Last Monday, at the beginning of what turned out to be a not-so-hot week for Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, he said something at the opening of his New Hampshire presidential campaign headquarters that was very revealing; and very frank.
“We’ve got about 128 days to go until the New Hampshire primary,’’ the Boston Globe reported Kasich as saying. “We do well here; we’re moving on. We do terrible here; it’s over. No confusion about that. This is very, very important to us.”
Now, Kasich, since announcing his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, has not put quite all of his eggs in the basket of winning (or, at the very least, finishing strong) in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation presidential primary on Feb. 9.
But it’s fair to say that's where he's deposited the majority of his eggs.
It’s the reason that, on Friday, Kasich embarked on a four-day bus tour of New Hampshire, with some forays into neighboring Vermont, a state which holds its primary on March 1 and might be fertile ground for Kasich’s mainstream Republican message.
One reason the Kasich bus is hitting the highways and by-ways of New Hampshire is that the Kasich campaign was rather gob-smacked early last week when the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll of New Hampshire primary voters was released.
That poll had Kasich with just six percent support among New Hampshire voters. That six percent had him trailing Donald Trump (21 percent) Carly Fiorina (16 percent), Jeb Bush (11 percent), Marco Rubio and Ben Carson (10 percent each) and Chris Christie (seven percent).
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that, in early September, the same poll had Kasich in second place in New Hampshire with 12 percent support, while Trump sat atop the pile with 28 percent.
Today, if this poll is to be believed, six GOP contenders are out-polling Kasich in New Hampshire – this, after Kasich’s campaign and a Super PAC supporting him, New Day for America, has spent millions on TV ads in New Hampshire.
By mid-week, there was even more bad polling news for Kasich.
Kasich has built much of his campaign for the GOP nomination around his record as governor of Ohio; and the fact that no Republican has ever been elected president without winning Ohio in the general election.
But, on Wednesday, a poll came out which questioned whether or not Kasich could even win a GOP presidential primary in his home state.
The Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which polls voters in key presidential election states, released a poll showing the state of the presidential race in three key swing states – Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The numbers from Ohio showed Kasich running third here – with only 13 percent of the Ohio Republican voters polled saying they support him for the nomination.
He was behind Trump (23 percent), Carson (18%), and just barely ahead of Ted Cruz (11 percent) and Fiorina (10).
Still, the same poll showed that Kasich remains incredibly popular in Ohio – 62 percent of all Ohio voters – said they approve of the job he is doing as governor. Yet, he trails badly in the GOP presidential primary in his home state.
Weird. Just plain weird.
“Gov. John Kasich’s big card was his enormous popularity in Ohio, generally considered too be the most important swing state in the November election,’’ said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll. “But with Trump zooming well past him in the Buckeye State and Kasich’s numbers in Florida and Pennsylvania in low single digits, the Ohio governor’s campaign is going in the wrong direction.”
Quinnipiac had a poll of Ohio voters in August that showed Kasich with a substantial lead in Ohio – the governor came in first with 27 percent, followed by Trump at 21 percent. Cruz and Rubio were tied for a distant third at seven percentage points each.
Kyle Kondik is a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. He is the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an influential weekly politics newsletter publisher by the center’s director, Larry J. Sabato.
Kondik took the Quinnipiac Poll and drilled down into the cross-tabs – detailed information within the poll itself that can reveal a lot about how different demographic groups respond and how support can shift.
What he found was that most of the support that Kasich lost between the August and September polls siphoned off to Carson and Fiorina.
“It’s an unfortunate poll from his perspective,’’ said Kondik, who is writing a book on the history of presidential elections in Ohio.
“It’s been a rocky week for John Kasich,’’ Kondik said. “But that’s going to happen. You have good weeks and bad weeks. This is a real marathon.”
Kondik said that if Kasich can survive New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and the early March primaries, Ohio should be his.
“He would win Ohio if he is still in the race,’’ Kondik said.
But the Ohio governor does have a lot riding on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
“He set high expectations for himself in New Hampshire,’’ Kondik said. “If he doesn’t live up to them, he could be in trouble.”
Mark Weaver, a veteran Republican political strategist in Ohio, said Kasich has plenty of time to rebound in New Hampshire.
The trend for Kasich, Weaver said, “might be slow, but it’s upward. The pace has to pick up a bit, but he is still headed in the right direction.”
Weaver said that sometimes, in early primaries, all candidates have to do to carry on is to exceed expectations. He uses as Exhibit A the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary.
In 1992, Bill Clinton had an incredibly bad showing in the Iowa caucuses, mired in accusations that he had tried to avoid the military draft and that he had carried on a 12-year-old affair. The New Hampshire primary followed Iowa; and in that primary, Sen. Paul Tsongas of neighboring Massachusetts won the primary with 35 percent of the vote. But Clinton came in a strong second with 26 percent, proclaimed himself “The Comeback Kid,” and went on to march through the primaries to the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the White House.
“Clinton couldn’t win in New Hampshire, but he did well,’’ Weaver said. “He beat the expectations. And sometimes that is all you have to do.”
By Christmas, Weaver said, this current 15-person field of presidential candidates will have narrowed down.
“I think there are a number of them who could be gone,’’ Weaver said. “(Kentucky Senator) Rand Paul might be the first. Ted Cruz might go. Chris Christie. Maybe even Jeb Bush.
“As people leave the race, their supporters have to go somewhere,’’ Weaver said. “I can see some of them going to Kasich, especially Christie supporters. Or certainly Bush supporters, if his candidacy fails.”
Weaver said he has been saying that he believes Trump – an “entertainer” – has hit his natural ceiling and will continue to drop in the polls.
Trump – and to a certain extent, Carson – are “natural name brands,’’ said Weaver. “They are getting unprecedented earned media. Especially Trump.”
“Earned media’’ is what the political professionals call news coverage; and they look upon it as free advertising.
“Trump is unique when it comes to earned media,’’ Weaver said. “Have you ever seen a candidate appear on a Sunday morning talk show by telephone? That never happens. But they want Trump so bad, they do it for him.”
And, Weaver said, he has drawn people to the two nationally televised GOP candidate debates so far.
“Does anybody think that 25 million people will watch the Democratic debate on Tuesday night?,” Weaver said. “Of course not. Trump won’t be on stage.”
But, as Weaver says, Trump may have peaked. Lesser candidates are going to run out of money and get tired of running all over the country while their poll numbers linger in the single digits.
Their supporters must go somewhere.
Kasich can only hope that he can keep the ball in the air long enough to start benefiting from the natural weeding-out of candidates.
It’s called survival of the fittest.