Where Does John Kasich Go From Here

The biggest surprise of the New Hampshire Republican Primary was John Kasich finishing second behind Donald Trump. For most part of the campaign, Kasich was an afterthought, an also ran who had none of the media craze following Marco Rubio, the insane amount of money backing Jeb Bush or the confrontational, headline generating style of Chis Christie. That he was able to finish ahead of all these candidates speaks highly of the hard work done by him in the state (he held more than a hundred rallies) and his focused and dedicated campaign.

Kasich’s impressive showing has led a number of political analysts to declare the Ohio governor as a big winner of the night. Some even see Kasich now a legitimate contender for the party nomination, arguing that this performance shall propel him to the pole position among the so-called establishment contenders and enable him to strongly challenge Ted Cruz and Donald Trump for the nomination.

Call me cynical, but I am not yet convinced about the viability of a Kasich campaign. There are a number of reasons which I list down below, that makes me think that his campaign does not have what it takes to win the nomination.

Coming Second is no big deal

First of all, coming second in New Hampshire is not such a big deal that it is made out to be. Only one person gets to be the nominee and losing by 20 points to a political outsider in a state where you have campaigned for the last six months does not indicate that you are the likely nominee. In the last election cycle, Ron Paul finished second in the New Hampshire and he did not even come close to winning the nomination. Even the much ridiculed Jon Huntsman who finished third in the 2008 New Hampshire Primary and had to drop out a few days later, had a higher vote share than John Kasich.

Which brings me to Kasich’s vote share. It was a measly 16%, way below Donald Trump’s 35%. Less than one in six people opted to vote for Kasich. And for all the positive press it generated, it was not much different from the 10-11% vote share gained by Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio.

I mean Kasich’s performance could have been considered great if New Hampshire were an audition for the establishment support wherein the establishment candidate finishing first would get all the establishment resources including money and endorsements. But, it does not work that way. Rubio and Bush have already locked up most of the establishment donors and a considerable number of the endorsements. Even if Bush drops out in the near future, Rubio looks unlikely to drop out any time before the race enters the final stretch.

It is New Hampshire, for God’s Sake

New Hampshire has one of the highest percentages of moderate voters in the entire country when it comes to the ideological make-up of the Republican Primary electorate. It also has a lower percentage of evangelicals and is one of the least religious states in the Union. It is also one of the handful of states that does not require party registration while voting in primaries, meaning democrats and independents can also vote in the Republican Primary. As a result, it is not entirely surprising that a candidate like Kasich who has explicitly positioned himself to appeal to the moderates and independents shall do well in New Hampshire.

In fact, if you were to look at the break-up of votes by political philosophy, Kasich’s strongest group was the moderates (28% support), followed by somewhat conservatives (14% support) and very conservatives (7% support). He performed better among non-evangelicals (18% support) than among evangelicals (11%). He also performed slightly better among independent/undeclared voters (18% support) than registered Republicans.

The performance of John Kasich is very similar in these sub-groups to that of Jon Huntsman in 2012. The comparison is shown in the following table:

Huntsman 2012 Kasich 2016
Very Conservative Voters 9% 7%
Conservative Voters 21% 14%
Moderate Voters 24% 28%
Evangelical Voters 9% 11%
Non-evangelical Voters 19% 18%
Independent/Undeclared Voters 22% 18%

 

If you are John Kasich, you should not be very flattered by these numbers. Jon Huntsman was just a footnote in the 2012 Republican Primary. Besides, most states do not have a primary electorate as moderate as New Hampshire. In fact, New Hamphire is one of the most moderate states as far as the ideological make-up of voters is concerned. The ideological break-up of the Republican electorate as determined by exit polls taken during the 2012 Primary election in various states is mentioned in the following charts:

Chart I

Chart II

Although data from all states are not available, we can safely say that Kasich would not find such a hospitable state in any region other than north-east and west coast. Being a favourite son, he may also perform well in Ohio and some neighbouring states like Michigan. Otherwise, it looks difficult for a candidate like him to come close to winning in any other large state, unless of course he can manage to increase his vote share among conservatives.

One may point out Kasich’s conservative record while serving in the House of Representatives and then as Governor of Ohio. But he has run this election explicitly as a moderate, a fact which has been reflected in his vote share. It will take an enormous amount of political skills to etch that sketch and start winning more conservative votes. And even if tries to do that, he will be attacked by his Republican opponents who are as on today better funded than him. He will also come under fire for his decision to embrace the Affordable Care Act as a governor of Ohio and his stint in Lehman Brothers before it went bust.

The calendar does not have any good news for Kasich either. The next states to vote are South Carolina and Nevada. The former is a Southern state with a large proportion of evangelical and very conservative voters. The second is a caucus which means that like in Iowa, a disproportionate number of very conservative voters will turn up even though the state as a whole may be more moderate. The two states shall be followed in the calendar by a host of other southern and solid red states where Kasich may not perform as well. As a result by the time the Republican Primary contest will move into more favourable territory for Kasich, he shall most likely be forgotten by both the voters as well as the media.

