In Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm explains why chaos theory makes it likely that the seemingly planned and controlled island theme park is likely to erupt into mayhem and violence. Anyone who wants to understand how the GOP nomination race will end up should read those pages from the novel, because John Kasich’s attacks on Donald Trump are a perfect example of chaos theory in action.
According to Dr. Malcolm, chaos theory explains how complex systems like weather react to various impulses. These complex systems have an underlying order, an order that seems random but actually is not. Study can reveal this order and allow scientists to predict what will happen as events impact upon that order. In a famous example in these passages, Dr. Malcolm explains “the butterfly effect,” how a butterfly batting its wings in Beijing creates a series of events that changes the weather in New York.
Kasich’s attacks on Trump could end up being that butterfly effect, impacting the underlying order of the GOP nomination process to either propel him to the front (very unlikely) or start a process precipitated by his withdrawal that leads to the coalescing of moderates behind another candidate to devastating effect.
To understand why this is so, let’s review the GOP’s underlying order. The party contains four primary factions: very conservative evangelicals, very conservative seculars, somewhat conservatives, and moderates and liberals. The first two group are a bit more than a third of the party nationally, the moderates are a bit less than thirty percent, and the somewhat conservatives are between 35 and 40 percent. To win, a candidate must win majorities of either the moderates or the two very conservative factions AND get a majority of the somewhat conservatives.
Candidates use the early primaries to gain publicity, which signals similar voters in the rest of the country that this is someone they should look at. In practice, once a candidate wins an early state that favors one of the four factions, that person becomes that faction’s favorite for the remainder of the primary season.
Iowa’s GOP electorate heavily favors the very conservative factions, especially the evangelical one. New Hampshire, on the other hand, is moderate heaven. Candidates seeking to win there usually court the moderates, as getting their support is the key to winning and getting the national press needed to mount a national campaign.
John Kasich has been running this “go left” strategy in New Hampshire since the moment he got in the race. And it has worked, but only to a point. After an early burst of advertising in August pushed him to 12.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics New Hampshire poll average, he has gradually slumped to where he is now running sixth with 7.2 percent. With less cash than other candidates and no momentum nationally or in other states, Kasich must start to move up in New Hampshire – or else.
Kasich’s problem is that he is splitting the New Hampshire moderate vote with others. In the most recent Boston Herald/Suffolk University poll, he leads among moderates but with only 16 percent of their votes. Trump (15%), Rubio (14%), Bush (11%), and Christie (8%) are close behind. The most recent CBS/YouGov poll shows something similar: Trump leading among moderates with 24 percent, followed by Kasich (17%), Rubio (14%), and Christie (10%).
This is far too low for Kasich. He (and his main competitors for moderates, Bush and Christie) need to win at least 30 percent of moderates to have a prayer of winning New Hampshire. And that’s where attacking Trump comes in.
Trump not only runs well among moderates himself; he is a lightening rod for moderates who aren’t supporting him. Polls show that moderates who don’t like Trump really hate him. Kasich’s camp must have concluded that attacking Trump in New Hampshire can both drive Trump’s numbers down AND start to peel away moderates from the other candidates by making him the locus of the anti-Trump movement.
Here’s where it gets interesting and where thinking like Dr. Malcolm pays off. If Kasich’s attacks work, he will move up and Bush, Christie, and Rubio will move down. That will give Kasich a needed boost that could convince donors sitting on the sideline to contribute to his SuperPAC, giving him more resources to continue his attacks.
That in turn would force Bush and Christie especially to figure out how to combat the Kasich rise, as their campaigns would have no hope of winning if they lose New Hampshire. That could force them to mimic Kasich’s attacks, making them “me too” anti-Trumpers. Or they could start to attack Kasich to drive down his numbers. If Kasich’s attacks work, New Hampshire is about too become nastier.
The likelier outcome, however, is that Kasich’s attacks don’t work. Moderates who aren’t backing Trump already don’t like him: Kasich’s ads simply remind those voters of reasons why they feel that way. If the ads don’t also move their allegiance to Kasich, the Ohio Governor faces a very hard decision of whether to stay in the race. He will have spent the bulk of his SuperPAC money with not enough to show for it, and Rubio and Bush have already reserved enough air time in January and February to dominate the New Hampshire airwaves.
Kasich’s departure from the race, should it occur, would then free up his sizable share of the moderate vote. The anti-Trump vote would start to coalesce, giving Bush, Rubio, or the newly resurgent Christie a much-needed boost in the polls. That in turn will drive a new narrative: Bush fixes it, Rubio surges more, or Christie storms back. And that, in turn will . . well, you get the picture.
Kasich’s New Hampshire attacks right now might float like a butterfly. But one way or another, to his benefit or someone else’s, they will soon sting like a bee.