Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin continues to soar in popularity in politically potent Iowa, where likely GOP caucus participants seem captivated by his conservative rhetoric and record. A new Quinnipiac University poll of caucus-goers shows Walker leading a crowded field of GOP presidential aspirants with 25 percent of the vote – twice as much as his closest rival, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, at 13 percent.
The two men were followed by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and physician Ben Carson, with 11 percent each. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush had 10 percent.
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A former Milwaukee county executive, Gov. Walker first took office as governor in January 2011 and rose to prominence by slashing taxes and clashing with state employees over collective bargaining rights. He survived a June 2012 recall election engineered by labor unions and government workers and won a second full term last November.
He made a big splash last month at a weekend gathering of grassroots conservatives in Des Moines, where the typically straightforward Walker delivered a rousing speech touting his accomplishments.
More recently, he made an awkward appearance before a foreign policy think tank in London, where he refused to discuss the war on ISIS, evolution or other politically charged topics.
He also came under attack last week by Democrats and some in the media for sitting silently by at a dinner when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani declared that President Obama doesn’t love his country. Walker subsequently told two Washington Post reporters that he doesn’t know whether Obama is a Christian – a fact that the president has often proclaimed publicly.
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But none of that appears to bother Iowa Republicans, who according to the new poll conducted February 16-23 are dominated by conservatives and Tea Party members. Voters who identify themselves as “very conservative” constitute 45 percent of the likely caucus participants. Tea Party supporters make up 32 percent of likely caucus-goers. Walker gets 33 percent of that Tea Party vote.
“Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is taking the Republican political world by storm,” said the poll’s assistant director, Peter A. Brown, in a statement. “He’s gone from being unknown outside Wisconsin to the hot candidate, poised to become the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination. Frontrunner status would make it easier for Gov. Walker to raise money and recruit top talent for his staff, but it also puts a target on his back.”
One of the more impressive findings about Walker, according to Brown, is that 57 percent view him favorably, compared to only 7 percent who view him unfavorably.
That’s not the case for Bush, the son and brother of two former Republican presidents, who is viewed by many as the frontrunner nationwide in the early going of the 2016 presidential campaign.
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Yet in Iowa, the candidates with the biggest negatives are Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who each get 26 percent when likely Republican caucus participants name a candidate they “would definitely not support.” By a 64-to-21 percent margin, likely Iowa GOP caucus participants prefer a presidential candidate with experience as a governor or administrator, rather than experience as a senator or member of Congress.
Only 8 percent of caucus participants are less likely to vote for Walker because he does not have a college degree, while 82 percent say that makes no difference in their vote.
While the Iowa caucuses get a lot of attention because they’re first in the nation, they’re not always an accurate barometer of the eventual outcome of a presidential contest. “It’s worth remembering that former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Gov. Mike Huckabee won the last two caucuses and neither came close to the nomination,” said Brown.
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