Just suppose the Republican Primary had a guy with a conservative record, who was a popular governor of a massive swing state, had experience at every level of government, and who dramatically outperformed all other Republicans in general election polling against the likely Democratic opponent. That seems to check off all the important Republican boxes, doesn’t it? Conservative: check. Governor: check. Swing state: check. General election chances: check. Guy: check. It’s like he was built in a Republican laboratory for the express purposes of winning in November and getting the job done after that.
Of course, we’re not just supposing at all. The Republicans have that candidate. John Kasich is ready for the fall, but it doesn’t appear he’ll survive the summer. In fact, most of the country wonders why he’s still running at all.
On Friday night, during a town hall meeting in the gym of Connecticut’s Glastonbury High School, he spent about an hour in front of a thousand or so of us Nutmeggers, including PPFA. (If he had known PPFA was in the audience, those gym lights would have felt like he was standing 50 feet beneath the sun itself.) I listened to his thoughts on his viability in the primary, chances in the general, and potential as President of the United States. But since almost every candidate in his position talks about those things and usually drops out anyway, what I was really hoping to understand was why, when most people think his candidacy is hopeless, he’s still in this race.
I think I found my answer.
Bob Dylan Band-mate Robbie Robertson once described Dylan’s decision to go electric at Newport as a “rebel rebelling against the rebellion.” That’s John Kasich in the 2016 Republican Primary.
In the year of the outsider railing against the establishment, Kasich is the establishment railing back. He’s the last guy running for the Republican nomination that doesn’t shy away from the politician label. He thinks experience is a good thing. On Friday, he compared a presidential candidate to the pilot of a passenger plane. “Do you really want a pilot who has no experience flying but keeps telling you how great he is? Or do you want someone who knows what he’s doing?” Kasich is bucking hard against this latest political trend. He was critical of Trump and Cruz’s rhetoric. He’s beside himself that this is what the party of Abraham Lincoln has turned into. He compared Trump’s idea of Mexico paying for the wall to the Tooth Fairy doing the same. In the year of the outsider, with most Republicans carried away by the antiestablishment one-ups-man-ship of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, John Kasich is a rebel rebelling against the rebellion.
His strengths and weaknesses were on display. I was there with a friend, a Trump supporter who made up his mind months ago. We watched two introductions that each took twice as long as necessary, and then the candidate took the stage for about an hour. After a speech, he took questions from the audience, but only a handful got the opportunity because he has too many insights for his own good. His answers took forever. He had too many points to make. At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “I have to admit, I wouldn’t be this bored at a Trump rally.”
That’s not exactly a criticism. Our problems are nuanced and so, too, must our solutions be, but Trump and Cruz have mastered the soundbite that’s so critical for political popularity. Not incidentally, they’ve controlled the GOP Primary since Iowa. As the field whittled, Kasich has been the man behind door number three, but behind it he’s stayed. Somewhere along the way, he became a non-option for too many Republicans, despite his substantial, conservative record.
Why is that? Could it be the record itself? I don’t think so. Behind the makeshift platform on the GHS gym floor, his team erected a debt clock, a subtle reminder that he was the last House Budget Chairman to give us a federal budget surplus before doing the same in Ohio. He’s shown himself to be a pro-life legislator and governor. In 2014, he was re-elected by more than 30 points. Temember, this isn’t some Deep South red state that rubber stamps the Republican nominee. This is Ohio, the most purple of states and one of the keys to the Electoral College. He still maintains a 62/29 favorable/unfavorable split, one of the best in the nation. A man with approval this high in a diverse state is getting the job done.
In a normal year, if we had a hugely popular conservative Republican governor from a big swing state, we’d ask “What’s not to like?” To be fair, there were some moderate imperfections, including on guns, climate, and Medicaid expansion, but on balance Kasich is conservative, not moderate.
Still, even these small imperfections might have been enough to submarine his chances in this unusual election year. He may have been able to weather these blemishes if it weren’t for two factors. First, it was the year of Trump. It’s clear that a plurality of Republicans could care less about one’s record in this primary; indeed, having a record at all might feel like an albatross around one’s neck. (Friday’s thousand Glastonbury attendees, who mostly adored the candidate — whether it was genuine adoration or so they could tell their grandchildren they saw in person the 69th Governor of Ohio and third place finisher in the 2016 Republican Primary — were probably not representative of the Republican electorate at large.)
