The Kasich Conundrum

By | 3/21/2016 Leave a Comment

Who could have imagined back in the summer of 2015 – when the Republican primary candidate field comprised of a whopping 17 presidential hopefuls – that when the smoke had cleared and the competitors had been whittled down to a mere three, that Governor John Kasich would be one of those still standing?

Remember those early debates when Trump, Carson, Bush, Cruz, Walker and Rubio held court center stage, while the outliers struggled to get their voices heard? You know the ones I’m talking about – the ones at the very end of the lineup who would occasionally be thrown a quick question from one of the moderators, before a quick pivot back to the ratings-generating star contenders. They were the afterthoughts of the debates, the ones who were generating 2% or 3% in the polls – enough to get them a spot on the main stage and avoid the ignominy of being placed at the kiddies table with Bobby Jindal and George Pataki. But no one really wanted to hear what they had to say. They were more of an annoyance to most viewers; a necessary but tiresome concession to the democratic process. The audience would fidget in their seats as the underdogs tried to make the most of their brief moment in the spotlight, all eager get back to what the big names were saying…or more often than not, what Donald Trump was saying.

As the debate schedule continued to unfurl and fall turned into winter, the faces of those lonely occupants of the edges would also change, as one campaign after another would be “suspended.” But there was one face that never changed; one that could be relied upon to pop up at the end of the podium line come rain or come shine: John Kasich. Content to bide his time and wait his turn, he pitched his tent at the outer limits of the stage and refused to go. And, much to the chagrin of the Cruz campaign and the party establishment, he’s still refusing to go.

Despite repeated attempts to get him to drop out of the race – some subtle, some blatant – by Cruz and his nose-holding establishment allies, Mr. Kasich has made it quite clear that he’s in it to the end. Even though he has no hope of reaching the required 1,237 delegates needed to get the nomination himself (a simple fact, not an opinion), he nonetheless insists on campaigning to the end, picking up as many delegates as his quixotic campaign will allow him. 

His contention is that neither Trump nor Cruz will be able to reach the magic number before the circus rolls into town in Cleveland in July, making a contested convention inevitable. In that scenario, he claims, he would be the obvious choice for the nomination when ballots are tallied and allegiances switched, since he would be the only moderate candidate left in the running, and consequently the only electable choice in the general election. 

But would he really? Is there really a plausible scenario where the overwhelming delegate totals of Trump and Cruz are handed over in large part to an also-ran who generated little interest or excitement outside of his home state? Perhaps Kasich truly believes that there is. Or perhaps, as has been suggested, he’s angling for a vice president spot, despite his claims to the contrary. He is, after all, the very popular governor of Ohio – a “must win” state in the general to any candidate – and as such a potentially valuable asset to Trump or Cruz. On top of that, his more moderate conservative positions on a presidential ticket could help soften some of the more polarizing edges of the other two. And he, of course, is well aware of this.

The latest attempt to oust him from the campaign is the suggestion from Cruz that by remaining in the race, Kasich is essentially acting as a spoiler, enabling Trump to gain more votes than he otherwise would. The logic behind this conclusion, however, is difficult to fathom. Kasich’s supporters – who may be few in some states but are actually quite significant in others – are by and large attracted to him because of the more moderate brand of social and economic conservatism he offers. Were he to drop out, it’s very difficult to see how the vast majority of them flock to the hard-right, religious conservatism espoused by Mr. Cruz. If anything, the varied, ever-changing and often unknown social and fiscal positions of Mr. Trump might seem a more natural fit for them.

But perhaps the most ironic aspect to Kasich’s continued participation in the nominating race is his current relationship with the party’s establishment. On paper, of the three remaining candidates, he should be the one receiving their blessing and exultation as the only rational choice for Republican voters (and independents and Reagan Democrats, for that matter). He fits the bill of a more moderate conservative with crossover appeal; someone with a proven track record of successful governance; someone likely to attract a more diverse electorate, especially among the much sought after Hispanic vote, where both Trump and Cruz (despite his last name) have alienated so many from that demographic in their respective ways. With their hopes for Bush, then Rubio, shot down in flames, Kasich should logically be the next palatable recipient in line for their bucks and backing.

And yet he isn’t. He isn’t because he has no shot at winning – at least not through the normal channels of the process. So they are forced to hold their noses very tightly, ignore the sharp pain of what sticks in their craw, and put the full weight of support of the Grand Old Party behind a candidate who in any other circumstances would be considered an anathema.

Mr. Kasich currently has fewer delegates in hand than a candidate who’s no longer even in the race (Mr. Rubio). Yet in the race he remains…his tent pitched firmly in its hinterlands, just where it’s always been.

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