Learning on the trail.

Photographer: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Watch Scott Run

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Complexity, nuance or just old-fashioned inconsistency -- a governor or senator can get away with all those things. But as Scott Walker is learning fast, when politicians run for president, it's necessary to stick to the same, mind-numbingly dull script over and over again if they want to avoid those little flaps

The latest illustration of that is the attention the Wisconsin governor is getting for what some saw as flip-flopping on immigration.

As Greg Sargent and Dara Lind pointed out, Walker may have just been restating his position somewhat differently. But if presidential candidate appears to deviate from the script, 50 Twitter gags and GIFs and Vines are up within the hour, followed soon by think pieces on Whether the Candidate Is Ready for Prime Time. 

My favorite example of this treatment predates the Web, going back to Bob Dole's many campaigns. Dole never could stick to his script. When he was speaking in a backwater location, he would notice the reporters sitting in back. He would throw in a joke about some Senate procedural fight, then regale them with an obscure anecdote about another candidate. The press corps would appreciate the humor -- and then run back and file stories on how Dole was clearly Not Ready.

The good news for Walker and for the Republican Party is that none of this is going to matter in November 2016. By then, the candidates will have had message discipline drilled into them. And during the general election, so much information is available that individual campaign mishaps aren't important enough to break through everything else that is driving the vote.

Could they affect someone's chances of getting the nomination in the first place? Party actors are watching the candidates closely now, and they’re looking for ways to distinguish among seemingly similar contenders. Most minor gaffes and controversies are forgotten, but potential supporters might begin to perceive a pattern they don’t like.

This is what happened to Rick Perry in 2012. He might have been able to survive his “oops” moment (see below) with little damage if he hadn't already botched several previous debates. Eventually, people who might have backed him -- who probably wanted to back him -- decided Mitt Romney was safer.

It's still early, and none of the traps Walker has fallen into so far seems serious. If Republican party actors decide to support him, the party's opinion leaders will spread the word that he’s Reaganesque in his dedication to All Things Conservative Without Ever Wavering, and rank-and-file Republicans will, quite sensibly, buy it. Or at least enough so he can win the nomination.

By the Iowa caucuses, Walker will likely be as polished as most presidential candidates ever get. And if he doesn't win the Republican nomination anyway, it won't be because he flubbed an answer in the early going. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net