Second, back when he was putting all his eggs in the New Hampshire basket, he knew there was no way to run to the right of Cruz and Rubio, and no way to out-Trump Trump, so instead he tried to win over its moderate independents by playing up his more heterodox positions instead of his conservative record. He kept talking about “compromise” and “working with the other side.” Indeed, when I saw him on Friday night, he still emphasized that we’re “Americans first, Republicans and Democrats second.” And while all those things sound well and good in a vacuum, many Republicans have seen the country dragged so far to the left by liberal Democrats that they don’t want any more compromise. They want someone who will abruptly stop this leftward slide and quickly course-correct us back in the “right” direction.
Kasich is stuck rowing against this steady current of dissatisfaction. The Republican electorate isn’t only mad at Obama and the Democrats; it’s fed up with Republican leadership, too, and Kasich embodies that. As a result, in 37 contests, he has exactly one win, and it’s his home state. He’s rowing in the wrong river at the wrong time.
And yet he hasn’t laid down his oars. He long maintained that when the primary finally moved north, he’d break through. But it didn’t happen in Michigan, Wisconsin, or New York, and the polls say it won’t happen this Tuesday, either. Trump will sweep the region and the most Kasich can hope for is a handful of second place results. Overall, he trails Trump by nearly 700 delegates, Cruz by nearly 400, and, believe it or not, he still lags behind Marco Rubio, who dropped out six weeks ago, by 24. To earn the nomination before the convention, Kasich needs to win around 160 percent of remaining delegates, which 16 out of 10 math majors will tell you is impossible.
It’s therefore reasonable to ask: what exactly is the plan here?
He doesn’t keep it a secret. If we go past the first ballot at the convention, anything can happen. He talked about it a bit at the town hall. He painted a picture that made me dare to dream: no one is reaching 1,237 delegates before the convention. The delegates then go to Cleveland, and the media’s 24/7 coverage of this insanity will ramp up the pressure on them to make the right decision. To Kasich, the right decision is obvious: “I don’t know how many rounds it’s going to take, but if I’m the only one who can win in the fall, why would you pick somebody else?”
General election polling supports this position. Below is every poll listed on Real Clear Politics that asks about Hillary Clinton against each of the three remaining Republican candidates dating back to April 12:
Kasich performs best in every poll, and it’s always by a large margin over his Republican opponents. Even if you go back beyond the 12th, all state and national general election polls speak with one voice: Kasich matches up best of the three against Hillary Clinton, and it’s not even close.
Assuming these convincing numbers continue into Cleveland, and assuming there is an open convention, Kasich is counting on the delegates making a wise decision. He’ll make his pitch that he’s their best candidate for November and the most qualified president for January.
Is this just quixotic fantasy? Obviously I think so, since I believe Trump reaches 1,237 delegates before the convention. However, IF we do reach an open convention, conventional wisdom says that Trump cannot win after the first ballot. Though conventional wisdom also says that Ted Cruz will be in great shape heading into the second ballot, I think he’ll underperform so badly between now and then that he’ll be so far from 1,237 that he won’t be able to pick up enough Trump delegates to win it, especially after the Trump threat is neutralized. Then we get into a third ballot, and there’s this third candidate with a convincing pitch. The momentum for Kasich would build as Trump and Cruz’s best ballots are behind them. Enough delegates might want to give it to someone who was actually a candidate (read: not Paul Ryan) and someone who can actually win, making Kasich the final consensus pick.
Stranger things have happened.
Watching the candidate under the hot gymnasium lights, I couldn’t help but admire his endurance. He’s done hundreds of these things. It’s one thing for Trump and Sanders to give the same speech to thousands who worship their messiah; it’s another thing to come to a high school gym in Glastonbury, Connecticut in the hopes of winning a couple delegates and knowing someone else is going to get the rest, just like 36 times before.
But how often does an establishment politician get to play the rebel? John Kasich continues to run for the presidency because he wants the job, legitimately thinks he’s the best candidate for it, and believes someone needs to appeal to the better angels of Lincoln’s party.
Oh, and by the way: Lincoln needed three ballots, too.