is in a free fall (he must be baffled; after all, he isn’t the one who’s been talking about blood coming out of people’s eyes and noses and whether or not Heidi Klum is still a 10). Can you imagine how creepy and weird it would be if Walker started telling The New York Times columnists that he doesn’t think Klum is a 10 anymore as Trump did the other day? The normal rules don’t apply to Trump. Which is kind of why some people like him.

Some other candidates, like Ben Carson, are on the rise but still remain significantly behind Trump. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders continues to rapidly ascend, although Hillary still retains a commanding lead. She was ahead of Sanders 19 percent in the latest poll, but that’s down from 29 percent two weeks ago and 40 a month ago. That’s got to be freaking the Clintons out. I'd love to hear the conversation between Bill and Barack on the links.

Meanwhile, Walker is now in single digits, no longer leading Iowa and registering a measly six percent in the latest poll. He didn’t even fare well with evangelicals, which is a little surprising for the preacher’s son.

And that’s before we see the results from the next Marquette University poll this Thursday. It will be fascinating to see if Walker’s approval ratings in our own state have dropped more (I think they will; people increasingly think he cares more about his political aspirations than Wisconsin). It will also be fascinating to see how well Trump polls in Wisconsin (I’m guessing a strong second to Walker, with both losing to Hillary). If Walker’s standing in his hometown polls is at all weak, or even just weaker, that’s not going to help him make a national case when his message is, "Hey, I won a blue state three times, so I have crossover appeal."

Walker is trying to act blasé about this drop in polling support. It’s true the election is pretty far away, a lifetime in politics. Walker was up, now he's down, and he can go back up again. Furthermore, it will be interesting to see what happens when the party pressures some of the many candidates to drop out, consolidating the non-Trump support behind a single other person. The problem for Walker right now is twofold: How does he make sure he’s that other person (instead of, say, Bush with his $100 million)?

The bigger issue is fundraising, though. Walker needs to raise a lot of money, and he needs to do it now, not months down the road. Those two things are tied together, of course. It’s not implausible that, if Walker can’t turn his numbers around, he does what he did in the gubernatorial primary against Mark Green years ago: Classily drop out, so he can make the case that he’s the guy the next time around (after all, he’s very young). But can he get re-elected here after all of this? That’s the $68,000 question. 

So what gives? Why is Walker tanking all of a sudden?

The desire for an outsider

What do Sanders, Trump and Carson have in common? They are the least tied to the establishment of any of the candidates on either side. The public is restless for something new and is exceptionally frustrated with politics as usual.

Carson seemed like he wandered onto the wrong stage in the last debate. Turns out, that worked for him. Trump crows about not being beholden to anyone, and every time he’s trashed by the Big Media or the political establishment, he solidifies his perception as the anti-establishment outsider. Sanders is the anti-politician – an independent of all things in a two-party world!

As for Walker, he tried to run on the outsider message, and it kind of worked in the beginning. You know, the "I am the anti-Washington, non-dynastic, fresh faced, unintimidated guy," but he’s been, well, "trumped" on that accord by a guy who’s brasher, more anti-establishment and newer to politics. Basically, Trump stole his message. It’s hard for Walker to run as an outsider when he’s perceived as tied to big donors and has nothing but government on his resume. 

Being aggressively normal

Although Trump has stolen a lot of Walker's themes (outsider, unintimidated, anti-Washington, etc.), he's adopted the opposite imagery if you think about it. Walker is going for "aggressively normal" (as in, I buy $5 sweaters from Kohl's, ride a Harley, eat ham sandwiches every single day for lunch and didn't finish college), while Trump is going for "aggressively not normal" (as in, I fly helicopters with my name emblazoned on them, am married to a former model, live in a penthouse none of us can afford and win all the time).

Which do voters want? I have never understood why Walker thinks we would want someone aggressively normal as the Leader of the Free World. Shouldn't we want someone exceptionally exceptional to run the country? Whether they will want someone exceptionally narcissistic (versus, say, the quiet competence of a Ben Carson) is another story, although some might transfer the Trump symbolism over to the country and think, "I want us to be 'great' again like that." What would Walker's hat say after all? Make America average again?

The debate

Walker came across like a potted plant in the first debate. He never moved past the most basic of talking points, he didn’t take all of his time (which was weird) and he registered basically no impression at all. He wasn’t awful when he answered. But he needed to be more than not awful in a crowded field with a surging showman front runner. Walker became an invisible man in the debate so it’s not surprising that some people forgot to pick him in the recent polls.

He was really good in the debates against Mary Burke. But she was an exceptionally weak debater, the questions weren’t as tough and he benefited from the fact there were only two people on the stage (the media ignored him this time).

Why was Walker so lackluster in the debate? One can almost hear his advisers telling him to "keep it focused on Hillary" so you seem like the adult in the room. It was defensible. Rand Paul took the opposite approach – punch wildly – and sounded a bit nutty. But Walker needed a stronger showing to remind people why he should be the front runner. The next debate will be really important.


Never underestimate how much people WANT to think the answers to all of our problems are simple, even when they are not. It gives them a sense of security. Reagan was a genius at this.  People long for the simplicity of the ‘80s when America was strong and affluent.

