One of the more compelling reasons to consider Scott Walker’s candidacy for president is that he has been elected, repeatedly, governor of a mid-size state with a strong executive. Wisconsin’s state constitution establishes a powerful governor’s seat, as opposed to, say, Texas’ constitution, or even to the limited powers granted to the U.S. president.
There are numerous ways in which the state of Wisconsin is a microcosm of the country, and perhaps advisory of things to come.
The state is deeply polarized, divided almost equally between left and right, as the U.S. has been now for forty years or more, and the state’s Republican Party is itself divided, principally in three parts. The Wisconsin GOP “establishment” generally adheres to the original Big Government principles; it contends with a growing conservative faction and a libertarian faction.
Over the last several national elections, the candidate favored by the establishment wing of the national GOP (John McCain, Mitt Romney) has won the nomination by roughly one-third of the national primary vote, while conservative and libertarian voters were distracted by a wider field of candidates. In Wisconsin, something very similar happened in the 2012 Senate race when four candidates ran in the Republican primary: former Governor and cabinet secretary Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Representative and businessman Mark Neumann, Speaker of the State Assembly Jeff Fitzgerald, and businessman Eric Hovde. The latter three were more conservative than Thompson. Thompson won the primary with approximately one-third of the vote, then went on to lose to Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
Contrast this result with the last presidential election in which a conservative Republican candidate ran: Ronald Reagan in 1980. The party’s establishment was convinced that they were doomed with Reagan on the ticket, looking despairingly ahead to another rout similar to Barry Goldwater’s in 1964 (he garnered only 38.47% of the vote to Johnson’s commanding 61.05% — Goldwater barely carried his home state of Arizona and six others).
Reagan confounded them, and ran with an optimistic, conservative message. Reagan won 44 states, a landslide if ever there was one. However, Reagan won because of the Electoral College. The popular vote was more reflective of the country’s polarization: Reagan won 50.75% to Carter’s 41.01%.
If Wisconsin used an electoral college by county, Scott Walker would have won last month in a landslide similar to Reagan’s victory. Walker took 56 of the 72 counties in the state, almost 2/3. However, in terms of the popular vote, Walker won 52.3% to 46.6%, reflecting the real degree of polarization.
What does this mean for conservative and libertarian Republicans in 2016? The history of the last two presidential cycles strongly suggests that unless the majority of voters in both camps coalesce fairly rapidly around one or possibly two candidates, the establishment candidate is likely to win again: a Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, or Mitt Romney could be the Republican candidate with a plurality of the vote.
To recap the consequences of the last “plurality” candidate the party ran, sizable numbers of libertarians and Evangelicals stayed home. Some of the former camp had hoped for Ron Paul; some evangelicals stayed away because Romney is a Mormon. As a result, we have a second Obama term.
It is too early to know who the actual Democratic candidate in 2016 will be. Whoever it is, if he or she is elected, we can expect a continuation and consolidation of the previous eight years, which will be impossible to undo. For that reason, and because the country’s situation is so much like Wisconsin’s, it may pay to look to the Reagan/Walker example in picking a Republican candidate.