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Who Does Scott Walker’s Exit Help?

We called the FiveThirtyEight politics team together in Slack — including a new member! — to reassess the GOP field now that Scott Walker has quit the race. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

micah (Micah Cohen, senior editor): It’s been a few days now since Scott Walker dropped out, and the conversation is moving from “What went wrong with Walker?” to “Who does this help?” And that’s our question for today. … But before we get to that, let’s welcome Farai Chideya, who just joined FiveThirtyEight as a senior writer and is going to be covering — among other things — the 2016 campaign.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): Welcome, Farai!

hjenten-heynawl (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Shalom, Farai. Welcome to the no-spin zone. Oh wait.

faraic (Farai Chideya, senior writer): I’ve covered every election since 1996 in some way, shape or form and am excited to do it the FiveThirtyEight way.

micah: As the newest member of these chats, Farai, you get first crack at the question: Who do you think Walker dropping out benefits?

faraic: Well, let’s start with the patronizing. In June, Walker kept harping on how he wanted Marco Rubio for veep. Rubio said in turn: “Walker-Rubio ticket may be fine, but it’s got to be in alphabetical order.”

Walker was extremely cocky, but he had the polls going for him at that time. From Politico:


But now I think Rubio is the biggest winner.

natesilver: Yeah, Rubio seems to be the default answer. They’re fairly similar ideologically. They each have some credibility with both the establishment and the grassroots — or at least, they were supposed to. And we’ve already seen reporting on how a number of ex-Walker staffers are defecting to Rubio.

micah: You concur, Harry?

hjenten-heynawl: I mean, Rubio is the easy answer. He has already grabbed a bunch of Walker’s fundraisers, and they are both folks elected in the 2010 tea party wave with one foot in the establishment and one in the grassroots.

But again, this is tricky stuff. Jeb Bush has also grabbed some of Walker’s backers, and we know that voters placed Walker closer to Ted Cruz than Rubio ideologically.

micah: So unpack this a little more. … Does Walker being gone help Rubio because they were competing for the same voters?

faraic: I think there is some voter overlap; more funders freed up; but also it’s the astronauts-in-a-capsule situation. There’s only so much oxygen in the capsule. A certain number of the astronauts — or candidates — are bound to asphyxiate.

I know it’s a grim metaphor, but Rubio just got a lot bigger share of oxygen.

natesilver: OK, since the purpose of the chats is (among other things) to check our priors, let me bring up a contrarian point of view. A devil’s advocate case. Let’s say you run a small business, and you wake up in the morning and find that your closest competitor has gone out of business. Is that good news or bad news?

faraic: I know this is a trick question, Nate! I plead the fifth!

micah: So could Rubio have the same problem Walker did?

natesilver: I’m just saying that’s a line of argument: If Walker failed to bridge the divide between the establishment and the base — despite not having done anything all that obviously and egregiously wrong as a candidate — maybe Rubio could have trouble too? Maybe the business model failed, in other words, instead of the business.

hjenten-heynawl: We’re jumping around the issue here. Walker had two main problems: 1. He didn’t raise enough hard money — Rubio doesn’t appear to have that problem so far. And 2. Walker didn’t have good debates to keep his polling up, to get more money — Rubio’s debate performances have gotten good grades.

faraic: A new Florida poll shows Rubio is now ahead of Bush in their home state.

natesilver: Look, I’m still on the Rubio bandwagon. Like I said in last week’s chat, I sometimes feel with Rubio like he’s the contestant on a reality show where it’s totally obvious that he’s eventually going to win, but the network needs to create dramatic subplots for 17 weeks before it happens.

faraic: Ha! Rubio has great hair. If the election was a hair-stakes, I’d vote for him for sure.

hjenten-heynawl: Let me say, I sent an email to a Democratic pollster last night with the subject line “It will be Rubio. I think. Unless of course, it isn’t. ”

micah: All right, so why not Cruz?

hjenten-heynawl: Because he’s too conservative and says things off the cuff that shouldn’t be said.

natesilver: He’s not very popular with his colleagues.

hjenten-heynawl: He pisses off the establishment with this government shutdown stuff.

faraic: As someone who has spent time being awkward on camera, I can also say his robotics on camera in the debate made him look like an advanced android. But that is not why he will not get the nomination. But just sayin’.

micah: But Walker dropping out helps Cruz, right? He may not win, but this gets him a little closer?