The bigger problem with Kasich is that even in various demographic and ideological groups where Kasich did well, he finished second to Trump. Trump has a lot of advantages as a candidate compared to Kasich. He is a self-funded candidate and is able to dictate the media and news cycle, something no other candidate can do at this moment. Kasich campaigned very hard in the granite state and tried to reach out to as many voters as possible, but even then he finished second to Trump even among the voter sub-groups most favourable to him. Hence, in a contest where only the last standing candidate is the nominee, how is Kasich expected to pull off the nomination?

No cash, no organization

It may be tempting to wish away the arguments made in the points above by saying that this Republican race is different from the past Primary Contests. The establishment support has not yet consolidated behind a single candidate and the field is being led by a controversial outsider who is not acceptable to a major portion of the party. Hence, a candidate who ends up as the consensus establishment backed candidate may emerge as the nominee in the long run.

But in order to emerge as the nominee, the candidate should be acceptable to broad sections of the party. So far, Kasich has done well only among moderates. His count of endorsements is also not very high and is much lower than that of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. And as I have mentioned earlier, Rubio especially is not expected to drop out until the race enters the home stretch.

There is no way I see Kasich winning the nomination when the establishment lane remains divided among two or more candidates.

More importantly, Kasich has absolutely no cash or organization to speak of outside New Hampshire. Here is a list of the amount cash generated by various candidates and the amount of cash on hand as on the latest date:

Chart III

Both Rubio and Bush are better funded than Kasich, not to speak of Cruz and Trump (who is a self-funded candidate with net worth of close to USD 10 Billion). Although Kasich may enlist the support of a billionaire donor and continue his campaign, his record of fund raising has not been that impressive so far.

Momentum only lasts so long

You may think that the momentum generated by Kasich through his impressive showing in New Hampshire may give a big boost to his candidacy and result in him performing better than expected in the states scheduled to vote next.

Momentum, however, can only take you so far. For example, take a look at the polling averages of various candidates in New Hampshire on the date of Iowa caucus according to Real Clear Politics and the actual vote shares garnered by these candidates after their above or below par performance in Iowa.

Candidate RCP Average Iowa

On 04th Feb, 2016

Actual Iowa Overperformance in Iowa RCP Average NH

on 04th Feb, 2016

Actual NH Overperformance in NH
Donald Trump 29% 24% -4% 34% 35% 2%
Ted Cruz 24% 28% 4% 12% 12% 0%
Marco Rubio 17% 23% 6% 10% 11% 0%
Jeb Bush 4% 3% -1% 11% 11% 1%
John Kasich 3% 2% -1% 11% 16% 5%
Chris Christie 2% 2% -1% 6% 7% 2%
Ben Carson 8% 9% 2% 4% 2% -1%
Carly Fiorina 3% 2% -1% 3% 4% 1%

 

Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina underperformed in Iowa relative to their polling averages. All of these candidates over-performed relative to their polling numbers in New Hampshire on the day of Iowa caucus i.e. their poll numbers actually went up in New Hampshire in the intervening week between Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. On the other hand, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Ben Carson performed better than expected in Iowa. But this did not translate into better performance in New Hampshire.

So what is the guarantee that Kasich’s performance in New Hampshire shall result in him getting better than expected performance in the states scheduled to vote next, states which are not very favourable to his brand of conservatism? And if he does not do well in such states, the momentum shall be lost and he shall have to start afresh again.

Chart IV 

As the Google Trends data over the last week indicates, the interest in Kasich is already waning, more so relative to Trump.

What does the betting market say?

It is instructive to look at the odds given by the betting market to John Kasich for winning the nomination. It is a measly 3%, up from 1% given to him before his showing in the New Hampshire Primary. Compared to this, there was huge change in the odds of Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. While the odds of Trump improved from the high 20s to the high 40s, for Rubio it came down from the low 40s to low 20s.

I kind of agree with this, although not with the overall numbers. Rubio still has, among the establishment lane candidates, the highest chance of winning the candidacy. He may not the most accomplished candidate out there, but in the year of Trump and Cruz, he brings too many positives to the table (appeal across sections of the party, electability, coming from a large swing state, oratory skills, youth and contrast to Hillary Clinton) for them to ignore and jump ship at the slightest hint of trouble. And in a field that has Trump, Rubio and Cruz, I see Kasich losing the moderate, somewhat conservative and very conservative votes to these candidates respectively, which means he would not be the first choice candidate of any of these factions of the Party.

This is not to belittle Kasich. Kasich has a solid resume and is arguably more electable than Rubio. And he has been the sole voice of reason in the Republican Primary contest dominated by anger, pessimism and xenophobia. If I were a Republican Primary voter, I would have probably voted for him. But unfortunately for Kasich, I am not and I just do not see him going forward to winning the nomination.

All of these may change if Kasich somehow manages to do well in the southern states or gets a significant burst of endorsement or financial support in the next few days. But unless he manages to do that, he will probably end up being the candidate who over-performed in New Hampshire and muddled up the race for some time, ala Jon Huntsman of 2012 or Jon McCain of 2000.

 

 

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