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.
Also, while support for Kasich among likely Republicans may be high, most Republicans in Ohio are disengaged from the gubernatorial race. A CBS poll showed that only 43 percent of Republicans said they were paying a lot of attention to the campaign — a higher figure than the 36 percent of Democrats, but given that Democrats outnumber Republicans by roughly 1 million voters as of 2008, that’s still a disadvantage for Kasich in absolute numbers. Kasich’s commanding lead among the 40 percent of enthusiastic independent voters (who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans by a large margin) can help make this up, but if he wants to return to his devastating previous poll results, he needs to get the roughly 12 percent of Republican voters who don’t support him yet to commit, widen his lead among independents even further, and pick up a higher level of Democratic support — à la Rob Portman, who has succeeded at all three.
Kasich’s underexposure in base-friendly media markets, while it may have something to do with this, is by no means the deciding factor. In a state that lacks visible statewide leadership for the Tea Party, yet still has above-average Tea Party membership and is deeply wary of uncertainty, it is far more likely to be a symptom of Kasich’s not saying the right things. As of now, the biggest difference between Kasich and Rob Portman is that unlike Portman, who has released a detailed jobs plan that he mentions in every debate, Kasich has yet to release a comprehensive policy agenda of any kind. Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute, argues that Kasich’s path to victory is in selling himself forthrightly as Ohio’s version of New Jersey governor Chris Christie — not the moderate, relatively vague Christie of the 2009 campaign, but the pugnacious, direct, impossible-to-intimidate Christie of today.
“Both candidates’ failures to give specifics have frustrated Ohioans. My guess is that Strickland can get away with that more because he does have a record as governor,” Mayer says. “He’s like a bowl of oatmeal — it’s bland, you know what it is, and it’s gonna fill up your belly maybe, but you’re not gonna really get excited about that bowl of oatmeal. Kasich is like a spicy burrito. You might want it, but you don’t know if it’s too spicy, or if there are some ingredients in there you may not like. But if you knew a little more about what was in it, and how spicy it was, you might be more willing to trade that bowl of oatmeal for that spicy breakfast burrito.”
According to a poll conducted by the Buckeye Institute in July, 85 percent of Ohio voters support making the the Buckeye State a right-to-work state. Moreover, when it comes to options for fixing the state’s finances, raising taxes attracts only 16 percent support, coming in dead last behind cutting spending (36 percent) and cutting public-sector-employee compensation (43 percent). Yet Kasich has declined to support right-to-work legislation and has not taken a strong stance against the overcompensation of public employees — or even specified spending he would cut, for that matter.
Some observers, however, disagree that it’s time for Kasich to get specific. Jon Keeling, author of the conservative Ohio-based blog Third Base Politics, argues that “it’s too late to really inform people about anything substantial.” Rather, Keeling says, “the most effective strategy at this point is to take advantage of Strickland’s flatlined support, and that’s done by utilizing the promises Strickland made in his 2006 campaign against him.”
What is not contested is that if Kasich wants to return to the commanding poll margins of last month, he needs to offer what Phyllis Schlafly would call a choice, not an echo, either by drawing contrasts between himself and Strickland’s failed record, or by putting forward dynamic ideas of his own. Ted Strickland has been triangulating his way into desperate “me-tooism” — but Kasich’s fragile lead dictates that he should avoid doing the same, given that his support has its roots in hope for an innovative political vision. As Kasich said at the conclusion of the final gubernatorial debate, it’s morning in Ohio. He needs to give Ohioans something to wake up to.
– Mytheos Holt covers Ohio for National Review Online’s Battle ’10 blog.