Trump reminds them of this. Trump also has a very direct, simple way of speaking that creates emotional appeal. It connotes strength to some people, and people want an alpha personality in a chaotic time. Walker’s been hurt by his inability to seemingly give a clear answer to tough questions. This has happened too many times, whether it was evolution on the front end or, more recently, his refusal to explain whether he thinks aborted fetal tissue research should be a felony. If Trump's catchphrase is "You’re fired," Walker’s version would be about 100 words longer and infinitely less clear. Not only does this create a perception of weakness and expediency, but it makes people less clear what Walker offers as a candidate. In a crowded field, you need a strong point of differentiation.

The number of other candidates

If you think about it, there are more non-Trump votes out there. But they’re divided among a very large field. It will be interesting to see whether Walker regains any of his lost momentum as other candidates drop out (Perry and Jindal, for starters). He might regain some of it. Or other candidates might, like Bush, Rubio, etc. After the first debate, Trump didn’t really gain. He just didn’t lose. But that shows his support might have a ceiling. 

The state budget and an old narrative

The state budget debate went on too long, and this really hurt Walker. It made people start to wonder, "What’s going on in Wisconsin now?" Walker’s central narrative has been based on something that happened four years ago. The budget dragging on and on put the focus back on the present, and how he’s led our state since.

Yes, the budget had to be balanced in the end, but I think people got the essential truth that policy choices caused very painful cuts, and it hurt Walker when people realized that the people unhappy with Walker’s budget included the Wisconsin GOP. There were too many bad budget headlines that couldn’t easily be written off as liberal Walker hate, and they went on for too long, whether it was the Wisconsin Idea or the IRIS program or any number of other things. The one thing that Walker decisively took the lead on – the Bucks arena – is not playing that well in a GOP primary, either (all that public money!). He wanted UW to be a new Act 10, but have you noticed he never talks about it anymore? Because it didn't play.

Flip flopping

Definition is everything in politics. Walker was defined poorly in the early days, and this has stuck on a national stage where people were just being introduced to him. Some people are worried about his flipping and flopping on core positions like immigration and Common Core. That’s probably why evangelicals aren’t warming up; they’re worried he could change his position on social issues along with the changing winds.

It’s sort of amazing that Trump isn’t getting tagged this way because he’s the Flip Flopper Extraordinaire. He was even previously for partial birth abortion, a wealth tax, and thought Hillary was terrific. I mean, c’mon! Trump has a simple answer for everything, though. He just admits all of this, and then swats away those positions and dominates the news by landing his helicopter at the Iowa State Fair.

Media attention

The media thinks Trump is crazy, but it has ended up building him. If you’re powerful, be careful whom you pick as a foil because you will build the foil by giving him or her attention. See how that works? As PT Barnum was credited as pointing out, all publicity is good publicity, and "I don’t care what people say about me as long as they say something." It turns out it’s better to be called a crazed lunatic in a thousand headlines than to not be talked about at all. Trump has sucked the media air out of the room; he’s all anyone’s writing or talking about.

People don’t like the big beltway media, either, so when they rail at him and he rails at them, he looks more like a tough outsider. He’s a master showman, and he understands how to manipulate the media. Back to that helicopter. Case in point. It was all about the imagery. Trump Force Two sweeping into the Iowa State Fair, and Trump being trailed by crowds like a rock star while munching on a pork chop (while Walker was in Nevada avoiding eating lamb testicles and being pretty much ignored by the media). 

Peaked too soon

Walker peaked too soon, and he also waited too long to enter the presidential race because (again) he was distracted by the budget. Timing is everything in politics. Trump might be peaking too soon, too. Who’s peaking at the end is what matters. It’s a media truth. The media will always, always seek out a new narrative. They bore easily. Of course, Trump understands this, so he constantly feeds the media new controversies – and distracting people from the fact he used to think Hillary was great.

The other issue is that Walker made it so obvious he was staking everything on Iowa – counting on the fact that the more discerning actual Iowa caucus voters might be more into him still than the general GOP voters who are polled – that he built up expectations that might be hard to meet. He’s created a single-point of failure.

His wonky personality

I think the Trump appeal is, as I have said above, emotional. People are scared by a lot of things right now (ISIS, American cities burning, the economy, etc.), and Obama is aloof and checked out. So people are gravitating to an alpha personality this time around, a protector type, the American cowboy ethos.

Walker wants to define himself this way (and I think he’s gotten almost everything right on foreign policy), but he’s a wonky guy. He speaks from the head, not the heart. He’s gotten better at this; I thought his announcement speech was very good. However, I think it’s a mistake for Walker to play it so cautious and to not try to define Trump.

But it’s who he is. He’s more comfortable debating political strategy probably than duking it out with a guy who punches harder. It was easier to go after unions and liberals when you're running a turn-out-the-base strategy than to go after a guy seizing your themes and gaining traction in the GOP. I also think Walker benefited from a strong talk radio culture in Wisconsin that could unspool counter narratives, but conservative media isn't strong enough to do that on a national scale.

"Wisconsin is doing terribly; is a mess, etc."

Trump has this way of sniffing out a person’s essential weakness and then capturing it with a pithy soundbite. When he casually remarked that, well, Wisconsin is a mess and doing terribly, people thought, hmmmm. Is that untrue? Walker didn’t really address it. He just said people should be talking about Hillary. When you are getting punched in the nose by a bully and don’t defend yourself, you look weaker.

Worse, although Wisconsin has some successes to tout (our property taxes aren’t going up and unemployment is better), by other measurements – jobs numbers – we aren’t really doing that great. Trump has the instincts of a political shark; he knows where the blood is (oops, sorry to bring up Trump and blood again. No, I was NOT referring to menstruation. But I'm not quite sure he was, either).

Jessica McBride Special to

Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.

She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.

Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.

Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.