Kasich's New Hampshire Showing Impressive, But He Has A Long Way To Go
Well, no need for John Kasich to pack his bags, come home and go back to his day job as Ohio’s governor.
He had a very respectable second-place finish in New Hampshire last Tuesday, even though his 16 percent of the vote was less than half of that of the 600-pound gorilla in the room, Donald Trump.
But it was a marginally better finish than rivals such as Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio; and way better than New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who did so poorly in the Granite State that he did have to go home to New Jersey and “suspend” his presidential campaign. “Suspending” a campaign is the 21st century term for “You can stick a fork in me because I’m done.”
Kasich, who spent a whole lot of money but who had a ground game to match it, doesn’t have to go home, as he said he would do if he didn’t do well in New Hampshire.
But where does he go from here? How does he navigate through a slew of primaries and caucuses between now and March 15, when (he hopes) his home state Republicans will hand him the Ohio primary and the 66 delegates that go along with it.
The answer: Very carefully.
“His campaign has to feel very good about how Kasich did in New Hampshire,’’ said Mack Mariani, associate professor and chair of the political science department of Xavier University. “But, on the other hand, they have to be realistic about what lies ahead of them.”
That would be South Carolina and a host of other conservative states that may not be so friendly to a Republican who has positioned himself as the moderate of the bunch, the voice of reason.
The morning after the New Hampshire primary, Kasich’s traveling road show packed up its tent and headed straight for its next, and more difficult, test – South Carolina, where Republicans are holding the next primary on Feb. 20.
Beginning on Wednesday morning, Kasich launched a series of “town hall” meetings around the Palmetto State, starting with a town hall meeting that drew quite a crowd to a pizza parlor in Charleston.
CNN was there, along with a mob of other news outlets; and ended up doing a report on the Kasich event based on the theme that the pundits say helped Kasich do well in New Hampshire – his positive, upbeat message and his refusal to hammer at his opponents. As the Ohio governor described himself last month in New Hampshire, he is the “prince of light and hope” – a characterization that makes many of his detractors in the Buckeye State gag.
In the CNN piece, one woman was interviewed who said she likes the Ohio governor “because he’s very positive and he doesn’t bash the other candidates.”
Another woman summed it up nicely for CNN: “He’s the total opposite of Donald Trump.”
There was a sound bite of Kasich, responding to someone in the crowd, saying, “Well, look, sir, I’ve always been a believer in a positive campaign.”
This might come as a surprise to someone like former governor Ted Strickland, who was figuratively beaten around the head and shoulders routinely by Kasich in the 2010 campaign, when Kasich took the governor’s office from Strickland by two percentage points.
But, there’s no doubt about it – in the debates, in the pizza parlors, in the coffee shops of New Hampshire, Kasich’s message was simple – if this nation is to solve its problems, people have to put aside their differences and work together.
It resonated well with many New Hampshire Republican moderates and many of the independent voters who took a GOP ballot in New Hampshire’s open primary.
The conventional wisdom (which is often more conventional than wise) holds that Kasich may have a tough row to hoe ahead of him as the battle for the GOP nomination shifts to many states where the Republican electorate is very conservative and not particularly receptive to messages of “light and hope.” South Carolina may be one of those states.
South Carolina is a state chock full of evangelical Christian voters. Nationally, they’ve been flocking mostly to Cruz and Ben Carson.
Friday, the Kasich campaign began airing two new TV ads in South Carolina.
One of them is clearly aimed at those evangelicals.
In the ad, called “Healing,” Kasich talks of his father, a postman, telling him that “Johnny, you stand on your own two feet. You go out there and change the world.”
“My parents were killed by a drunk driver, but my parents did not die in vain,’’ Kasich says in the ad. “I was transformed. I discovered my purpose by discovering the Lord. I believe the Lord put us on this earth to use the gifts that we’ve been given to bringing about a healing. And that’s the motivation for me.”
It is a message that could play well in South Carolina.
“Clearly, he is trying to appeal to that Christian conservative vote,’’ Mariani said. “He has to, in order to have any chance at all in South Carolina.”
The Palmetto State is followed by the Nevada caucus on Feb. 23. Both South Carolina and Nevada are seen as states where the angry, tough guy message of a Trump or the appeal of Cruz to social conservatives might carry more weight than Kasich’s more moderate message.
Then, on March 1, there is Super Tuesday – 15 states holding primaries and caucuses.
There are southern states, some of them Deep South states, where a Trump or a Cruz might have more appeal than the Ohio governor who has cut out his niche as the “voice of reason’’ in the still-muddled GOP field.
Super Tuesday also includes two states that are neighbors to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont. Kasich’s chances may be better there. Virginia, too, is one of the few southern states where a mainstream Republican like Kasich might have a chance.
But the problem with Vermont, Massachusetts, and Virginia is the fact that Trump did so well in New Hampshire. Could he repeat that in the Super Tuesday states? Does an Ohio governor who is still hovering in the low single-digits in the national polls and who has been dubbed “the Democrats’ favorite Republican” have a chance of knocking Trump off his pedestal?
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that Kasich really needs to find a way to have some success in winning delegates between now and the March 15 Ohio primary.
“I suppose that is why he’s spending time and money in Michigan, which could be good ground for him,’’ Kondik said of Ohio’s neighbor to the north, which holds its primary on March 8.
Kondik thinks, too, that Kasich should focus on Illinois, which holds its primary on the same day as Ohio.
“Of course, he has to win Ohio, but I’m not convinced that Ohio is a slam dunk for Kasich,’’ Kondik said. “These campaigns have become more nationalized. The home town favorite doesn’t always win.”
It would help if circumstances in the next round of primaries and caucuses were to narrow the field. Bush may be hanging on by a thread; and his fellow Floridian, Marco Rubio, has some major damage repair after his poor performance in the final debate before New Hampshire, where he gained the reputation as a scripted, robotic candidate.
“What John Kasich has to do is find a way to outlast Bush and Rubio,’’ Kondik said. “Then, he can focus on dealing with Trump and Cruz.”
Bush knows he has to somehow knock down Kasich in order to become a viable candidate again. That explains why, in South Carolina, Bush was criticizing Kasich for taking federal money under Obamacare to expand Medicaid.
Kasich responded that he wants to repeal Obamacare, but defended Medicaid expansion in Ohio because, he said, it is the right thing to do.
“I think Bush’s presence in the race hurts Kasich a lot,’’ Mariani said. “The sooner Bush gets out the better for Kasich.”
In the end, one of the remaining candidates will become the one to seriously challenge Trump and Cruz, two candidates who are disliked intensely by the GOP establishment.
But if it is to be Kasich, he will have to navigate a tricky minefield of states that are not at all like New Hampshire, which was full of voters eager to hear his positive, hopeful message.
He has to find a way to do it, though, if he is to reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – good ol’ Ohio, home sweet home, and its 66-delegate, winner-take-all primary.
If, indeed, that turns out to the true pot of gold that leads him to the presidential nomination.