hjenten-heynawl: Sure. But his chances jump from 4 percent to 6 percent, or something like that. Walker quitting doesn’t get Cruz that much closer to the nomination.

faraic: Cruz is just too loathed by too many GOP insiders.

natesilver: I mean, there’s an absence of candidates who are both 1. establishment-approved and 2. reliably conservative, at least by the current GOP standard where you need to be very conservative indeed.

micah: Interesting …

hjenten-heynawl: Walker was that person, supposedly.

micah: Who meets those standards now?

natesilver: After Rubio, you have … I dunno. Bobby Jindal?

micah: So Cruz fails on No. 1.

faraic: Carly Fiorina is way ahead of Jindal. And ahead of Cruz.

hjenten-heynawl: Jindal has tremendous problems back at home. Most observers would regard that governorship as one that didn’t bring people together.


hjenten-heynawl: But let me throw this in on Jindal: His net favorability in Iowa is quite high — at or slightly ahead of Cruz, depending on the poll.

natesilver: From the Des Moines Register:


Jindal’s held more events in Iowa than anyone but Rick Santorum, and his numbers were pretty similar to Walker’s in Iowa. Granted, Walker’s numbers in Iowa were no longer so good. But … there’s this huge question now of whether an establishment candidate can win Iowa.

micah: Jindal seems like the type of candidate who could win Iowa: socially conservative, Southern, etc. — Huckabee-esque.

natesilver: I’m sure Rubio’s campaign was doing high-fives when they found out that Walker dropped out, for example. But they were sort of tiptoeing around the question of whether they would “compete” (i.e., raise the media’s expectations) in Iowa. Now they might need to take that more head on.

faraic: I still think Rubio is playing a long game for 2020 or 2024. But if things accelerate, well, who is he to say no?

micah: Yeah, Rubio is young and potential VP material.

natesilver: It’s a little unpredictable because historically the best way to forecast how much of a bounce you’ll get out of Iowa is how well you do relative to your polls.

But my guess is that Rubio would get mostly good press if he were the top establishment-y candidate in Iowa and finished somewhere in the top three.

micah: So what about Fiorina then? As Farai said, couldn’t Walker leaving help Fiorina? Nate, you’ve said before that she’s weirdly both establishment and outsider.

hjenten-heynawl: She has two congressional endorsements now, but I still think her record at Hewlett-Packard is awful by most people’s standards — and that if anything, her performance in the 2008 campaign as a McCain spokesperson and in 2010 in her own Senate campaign shows that the more people get to know her, the worse she tends to do. But in the short-term: Sure, why not.

faraic: Fiorina is marvelously composed, but/and she does not exude populism. And when she comes into contact with the Trump-populism-from-a-billionaire fans, I’m curious how and if she will adjust her message.

natesilver: In some ways, Fiorina is the opposite of Cruz. She’s nominally an outsider, but in establishment packaging. He’s nominally part of the establishment, but in outsider packaging.

micah: Which could prevent her from moving in on the grassroots/outsider space vacated by Walker?

faraic: Walker himself was an interesting insider/outsider — someone who ran for and got into office in order to downsize the state. I think Fiorina could make a plausible argument she’d be willing to do that. But again, how would that help the fearful voters who worry about jobs?

She’s not willing to go as nativist as Trump is.

natesilver: Fiorina may have particular experiences that help her in debates. Being a CEO in the tech world, which is so male-heavy, she’s in the top 0.0001 percent in terms of knowing how to get her message across in a room full of men with giant egos. But the debates are just one element of the campaign.

hjenten-heynawl: As we learned with Joe Biden and Mike Huckabee in 2008.

natesilver: The two endorsements Fiorina has gotten in the past three weeks are more than anyone else in the GOP field over that period. No one else has more than one!

natesilver: There’s also the question Harry raised about her background at HP. I guess I’d say it’s hard to know if that will blow up into a campaign-defining issue or not. It depends a lot on whether the media thinks it’s a sexy story. Or inside baseball. Or old news.

hjenten-heynawl: It blew up on her in the California Senate race in 2010 (not saying it will now).

natesilver: But more to the point: It depends on how the establishment feels about Fiorina. If there’s a world in which a successful-CEO-type like, oh, Mitt Romney sends out signals suggesting he likes Fiorina, that could matter a lot. If he says she was a failure, that could matter too.

