GOPocalypse, Part 4: The Longshot
This is the fourth article in a five-part series on the 2016 GOP nomination.
John Kasich has largely escaped public opprobrium for his role in propping up Trump. But Kasich rivals Jeb Bush in terms of the opportunities he had to stop Trump. If Jeb had one big thing, Kasich had a bunch of smaller ones.
First was Kasich’s full-throated adoption of what we could call “Weaverism,” which is the approach of veteran Republican strategist John Weaver. Weaver seems to be a perfectly-decent guy, but he has hit upon a campaign strategy that essentially requires the candidate to mock the Republican base. This seems to work very well for getting positive media coverage, but it does not do much in terms of building a coalition to win the Republican nomination. Weaverism gets you less than 20 percent in New Hampshire; it didn’t work for Jon Huntsman, and it didn’t work for John Kasich. It is a dead-end, and it proved to be that, again. (That candidates have not yet seen that this is a futile strategy is staggering. A variety of it worked for John McCain, but McCain, a war hero, is essentially sui generis in American politics. And Kasich is no war hero.)
Kasich’s national poll showings were horrendous throughout the fall; his best poll showing prior to votes being cast, according to Real Clear Politics, was 6 percent, in a Wall Street Journal poll in September 2015. Said showings were so awful that Kasich was nearly booted from the main stage to the “kids’ table” debate, if not for a last minute New Hampshire poll to save him. He could have dropped out in deference to the enormous field, as did Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and Rick Perry, three qualified Republican governors who bowed to the realities of their situations. He didn’t.
Kasich spent more time in New Hampshire in 2015 than almost anyone who isn’t a resident. For all of that, he pulled in less than 16 percent of the vote, less, even, than Huntsman’s share four years prior. Kasich could have dropped out at this point; after all, he’d spent months in the state and finished, at best, an incredibly weak second. Instead, he soldiered on, fighting through an abysmal showing in South Carolina to move to Ohio and Michigan.
Second, once voting started in additional states, it was quite clear that Kasich and Rubio were pulling from the same voters. The best example here, of course, is Virginia, but demographically, Kasich and Rubio had similar coalitions. Indeed, Marco Rubio came very close to knocking off Trump in the high-profile state, where a potential victory might have scrambled the race. Kasich, though, grabbed over 41,000 votes in Rubio’s northern Virginia stronghold (Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington Counties, and Alexandria). Rubio lost the state by fewer than 30,000 votes.
(Indeed, the fundamental dynamic of the race was the establishment failure to coalesce. Combined, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie had the votes to win all of the first three states, with the concomitant positive coverage that such a sweep would have brought. The long-term prognosis for the GOP–with two-thirds of its primary voters opting for people like Cruz and Trump–was troubling, but the establishment had the votes. It just refused to consolidate.)
Third, Kasich served as a backstop for Trump in the later debates. After South Carolina, Rubio and Cruz finally (finally!) decided to take the fight to Trump. And… Trump bled at these debates. He was embarrassed at times, often on his heels. But instead of joining in the fray, every time Kasich spoke, he gave Trump a chance to catch his breath, to recompose himself, to move away from a potential complete meltdown. A good example is below, starting at about 55 minutes in:
This was one of the situations where Trump took on the heaviest fire of the campaign: Rubio was mocking him brutally, and Trump was rattled. The smaller field allowed for candidates to employ more detailed critiques, rather than serving as a chaotic scramble for oxygen. But instead of taking the opportunity to pile on, Kasich backed down, reverting into campaign boilerplate. This is the standard operating procedure for a normal campaign. But it should have been clear by South Carolina that this was no longer a normal campaign. A wolf was at the door. Cruz and Rubio had gotten the message. Kasich could have joined the fray for the sake of his party and his country. He refused. (Note: this might not have been enough to stop the train after South Carolina. He could’ve tried.)
Next: after Florida, Trump decided that he was dropping out of all future debates. Cruz and Kasich could have taken the opportunity to debate one another on FOX News, spending two hours hitting Trump’s cowardice to a national TV audience. Kasich, again, refused. Indeed, following Ohio, there was a plausible path forward: Kasich and Cruz–the two remaining candidates who had won their home states–could have agreed to a “strange bedfellows” ticket against the historic danger of Trump. Having competed in many more primaries and caucuses than Kasich, Cruz obviously deserved the top of the ticket. Kasich did not make any such deal.
Finally, Kasich’s operation was an issue. Kasich claimed to be running a serious campaign, but serious campaigns do not have ballot-access issues and understand delegate allocation rules. Kasich’s campaign frequently erred on these. For example, Kasich could have been ousted from the Pennsylvania ballot and the Illinois ballot. These stories were underdiscussed, but striking:
Kasich’s campaign, according to numbers obtained by POLITICO, has deficits in six congressional districts: the 1st, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th. Specifically, in the 1st district he submitted 203 valid signatures, though the minimum is 337, leaving a deficit of 134. In the 12th district, he submitted 710 valid signatures, but the minimum is 756, leaving a gap of 46 signatures. In the 13th district, he submitted 396 valid signatures, meaning he has a deficit of 343.
In the 14th district, the minimum number of valid signatures required is 861, but Kasich’s campaign submitted just 82, leaving a deficit of 779. In the 15th district Kasich, submitted 833 where 987 are required, so he’s 154 short. And in the 16th congressional district, the campaign submitted 234 — 570 signatures short of the required 804.
For a professional operation, these thresholds should not have been difficult. But Kasich essentially bet the farm on New Hampshire and Ohio, and ignored–quite literally–the entire rest of the country. Why?
In fact, once New Hampshire and Ohio finished, where did Kasich go? To Utah, of course! But this reflected an inaccurate understanding of delegate allocation rules; Kasich’s role in going to Utah served to risk a potential 50% winner-take-all threshold for Cruz, and thereby granting Trump additional delegates.
Again, good campaigns understand and focus on the nuts and bolts of delegate allocation. That Kasich’s operation was so flawed should have been a signal that he didn’t have What It Takes, and should have encouraged him to drop out much sooner. Because of the campaign’s issues, Kasich could only serve as a spoiler, not as a contender. And yet he was the last man standing against Trump.
And then, in the end, after Cruz had dropped out, did Kasich stay in and run as the only moral alternative to Trump, counting on Trump to implode and for prominent Republican officials to want some sort of other option?
Nope. His “heart [wasn’t] in it.”
Let’s summarize. In short, Kasich:
- adopted a strategy of antagonizing the Republican base;
- ran an error-prone operation that made many mistakes;
- had no viable plan after a disappointing showing in New Hampshire;
- refused to attack Donald Trump in debates when it could have made a difference;
- refused to participate in an anti-Trump debate in Trump’s absence;
- refused to join a unity ticket as vice president;
- refused to stay in the race long enough to run as a true, lone Trump alternative once Cruz dropped out.
To his credit, Kasich has held firm in avoiding an endorsement of Trump. He deserves plaudits for that, and there is a certain logic to Kasich-as-the-nominee: sometimes, you want a down-to-Earth Midwesterner to follow tumultuous times. But Kasich could have played a much larger role in stopping this. He didn’t.
Image by aj.hanson1