A big part of the argument for John Kasich as a Republican candidate is that he would be “electable.” Now, there’s a very longstanding debate across the conservative movement over the role that “electability” should play in picking political candidates — you can’t do the job if you can’t get the job, after all. But even if you put a very high premium on “electability,” you have to use some judgment: Who is and isn’t electable is often more about the candidate’s talents, likeability and fit with the mood and the terrain than his or her ideological positioning in the abstract. Ideology, experience, electoral history, natural coalition, and matchups with the likely opponent all matter. And in the environment of 2016, however you measure “electability,” John Kasich isn’t the guy to deliver it.
1. Republican candidates need Republican voters. The critics of Mitt Romney and John McCain have tended to overstate the number of conservative voters who stayed home in 2012 and 2008, and the fact that Obama was able to win the 2012 election mostly just on base turnout does not mean that Republicans can do the same in 2016 (not only for demographic reasons but also because base-turnout elections are easier to win with an incumbent). But weak turnout in many swing states compared to 2004 is still a problem the GOP has to overcome to win.
And Kasich’s appeal to Republican voters and activists is so anemic that he has taken to joking he’s in the wrong party’s primary and posturing himself as a compromise between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. That’s why he has never topped 6 percent in a single national poll, why he finished below 2 percent in Iowa despite being the only Midwesterner on the ballot in the caucuses, why his favorables with GOP voters have been consistently among the worst in the field (and sometimes have trended downward the more Republican voters get to know him), why he got squashed like a bug when he ran in 2000, and why his poll standing in New Hampshire is dependent almost entirely on his appeal to independents. A candidate who fares that poorly with his own party’s voters is simply never going to draw the marginal voters out in November that the party needs. Even Kasich’s landslide re-election win in 2014 relied more on depressed Democratic turnout than excited Republicans — fewer people voted for Kasich in 2014 than voted against legalizing marijuana on Election Day 2015, in an election with no statewide candidates on the ballot.
The signs of trouble Kasich would have with Republican voters should have been signaled when he hired John Weaver, the man behind the 2012 Jon Huntsman campaign and one of the key advisers to John McCain in 2000 and 2007 (McCain sacked Weaver at a low ebb in 2007 before staging his comeback). Weaver is fond of pushing a “different kind of Republican” message that implicitly suggests to the press that his candidate is not one of the sort of mouth-breathing troglodytes that coastal elites picture as the typical Republican voter. Kasich has happily played into that narrative, and won himself the distinction of every Democrat’s least-unfavorite Republican this year. It’s how he was endorsed by the New York Times and most of the newspapers in New Hampshire. But voters are bright enough to know when they’re being insulted. The problem with running a campaign that suggests your own party’s voters are the problem is that you might actually need those voters’ support to win. And while Kasich might do well with independents, devoted Democrats are still going to look at things like his pro-life record and decide they would rather vote for a real Democrat. At best, he’d be the guy Democrats would feel a little bit bad voting against.
2. Ohio isn’t everything. Sure, Kasich remains well-liked in Ohio, and no Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio, while only two Republicans since 1892 (Dewey in 1944 and Nixon in 1960) have won Ohio without winning the election. But even if you could flip Ohio and Pennsylvania and New Hampshire from 2012, you’d still lose the Electoral College 290–248. You need to break into some states where the GOP base is more conservative or religious than it is in Ohio (Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa) or more libertarian (Nevada) or more blue-collar populist (Michigan, Minnesota). It’s impossible for any national candidate to be a perfectly tailored fit for all of those places, and with very rare exceptions like 1948 and 2000, the geographic distribution of the national popular vote hasn’t mattered much. The best bet is to pick the best national candidate and compete in as many states as possible rather than trying to pick off a single state with a locally well-liked individual.
3. Kasich is totally out of step in 2016. The big story of 2004 was that George W. Bush drove record turnout among Evangelical Christians, exurban conservatives, and other Republican-leaning but typically disengaged groups. The big story of 2012 was that Obama beat Mitt Romney by cornering the market on young, non-white voters. The big story of 2015–16 has been the populist revolt that led to the rise of Donald Trump and the collapse of many of the most experienced candidates in the field.
The big strategic debate in the GOP and the conservative movement right now is which path to take to rebuild the coalition: the Ted Cruz base-turnout-is-everything path of trying to locate more Evangelical Christians and ideological conservatives is modeled mostly on 2004; the Marco Rubio path of trying to dial down the Democrats’ margins with young and Hispanic voters is modeled mostly on 2012; and the Trump campaign is built on the idea that 2016 is different and the old ways of political experience are giving way to a revolt against anyone involved in the system. There’s obviously some overlap in those theories — Rubio is also chasing religious conservatives, and Cruz is also chasing Trump’s disaffected white working-class voters.
But Kasich is completely out of step with all three. He doesn’t work for the Trump model because he’s been in office since the 1970s, has softened his immigration stance since he ran for governor, preaches bipartisan deal-making like he’s talking to an audience of Washington Post writers, and in general sounds very much like the onetime Budget Committee chair he was, not like an angry torches-and-pitchforks populist ready to raze the system. He doesn’t work for the Cruz model of “bring out the people who stayed home on Romney” because his embrace of Obamacare places him on the wrong side of the very issue that Romney was most conspicuously weak on. And he doesn’t work for the Rubio model because he’s a 64-year-old white male Midwesterner who looks and sounds very much like your grandfather’s Republican. At a time when Trump, Cruz, and Rubio are all selling variations on “let’s try something new,” Kasich would run against Hillary Clinton on a platform of . . . trying to bring back the way Washington worked when the Clintons were in the White House.
And while Kasich has a certain rumpled, crusty appeal, he’s hardly the most charismatic or forceful personality onstage. His speeches are notoriously long and rambling, and he tends to use the Bible to hector people who disagree with him far more than the more socially conservative Cruz or Rubio.
4. The Big Leagues are different. Even popular and experienced statewide politicians have sometimes wilted when exposed to the different terrain of a national election, in part because they get defined by negative attacks in ways that would not have resonated with local voters who have known them for years. Every candidate has some unexplored vulnerabilities — the most obvious for Kasich is the eight years he spent between Congress and his run for governor cashing in as a managing director of now-defunct investment bank Lehman Brothers. Both Donald Trump and Chris Christie’s super PAC have hit Kasich over his Lehman years already. As Mitt Romney can testify, there are few things Democrats love to attack more than an opponent’s business career.
Maybe Republicans in 2016 need to be younger, or angrier, or more charming, or more conservative to win. John Kasich is a perfectly good Ohio politician, but he is none of those things. Kasich might have hit the sweet spot for Republicans in a year like 1968, when the party was looking to offer stability and veer back to the middle after Goldwater. But even if you ignore the many hurdles he would need to win the nomination and set aside your preferences for the candidates’ various policies, there’s no reason to to view him as the “electable” Republican.