A month ago, Ohio’s Republican gubernatorial hopeful, John Kasich, seemed to have nothing to worry about. His opponent, incumbent governor Ted Strickland, was running an unfocused, attack-of-the-week-style campaign. Kasich’s lead in the polls stretched into the high teens, and his relentlessly cheery, ruthlessly policy-oriented campaign looked almost as disciplined and well-run as the Rob Portman campaign for Ohio’s open Senate seat.
Flash forward to now. Kasich’s lead has shrunk. At best, he leads Governor Strickland by eight or nine points.
Kasich is not exactly in dire straits — only two recent polls show Strickland earning 45 percent of the vote or above, and those two polls surveyed the lowest numbers of people. As RealClearPolitics notes
, “Incumbents under 50 percent at this point in the game usually do not win; incumbents under 45 percent almost never win. Until Strickland consistently posts numbers in the 47/48 point range, he will be the underdog.”
Nonetheless, faced with the strange development of Kasich’s losing so much ground, Democrats are beating the drums in celebration, Republicans are seeking to downplay the results, and the media are scratching their heads as to what happened.
Liberals argue that Kasich has been the victim of a methodical, ruthless rope-a-dope strategy on the part of the Strickland campaign. In this version of events, Strickland sat back and let Kasich pummel him with negativity without saying anything — and then hit back twice as hard once Kasich had gotten overconfident. But at the statewide level, that’s precisely the reverse of what actually happened. While the Republican Governors’ Association ran some fairly blistering attack ads during September, the Kasich campaign itself did virtually no negative campaigning at all, instead opting for a message so sunny and positive it verged on corny. The Strickland campaign, meanwhile, ran nothing but stridently anti-business attack ads prior to the first gubernatorial debate, hitting Kasich for everything from outsourcing jobs to causing the financial crisis. Sources close to the Kasich campaign described this as an odd political role reversal, with Strickland running like a challenger despite his incumbent status, and Kasich running like an incumbent despite his challenger status. Given that Kasich recently began going negative using Strickland’s taxation record, if anybody used a rope-a-dope strategy, it was he.
Still, the liberal narrative gets one thing right: If the race is tightening, it is more a story of Kasich’s decline than of Strickland’s rise.
To be sure, Strickland has made politically wise decisions in recent weeks, and these may have reduced the enthusiasm gap. For one thing, following a stronger-than-expected debate performance against Kasich last month, Strickland has begun running like an incumbent. The governor’s campaign has shifted to more positive ground and begun emphasizing Strickland’s record of tax-cutting and job growth, allowing his party surrogates to sell him to the Left.
In the weeks since the debate, Strickland has saturated Ohio’s three major media markets with positive ads. The Columbus Dispatch reported that between September 20 and September 26, Strickland outspent Kasich by three to one in the Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland markets. Kasich’s campaign began to hit back only this Tuesday (with a fiercely negative campaign ad).
The short-term effect of Strickland’s change of course is borne out by a poll from September 26 taken by the Ohio Newspaper Organization and reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer. The poll shows Kasich leading Strickland by only four points and notes an unusual degree of voter indecisiveness this close to an election, with 55 percent of Strickland voters saying they could change their minds and 45 percent of Kasich voters saying the same.
But Kasich’s failure to inspire his base is a bigger factor. Tuesday’s Quinnipiac poll notes that Kasich’s remaining lead is due almost entirely to his lopsided support among independent likely voters, who support the challenger by 62 to 29. And the markets where he faltered when Strickland began to air ads weren’t moderate or Democratic areas — the left-wing blog Plunderbund gleefully noted that Kasich had trouble in Cincinnati, ordinarily a Republican stronghold.