“Go into the hole!” John Kasich yells as he smacks a golf ball straight and far down the driving range of the Portsmouth Country Club on a New Hampshire afternoon that feels more like high summer than mid-fall. After stumping to a group of Rotarians inside the clubhouse, the Republican governor of Ohio is taking a break from his long-shot presidential campaign by practicing his impressive swing. Thwack. “That’s just ridiculous!” he says approvingly. Thwack. “Unbelievable!” Thwack. “It’s Lebron-like, it’s just that good.”
Unfortunately for Kasich, the golf course is one of the few places where he is connecting on the campaign trail. It’s partly his fault: At the Fox Business debate in Milwaukee a few days later, he exasperatedly interrupted and scolded his rivals, delivering what by all accounts was an off-putting performance. The most widely discussed moment came when audience members jeered him for saying he would protect federally insured bank deposits during a crisis — a mainstream position that has been the foundation of our financial system for eight decades.
His peevish performance may have been bad politics, but it is understandable. During a normal year, Kasich’s résumé would have positioned him as the most qualified and electable conservative in the field: He’s a former House budget chair and Armed Services Committee member; former Fox News host; and a twice-elected, Jesus-loving, pro-life governor of a must-win swing state. “I’ve got more conservative credentials than just about anybody,” he tells me. “I’ve cut more taxes, balanced more budgets. I am the conservative.”
Instead, he finds himself mocked by his party’s base as a liberal turncoat in a way that echoes the reaction to Jon Huntsman’s short-lived 2012 campaign. After the Fox debate, RedState founder Erick Erickson labeled Kasich an “ass.” Brent Bozell tweeted: “Remember Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff and landing with a pathetic ‘poof’? That was the Kasich campaign tonight.” Even the Times’ reform-minded conservative Ross Douthat was pessimistic: “The fastest way to lose a G.O.P. nomination is by running against movement conservatism writ large.”
In a GOP primary held hostage by radicals who want to blow up the system, Kasich’s reasonableness — he supports the Obamacare Medicaid expansion, backs immigration reform, and believes climate change is real — makes him the radical in the race. “I’ve had a handful of Democratic fund-raisers ask me to connect them to the Kasich people because they want to donate a significant sum. If there was a party of the center, John Kasich would be the leading candidate,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz told me last month. “It’s tough for him to be successful because there’s not a lot of centrist Republicans anymore.” Even in New Hampshire, apparently. On Fox News after the debate, Luntz said that Kasich’s performance scored the lowest rating he’d ever seen with a focus group of New Hampshire voters.
But Kasich is betting that New Hampshire returns to its senses. In state polls he’s been beating fellow Establishmentarians Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. “New Hampshire should rename itself Cape Canaveral, because New Hampshire is the place that launches people into the national consciousness,” Kasich says. He’s built the largest field organization in the state with 16 paid staffers; spent the most on advertising; and secured key endorsements from local power brokers, including former senators John Sununu and Gordon Humphrey and former attorney general Tom Rath. Since declaring his candidacy in July, Kasich has held two dozen town-hall meetings in the state and plans to get to a hundred by February.
Kasich is following a strategy that worked for another cranky candidate loathed by the party’s base: John McCain. McCain’s former Svengali, John Weaver, is Kasich’s chief strategist. Since 2008, Weaver has been looking for a candidate to rekindle the McCain magic. In 2012, he thought he’d found him in Huntsman. Now he’s banking on Kasich. “He can win in a general election, which at the end of day is the whole point of this,” Weaver tells me.
The most visible element of the Weaver strategy is the Kasich bus, a red, white, and blue coach modeled on McCain’s fabled Straight Talk Express. But in the age of Trump and Twitter, the bus seems like an anachronism from a more hopeful moment in the GOP’s history. Riding along are three of Kasich’s longtime friends from his years in the House, when he was a party hero (Kasich balanced the budget, pushed welfare reform, and voted to impeach Bill Clinton). Even the movies are old: Raoul Walsh’s 1941 Western They Died With Their Boots On, about Custer’s last stand, plays silently on the bus’s TV.
Back on the bus after golf, Kasich is buoyed by his speech to the Rotarians, even if Trump is leading in New Hampshire by double digits. “People think problems are so bad that they’re looking for something dramatically different. It’s like having a football team that’s 0 and 6 and saying, ‘Why don’t we just recruit people out of the stands to play the next game?’” Kasich says. “But that never happens, and people settle down.”
Kasich’s mood turns when an aide comes over to brief him on the next event, a student panel on the economy at the University of New Hampshire. “You’ll ask questions and the audience will ask questions.”
“I ask questions of whom?” Kasich snaps.
“Of the panel,” the aide explains.
“Why am I doing that?”
“Well, you give your opening statement— ”
“Opening statement! I mean, what is this? I’m asking people questions? They’re not asking me?”
Perhaps realizing he’s starting to flip out in front of a reporter, Kasich turns back to me. “Go ahead,” he says.
I ask whether he’d accept a VP slot if he doesn’t win the nomination. Kasich’s commanding reelection in Ohio — he won with over 60 percent of the vote in 2014 — would seem to position him as a formidable vice-presidential candidate. But he says he’s not interested. “Look, I’m trying to get the best job in the country. And if don’t get it, I have the second-best job in the country,” he says of his governorship.
The sun is setting when we pull into the UNH campus. “Is this the best you can do?” Kasich says in jest, greeting an associate professor and some students.“I have questions about the economy for you,” an eager boy says.
“If they’re hard, it won’t be a good ending for you!” Kasich chortles.
As the town hall begins, Kasich takes his place in front of a large electronic debt clock whizzing digits. The questions are friendly, save for a handful of green-energy protesters and a woman who challenges his stance on Planned Parenthood (he wants to defund it). He talks about his plan to bridge the partisan divide, balance the budget, and reform health care. “Leadership is the ability to walk the lonely road,” he says. “You’re not in politics to be a Republican or a Democrat as the first priority. You’re an American before you’re a member of a political party.”
It’s dark when we pile into the bus for the drive to the final town hall of the day in Londonderry. The TV is now tuned to the Golf Channel. Kasich asks the driver to pull over at Dunkin’ Donuts so he can get a coffee and do a power walk around the Home Depot parking lot, a ritual the 62-year-old fitness freak has adopted on the trail.
No one recognizes Kasich as we wait to order. Under the fluorescent glare, he looks exhausted — this is his sixth state in five days. Tomorrow he has three more events and a flight to New York to appear on Colbert. It’s a tough — and yes, lonely — road. But Kasich is sanguine. “I’m not going to change,” he said. “It’s not worth it to me. Winning wrong is not winning in my mind.”
*A version of this article appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.