micah: Mitt Romney, kingmaker! (or queenmaker, in this case).

natesilver: OK, Harry, since I guess I’m more on the Fiorina bandwagon than you: Was 2010 really such a failure for Fiorina?

hjenten-heynawl: Depends on what your definition of a “failure” is:

  1. She lost. That’s a fail.
  2. She outperformed Romney in California. That’s a win.
  3. She lost steam as the campaign went on. That’s a fail.

natesilver: She won a fairly tough primary. And losing to a three-term Democratic incumbent by “only” 10 percentage points in California is not so bad.

hjenten-heynawl: A fairly unpopular incumbent in a fairly good Republican year.

micah: Farai, if you were Fiorina … Walker drops out … there’s a little more room now, do you try to consolidate your appeal to the establishment, to the grassroots, or do you try and thread the needle and appeal to both?

faraic: Fiorina could do well — not saying she will do this — by triangulating Hillary Clinton (only in terms of a strong woman/first female president card), Mitt Romney (in his compassionate conservative guise), and the ghost of Scott Walker (smaller government).

I think in this case: Go for more campaign cash, slick ads and the establishment.

natesilver: Yeah, I agree. I think there’s a window of opportunity here. Or maybe not. But if Fiorina has a chance, she’s going to need some establishment support and a fair bit more cash. Now’s as good a time as any for her to find out about those things.

hjenten-heynawl: Triangulating can work brilliantly or fail miserably. It failed for Walker.

faraic: Populism is probably not a good look for her and arguably doesn’t fit that easily on Clinton either.

micah: OK, so if you’ll allow me to summarize and oversimplify: It seems like we think Walker dropping out helps Rubio > Cruz > Jindal > Fiorina > Everyone else.

natesilver: I’d put Rubio in the first tier and then Cruz, Jindal and Fiorina in the second tier.

micah: Let’s do lightning round — helps/hurts/push — on a couple of more people:

giphy (1)


hjenten-heynawl: Helps (probably).

faraic: Agreed, but only marginally.

natesilver: Let me point something out. When a strong contender gets knocked out of the field — like a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney — it almost always helps everyone else. It helps some more than others, like if they’re on your side of the bracket. But it’s only in pretty weird circumstances where it actually hurts you.

micah: Right — I guess in this case we mean above and beyond the fact that there’s one less contender.

natesilver: But, anyway, sure, there’s a chance it helps Bush.

micah: Jim Gilmore … just kidding … Ben Carson: helps/hurts/push?

natesilver: It was interesting how Walker mentioned in his statement about how it was important for the establishment to rally around a candidate and for others to drop out.

micah: Nate, you’re not grasping the core concept of the lightning round.

natesilver: OK, only one-word answers from me on out: Carson. Helps? Iowa.

hjenten-heynawl: Agreed.

faraic: Yup (I feel like Walker was such an asterisk at the end that everyone gets 1/15 of a tiny, tiny pie).

micah: Mike Huckabee?

faraic: No.

micah: Huckabee is beyond help?

faraic: Kinda. Carson stole his demo.

hjenten-heynawl: It seemed to me like Walker didn’t appeal too much to evangelicals in Iowa, so he wasn’t competing with Huckabee for voters. And with Walker out, it may raise the percentage needed to win in Iowa because the vote will be split among fewer candidates. So Walker quitting may, in fact, hurt Huckabee.

natesilver: Helps? Iowa.

micah: John Kasich.

faraic: Helps.

natesilver: Helps? Midwest.

hjenten-heynawl: I’ll go with the crowd here.

micah: Chris Christie.

hjenten-heynawl: Push.

faraic: Ditto.

natesilver: Helps? Boredom.

micah: Rand Paul.

faraic: Helps.

hjenten-heynawl: Hurts. Raises percent needed to win in Iowa.

natesilver: Is 0>0?

micah: Donald Trump.

faraic: Push.

natesilver: OK, I’m going to violate my one-word rule. I think it probably doesn’t matter much to Trump, but Walker dropping out is one sign that the “party is deciding,” as I was about to say when Micah so rudely interrupted me earlier. It’s also possible that Trump will decline for reasons that don’t have much to do with Walker.

hjenten-heynawl: Donald Trump is who he is, no matter who is in the race. #Trump2016

micah: All right — closing question: How would you sum up the Walker campaign in three words or less?

faraic: “Wasn’t my money.”

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.