It’s a bitter Ash Wednesday for Republican elites who had hoped New Hampshire would clear the field for a single champion to take on Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. But one candidate is probably celebrating like it’s still Mardi Gras: second-place finisher John Kasich, who had everything fall into place for him.
Kasich pursued the same basic strategy as his chief political adviser, longtime McCain hand John Weaver, laid out for 2012 candidate Jon Huntsman: In a crowded field of candidates trying to out-conservative each other, go for that wallflower at the dance, the moderate or “somewhat conservative” voter, where they are most in abundance. Among the early states, that would be New Hampshire.
And so Kasich poured all his resources (including an estimated $10 million or so in ads, mostly run by a super-pac) into the Granite State, and accentuated two features considered a handicap by most candidates: the longest history of elected service in the field (he was elected to the Ohio Senate when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were small children), and such moderate positions as support for the Obamacare-provided Medicaid expansion and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. The other candidates for the most part ignored Kasich and conceded him the RINO vote. Going down the stretch, his trajectory was similar to Huntsman’s (the former Utah governor got 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, which was enough for a third-place finish well behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, but not enough to sustain a campaign going forward). But then Kasich got lucky. In a pre-primary debate, Chris Christie humiliated presumed Establishment champion Marco Rubio, and in the ensuing scrum, the Ohioan sneaked through untouched to narrowly finish second. With 16 percent, he actually did a bit worse than Huntsman, but context is everything.
If you look at the exit polls from New Hampshire, Kasich’s narrow but sufficient (in this state, anyway) path to second place was pretty clear: He won 20 percent or more among self-identified moderates, those earning over $200,000, people who perceive themselves as “getting ahead financially,” voters focused on the economy and jobs, and those who reject banning Muslim immigration and favor a path to legalization for the undocumented. It’s very important to understand that voters like this are not in heavy supply in South Carolina or in the southern states that crowd the calendar on March 1. With both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio struggling to survive in what’s left of the “Establishment Lane,” Kasich can no longer expect a relatively benign treatment from other candidates. His willingness to defend a Medicaid expansion is the rankest heresy charge he will face, though there are already signs that his budget-cutting record will be savaged in the Palmetto State by Bush ally Lindsey Graham for threatening defense spending, a holy sacrament in that state sagging with military facilities. It’s unclear how Kasich will respond other than by spending little time in South Carolina and hoping he can somehow remain viable until Michigan and his own Ohio vote on March 8 and March 15 (respectively). He has zero infrastructure in the intervening states, in any event, and it’s unclear whether his New Hampshire showing will loosen many purse strings on his behalf.
Kasich could presumably zigzag strategically and stop trying to sound less conservative than his own record would indicate. But it seems like the issue that gets him personally excited is that perpetual snoozer, a balanced budget constitutional amendment. At a moment when conservatives appear to have again forgotten about fiscal probity in their zeal to cut taxes and deport immigrants and prosecute Middle Eastern wars, Kasich appears more than a bit out of touch.
All in all, Kasich’s moment in the sun doesn’t look likely to last very long. He could perhaps be lifted over the many obstacles to this nomination — or at least kept in contention until those April and May primary states where self-identifed moderates again walk the earth in sizable numbers — if Republican elites concluded he was their best bet to keep Donald Trump and Ted Cruz away from the nomination. But to paraphrase the late journalist Hunter Thompson, counting on John Kasich to stop Donald Trump is a bit like sending out a three-toed sloth to seize turf from a wolverine. Who would want to place a multi-million-dollar bet on that?