If resume and electoral record were the primary criteria for a presidential candidacy, John Kasich would be in the top-tier. Heck, He might even be at the very top. But if resume and electoral record were the primary factors, we would be living through the second term of President Bill Richardson.
Kasich’s combination of high-level state, federal, legislative, and executive experience (House committee chairman, governor) compares very favorably with that of any other likely presidential candidate in either major party. Kasich electoral record also seems to strengthen his case. Like many of his rivals, Kasich comes from a large swing state (Ohio), and you can make the case that Kasich has the strongest record as a swing state candidate. He has won his swing state more often than Marco Rubio, and more recently than Jeb Bush or Rick Santorum. He was able to assemble a larger reelection coalition than Scott Walker. Kasich even managed to win 26 percent of the African American vote.
On paper, Kasich should be the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. On paper, the Red Sox should be leading the AL East. Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid and (even more) his defenses of his Medicaid expansion make it almost impossible for Kasich to win over those voters who are currently supporting Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul. The party’s dissident right would probably support him in the general election, but it is unlikely those voters will go for him in the early nominating contests.
That leaves Kasich with having to appeal to the nominating electorate’s “somewhat conservative” voters. These are the voters who are basically conservative on both economic and social issues, but who ultimately want someone who would be a competent president and a reasonably strong general election candidate. Basing your candidacy around the somewhat conservative voters isn’t so bad. As Henry Olsen pointed out, the candidate favored by the somewhat conservative voters usually gets the nomination.
But will somewhat conservative voters ever decide they want Kasich? Kasich has been reported as saying that Jeb Bush’s weakness indicates there is an opening. That is one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is that Bush’s seeming weakness is a sign of an extremely strong field.
Romney had the somewhat conservative voters almost entirely to himself for most of the 2012 cycle. Tim Pawlenty’s campaign never got off the ground. Jon Huntsman (who had a more conservative record than Romney) made the bizarre and politically suicidal decision to run as if he despised Republican voters. Rick Perry might have had some appeal to somewhat conservative voters, but Perry’s campaign was destroyed by the Texas governor’s lack of preparation for federal-level policy and public opinion dynamics. Romney’s biggest advantage was that the somewhat conservative voters were like Richard Gere in “An Officer and a Gentleman”. They had nowhere else to go.
Somewhat conservative voters have some choices now. Bush, Walker, and Rubio are all plausible candidates for somewhat conservative voters, and all are ahead of Kasich. This leaves Kasich to fight it out with Chris Christie and the reanimated Rick Perry to become the fourth choice of somewhat conservative voter.
Rick Santorum ended up as the fourth or fifth choice of dissident conservatives in the 2012 cycle, and things worked out pretty well for him. Santorum was the plausible Romney alternative when all the other anti-Romney had collapsed. The problem for Kasich is that Bush, Rubio, and Walker seem likely to have more durable candidacies than Bachmann, Cain, and Gingrich.
That doesn’t mean Kasich shouldn’t run. I want him to run. But where he sees space, I see a crowd.