Gov. Scott Walker developed a reputation early in his presidential bid as a candidate who is "relentlessly on message." But the more national exposure he gets, the more he seems to stray from that message.
There's an argument to be made that some of that is the result of an unfortunate habit the governor has of starting answers with "Yeah..." or "Absolutely..." before getting to the meat of his response. It's his way of acknowledging the question, the way some people might offer an "Um..." or "So..."
Starting a sentence with a filler word isn't unusual; it can even be presidential. How many times has President Barack Obama started an answer with "Look..."? Answer: probably about as many as President Ronald Reagan started one with "Well..."
Walker's problem is his filler word tends to detract from whatever follows it.
"Many politicians have vocal tics and they are usually unaware of their speaking pattern. Often, these tics or quirks in speaking style are due to regionalism and go unnoticed if a campaign is conducted at the state or district level," said Erik Bucy, a professor of strategic communication at Texas Tech. "Nationally, vocal tics may persist early in a presidential cycle but are likely to be coached away in the eventual nominee. Typically, pet phrases are used to indicate bonding or affinity for an in-group, or potential supporters a candidate would like to curry favor with."
Employed intentionally, a catchphrase can make a candidate seem like he or she is "one of us" to certain groups of voters, Bucy said. A subconscious tic, he said, is generally part of a candidate's effort to make him or herself seem more agreeable. That's likely what's happening with Walker's use of "yeah" and "absolutely," Bucy said.
"One of the ironies of public life, and competitive contexts like presidential elections, is that voters generally respond to candidates who seem more agreeable and reassuring than those who express a lot of anger and threat. There are short-lived exceptions, of course, Donald Trump being the exception du jour," he said.
The Daily Beast's Betsy Woodruff wrote about Walker's "yes man" habit, which she said "seems to be quietly draining the blood from his campaign," on Wednesday. Conservative radio host Charlie Sykes told Woodruff it's "almost like a parlor game" to see what questions can get an initial "yes" from Walker.
The prime example is Walker's exchange with MSNBC's Kasie Hunt during a packed, roaming press gaggle at the Iowa State Fair. Hunt asked Walker a question he'd received — and dodged — from several other reporters and fair attendees that day: Does he believe the U.S. should end birthright citizenship?
Citing Sen. Harry Reid's onetime support for ending it, Walker said, "I think that's something we should, yeah, absolutely, going forward."
"Yeah," he said, nodding, when asked again. "To me it’s about enforcing the laws in this country. And I’ve been very clear, I think you enforce the laws, and I think it’s important to send a message that we’re going to enforce the laws, no matter how people come here we’re going to enforce the laws in this country."
The confusing exchange led to a week of trying to figure out what Walker really thinks about birthright citizenship. After taking three positions in seven days, Walker landed on "no" when asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos whether he's seeking to abolish or change the 14th Amendment.
"If you’re getting the reputation of being a flip-flopper and then you say something like the governor did … with what might be a common vocal tic when answering questions, reporters might be more likely to interpret that as another flip-flop," said Mike Wagner, a professor of journalism and mass communication and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Picking up on speaking habits is often an activity of journalists who hear a lot of speeches and not the general voting public, Bucy said. And the better a reporter knows a candidate, the more in tune he or she is likely to be with those features, Wagner added.
In other words, when a candidate starts an answer with a filler word like "absolutely," a local reporter is likely to recognize that as a verbal crutch, while a national reporter might interpret it as part of the answer.
"Only by paying close attention or repeated exposure do these quirks even begin to stand out," Bucy said. "They become journalistic fodder and can become a mild curiosity for the press, but small lapses or verbal faux pas are not the stuff of outrage for the typical voter."
Bucy noted that despite all his malapropisms, President George W. Bush was never punished by voters for his speaking style. Rather, he came across as "homespun" or "authentic."
"Voters are just not paying that much attention, particularly in the early stages of the campaign," he said. "And logistical consistency during impromptu responses is just not a criterion most voters are using to determine who they'll support."
But it's possible now more than ever for little quirks to become, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, a "big f---ing deal."
"I think in today’s world, the wrong vocal tic can cause a viral sensation when a local reporter might have ignored it completely," Wagner said. "It’s more of a danger today for candidates than in 1984."
And some of Walker's vocal tics do register with voters — at least Wisconsin voters who are used to hearing him speak. For many in Wisconsin, the most curious thing about his style is the way he pronounces the word "time," as "toime." Some have asked whether that's a "Wisconsin thing." The answer: It's a Scott Walker thing.
For the uninitiated, what follows is a field guide to Walker's vocal tics.
Most famously, when announcing his presidential campaign, Walker delivered this line: "After a great deal of thought and a whole lotta prayer, we are so honored to have you join with us here today as we officially announce that we are running to serve as your president of the United States of America."
Critics sometimes write it off as a "royal we," but it's likely a strategic device.
"Instead of a self-focused egocentrism, the use of first person plural attempts to signal that, 'we're all in this together,'" Bucy said. "At the same time, using 'we' in a specific political context implies that there is a 'they' who disagrees with our position, or who threatens our values and way of life, and therefore is worthy vilification and disdain. Because of this implication of the other, the use of 'we' and 'us' can both rhetorically unite and divide."
For us/to me: When he's not starting sentences with "yeah" or "absolutely," listen for "For us..." or "To me..." to get things going.
"For us, it's one of those under the state system it wouldn't be revealed," Walker said in July 2011, after learning the CEO of the location he'd chosen to sign the state budget had served time for tax evasion.
"To me, I don't want to be the world's policeman, so I have a high standard for engaging in direct military engagement," he said during an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity immediately following his presidential campaign announcement, answering how he would deal with someone like Vladimir Putin.
Walker said "to me" seven times during that interview.
It's one where/it's one of those where: These phrases are frequently paired with "for us" and "to me."
"To me it's simple. It's one where I actually listen to the American people. I went to the border, got with governors, other elected officials," Walker said, describing his immigration position during the Hannity interview.
Asked whether he would sign right-to-work legislation during a December 2014 interview with WISN-TV's Kent Wainscott, Walker replied, "I don't know. It's hard to say. It's one where there's been a lot of talk about it in the last month. I'm still not convinced there's consensus, even amongst Republicans in the Assembly what right-to-work would mean if it were to be passed."
The bill was signed on March 9.
Out there: What "yeah" and "absolutely" do for the beginnings of Walker's sentences, "out there" does for their endings.
"It's certainly an option out there," Walker said in the WISN interview when asked whether he would run for president in 2016. "But it's one where, unlike a former governor out there and members of Congress, the House or the Senate, my ability to even consider that as an option is dependent almost exclusively on the health of the state."
Worth looking at/something for us to look at: Walker's most recent rough news cycle resulted from being asked by NBC's Chuck Todd whether he wants to build a fence along the northern U.S.-Canada border.
"(People on the campaign trail) have raised some very legitimate concerns, including some law enforcement folks that brought that up to me at one of our town hall meetings about a week and a half ago. So that’s a legitimate issue for us to look at," Walker said.
Asked in June by radio host Chris Salcedo about the possibility of dividing Iraq along sectarian lines, Walker said, "ideas like that are certainly worth looking at."