Ohio governor John Kasich does not immediately leap to mind when most people think of the Republican likeliest to remain standing next spring. That’s a pity, because he is slowly positioning himself to become the person most likely to surprise and break out of the crowded pack.
One must understand the nature and distribution of the GOP primary electorate to appreciate Kasich’s chances. For all the focus on the most conservative elements, the party actually has four discernible factions in presidential nominating contests. The most vocal elements, the “very conservative” voters, divide into two of those factions. One is more interested in religion and social issues and prefers candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. The other is more interested in fiscal issues and prefers people like Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm. Together, they comprise about one-third of GOP primary and caucus voters nationwide, although they are much more numerous in the South and less important in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.
The single largest faction is the “somewhat conservative” group, a.k.a. the establishment. This is the group that likes Bob Dole, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain circa 2008. As one might expect given the group’s size, their favorite usually gets the nomination provided he has strong support among of the other factions as well. For George W. Bush, those factions were both of the very conservative tribes on the party’s right. For the others, however, the support came from the party’s final faction, the moderates.
Even today self-described moderates and liberals comprise about 25–30 percent of the national GOP electorate. More important, they are the single largest faction in New Hampshire, the other New England states, and the Mid-Atlantic states of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. They are also sizeable in California, Florida, and the Midwest states bordering the Great Lakes. Any candidate who sweeps those states, using New Hampshire as his launching pad, automatically is a serious contender.
Kasich is currently working the donor community to become competitive with Jeb Bush among the establishment faction. That is all well and good: No candidate can win without ultimately being this group’s favorite. But the competition here is fierce, and Kasich starts out behind not only Bush, but also Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie for this group’s support. If he runs a campaign trying to be the more palatable Jeb Bush, he will be following in the footsteps of Tim Pawlenty, who tried to market himself to the establishment as the more palatable Mitt Romney in 2012. Pawlenty’s effort failed, and so would Kasich’s if he puts all of his eggs in this basket.
But I doubt he will. Kasich’s recent hiring of Fred Davis and John Weaver suggests he is looking at being the moderate’s choice. These men worked for John McCain’s winning 2008 campaign, which the Arizona Senator prevailed by winning large margins among moderates and running even with Romney among establishment conservatives in the early races. They also worked on Jon Huntsman’s failed 2012 effort, which also tried to put together a center-left coalition focused on wining New Hampshire. This, combined with Kasich’s very vocal support of Medicaid expansion and other increased government support for poor people, points to a race that will run against the party’s rightward tide.
Republican moderates like candidates with strong personalities, people who vocally stand up for what they believe and run counter to the cut-government mantra favored on the right. They like balanced budgets over tax cuts (although they don’t mind those); they care more about keeping programs working than about cutting or eliminating them; they care a lot more about using government to empower the average person than they do about shrinking it to help the exceptional one do better. Kasich’s Ohio record passes each of these litmus tests. He’s expanded government support for the poor while keeping budgets balanced and cutting taxes for everyone, and he’s not shy about telling people that he’s doing something morally right.
Moreover, he seems unlikely to follow Huntsman’s odd trip down the rabbit hole that led him to run more as a centrist Democrat than as a moderate Republican. Huntsman should have run as the candidate who favored balanced budgets over tax cuts; when he agreed with all other candidates on the stage when asked if he would raise taxes if offered $10 in spending cuts in exchange for $1 in tax hikes, he clearly signaled he had no clue as to who his potential voters were. Instead, he ran as a candidate more interested in climate change than in fiscal responsibility. It was no surprise, then, that the only groups Huntsman won in New Hampshire were self-described Democrats, opponents of the Tea Party, and those satisfied with Obama.
In contrast, Kasich seems to understand why he is running and how it fits within the Republican consensus — and how he can exploit where it does not to his advantage.
If Kasich runs this way, he would be the only candidate courting the Republican Left, and thus would stand a very good chance of gaining a large share of their vote in the crucial early races. Moderates or liberals were about 17 percent of the Iowa caucus electorate; winning a large share of them and placing third among establishment conservatives would probably ensure Kasich exceeds expectations and finishes in the top three. He would then be well positioned in New Hampshire, where moderates and liberals have comprised between 42 and 49 percent of the GOP electorate since 1996. A New Hampshire victory would launch the Kasich rocket ship and make him a serious contender.
Such a Kasich launch would probably doom Bush. National polls have consistently shown that Bush gets his highest level of support among moderates and liberals. Indeed, he does so poorly among the very conservative factions that his nomination virtually depends on him running up large margins on the party’s left to offset his weakness on the right. Should Kasich attract these voters, he would do much more to torpedo the man who currently holds favor among the establishment than a frontal assault on Bush’s strength there could ever accomplish. And once Bush is gone, the party’s center then has to find a new favorite, and guess who might look attractive if the alternative were Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, or Mike Huckabee?
This strategy is quite risky. The very bold, aggressive, counterintuitive campaign needed to excite the party’s Left could outrage the party’s Right. Done poorly, it could even anger the establishment. But given the fact that that both the party’s right and center are filled with a plethora of stronger candidates, one should not be surprised if Kasich might find the risk worth taking.
And think about what prize might be in store for him if he does break out without alienating the party base. As a favorite of non-traditional Republicans and the governor of the quintessential swing state, Ohio, Kasich would be a lock to be the nominee’s V.P. pick. Imagine a Rubio-Kasich ticket, with home state appeal in the two closest swing states and demographic appeal to two groups Republicans need to win the presidency, Latinos and blue-collar Midwestern whites. A Walker-Kasich ticket gives a clear Midwest-first flavor, forcing the Democrats to compete in terrain in which they were annihilated in 2014. Florida is close enough that a strong ticket could win it anyway (it was the closest state in 2012), and adding Wisconsin, Florida, Iowa, and Ohio to Romney’s 206 electoral votes gives the Republican nominee 269, a tie that the GOP-dominated House would surely break in the nominee’s favor.
I’m not saying this will happen. But I think it very well could, and anyone who discounts this possibility is simply ignoring past history. Someone lagging in the mid-odd year polls always breaks out by courting an underserved faction. It was Forbes in 1996, McCain in 2000, Huckabee in 2008, and Santorum in 2012. The question isn’t “if,” it’s “who.” And John Kasich is my choice as of right now to be the GOP’s horse of a different color next February.
— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.