Politics & Policy

John Kasich’s Exaggerated Momentum

Kasich greets supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, July 24, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Ohio governor John Kasich has doubled his national polling support to the mid-single digits — and some media outlets are treating him as a conquering hero just for edging into the top ten of the GOP presidential race.

At this point, Kasich would snag the tenth and final slot in Thursday’s first Republican debate in Cleveland. If the polls hold, the Ohio governor will just barely avoid the embarrassment of not qualifying for a marquee event held in his own backyard. And yet, the expectations game for the 2016 race is so topsy-turvy — and the media are so eager to talk about any candidate not named Trump or Bush, especially one with a penchant for jabbing at other Republicans — that this may be enough to generate a “Kasich on the rise” narrative.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer declared that the governor is “rising in the polls at just the right time.” Sunday, Kasich’s campaign eagerly spotlighted a story from The Hill headlined, “Kasich Makes Quick Rise in Polls.” Kasich’s chief strategist, John Weaver, issued a cheery memo pointing to New Hampshire polls and declaring, “We are seeing real momentum here.”

Kasich’s backers have long pointed to his national electability as a strength, and the numbers bear that out. A month ago, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling asked respondents for their opinions of Kasich; 23 percent said “favorable” and 19 percent said “unfavorable.” PPP’s latest poll puts the governor at 29 percent favorable and 15 percent unfavorable, a nice jump. The firm also found last month that in his home state, he leads Hillary Clinton, 47 percent to 40 percent, a margin Quinnipiac’s polling confirmed. A lot of Republicans would eagerly trade their left arm for a nominee who could lock down Ohio in a general election.

Look more closely at the polls, and the Kasich “rise” becomes less convincing.

But look more closely at the polls, and the Kasich “rise” becomes less convincing. Just as the governor’s national electability was always seen as a strength, his viability in a Republican primary was always questionable, and the numbers continue to show why. Deep in the Hill story there’s cause for concern: For all of his post-announcement momentum, Kasich has jumped from 2 percent to 4 percent in the latest CNN poll and from 2 percent to 5 percent in the latest Quinnipiac poll. He’s doubled his support in the RCP average . . . to 3.5 percent. Kasich’s level of support in New Hampshire in the last two polls is 7 percent.

By ordinary standards, support in the mid-single digits is terrible. And it seems a bit silly to see fist-pumping and cartwheels over the two-term GOP governor of a must-win-state sitting a few points ahead of George Pataki and Lindsey Graham.

“In a crowded field, single-digit movement like that is merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the USS Republican,” says Alex Castellanos, a longtime GOP strategist who worked for President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. “It is not overly impressive.”

RELATED: Why Kasich Mattters (and Could Win)

“I don’t see him rising right now,” says Mark Corallo, who was senior strategist and spokesman for Fred Thompson’s 2008 bid. “I see him being a serious candidate, and if he has the fortitude to stick around long enough, he may be able to rise. [But] I don’t see him going anywhere right this moment.”

Kasich’s status as the 16th candidate to declare in a 17-candidate field makes him relatively fresh and interesting to political reporters. And he may become the hot new thing for a media hungry to discuss any candidate other than Donald Trump or Jeb Bush — especially since he rebukes his own party, a habit many corners of the Washington journalistic establishment find absolutely irresistible.

But the Ohioan’s past criticism of his own party, so intriguing and endearing to reporters, could end up being one of his biggest challenges in the primaries.

Kasich famously suggested that his expansion of Ohio’s Medicaid program under Obamacare was the Christian thing to do. “When you die and get to the . . . meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not gonna ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor,” he said. “The conservative movement,” he added, “a big chunk of which is faith-based, seems to have never read Matthew 25″ — a call to feed the hungry and provide care for the ill. He’s contended Republican governors who oppose Common Core don’t really know what’s in it. And he’s pushed for dramatic tax hikes on oil and natural-gas fracking.

RELATED: John Kasich and the Republican Voter

Kasich’s campaign is populated with senior staffers who previously worked for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman — another Republican governor who lectured the rest of his party about conservative positions he deemed extreme and who focused his campaign on New Hampshire. Weaver, the Kasich campaign’s top strategist, and Fred Davis, its ad man, are both alumni of Huntsman’s failed 2012 presidential bid. Before that, they both worked for John McCain, another maverick Republican with a willingness to criticize conservatives who focused his campaigns on the Granite State.

The McCain campaign of 2008 counts as a win for the Weaver-Davis approach in primaries, but Huntsman’s plaudits from non-conservative media proved useless among Republican primary voters in 2012. The Utah governor garnered rave reviews from Mark Shields, Joe Klein, Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, Time’s Michael Scherer, and Jacob Weisberg. But he peaked with a third-place finish in New Hampshire, finishing no better than seventh in any other state. He ended up winning exactly one of the 2,286 Republican delegates in the cycle.

#related#One of the key questions Kasich faces is how many GOP primary voters will support a candidate who criticizes other Republicans from the center, as opposed to the right.

“The knock on him is that he flies by the seat of his pants,” says a GOP strategist who worked with Romney’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and is currently affiliated with another Republican presidential candidate. “By the evidence of his announcement speech, it’s true. The speech was a rambling, hot mess. The other knock is that he’s a hothead. So combine his wobbly ideological moorings, undisciplined manner, and cantankerous personality, and you have a billion-less version of The Donald.”

Of course, Trump can’t say he’s been elected twice statewide in Ohio, the state that’s proven so critical in one national election after another. In the coming months, Republicans will have to decide whether that tempting upside outweighs Kasich’s very real flaws.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review.


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