John Kasich continues to defy the odds. The two-term Ohio governor has no possible way of accumulating enough delegates to win the GOP nomination outright, but he continues to forge ahead on the assumption that a Republican convention deadlocked between two candidates unacceptable to the party establishment will somehow turn to him anyway. In fact, he’s a long-shot at best: Party elites have no love for Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, but Kasich barely registers as a credible alternative. The party wants to stop Trump above all and everyone from Sen. Lindsay Graham to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Jeb Bush has closed ranks to back Cruz.
But amazingly, some GOP voters are still holding out hope for Kasich. Despite being outspent and out-gunned, the still-popular chief executive of the Buckeye State – who briefly ran for president in 2000 — retains a solid hold on 19 percent of the GOP electorate nationally – not enough to be treated as a credible dark horse but far more than a protest vote. Kasich has clearly done the math: if neither Trump nor Cruz arrives at the convention with enough delegates to win, he and his supporters could well become the decisive swing vote – giving them enormous leverage over the outcome.
Of course, it was Kasich’s decisive victory two weeks ago over Trump in Ohio, where he captured nearly 50 percent of the primary vote and garnered all of the state’s 66 delegates that’s kept him alive. Ohio is one of the most important battlegrounds in the general election, and it is also hosting the GOP convention this summer (in Cleveland), which is bound to magnify Kasich’s presence and influence. But Kasich has already shown promise elsewhere. He finished a strong second in New Hampshire and even came close to winning Vermont.
Now he’s taking aim at Pennsylvania — like Ohio an economically depressed coal-mining state, where virtually overnight he has vaulted from low single-digits in the polls into a statistical tie with Trump. Kasich is making inroads with blue-collar voters in rural parts of the state that border Ohio, and with affluent suburbanites north of Philadelphia where he campaigned heavily last week. Moderates, especially women, are turning out to hear him in some of the largest rallies he’s mustered since he first launched his campaign.
Why does Kasich persist? His supporters – and the candidate himself – point to head-to-head polls that consistently show him beating Hillary Clinton by an average of 7 points in a two-way race, a margin wider than any other GOP candidate. There’s no denying that his national numbers – and his numbers in Ohio, where he trounces Clinton by nearly 20 points — are impressive. In the latest Fox poll, Kasich, he beats Clinton 51-40 percent among voters without a college degree and wallops her by 36 points among independents, compared to just 19 points for Cruz and 12 points for Trump. And alone among Republicans, he has a slight lead among women, while maintaining a huge lead among men. On its face, the party couldn’t ask for a more appealing standard-bearer for a general election campaign.
Why hasn’t Kasich gotten further? It’s not that he’s not angry enough. Unlike Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Marco Rubio, Kasich has projected deep discontent with the status quo, even if the cantankerous hectoring he engaged in at the outset of the race turned off most GOP voters. Kasich has since settled down and become almost Zen-like in his tone and delivery, easily detaching from the circus-like antics of his rivals. But there’s no escaping that Kasich is a charter member of the dreaded political establishment – and a proud one at that. He frequently points to his decades-long service in Congress to drive home the point that he’s able to “get things done” at a time of national gridlock. And his record of accomplishment on deficit cutting and jobs creation is undeniable and laudable – and, on the whole, decidedly conservative.
But in the year of the political “outsider,” none of this seems to matter. Kasich may eke out a victory in Pennsylvania but is unlikely to take home any other big prizes – in California or New York, for example. And his failure to win in Michigan and Missouri suggests he has limited appeal outside the Ohio Valley. Kasich’s accumulation of a couple of hundred delegates could well place him at the center of a Trump-Cruz tug-of-war. But it’s not clear what Kasich — still spry at 64 — will get out of the deal himself. While some see him as a highly attractive VP candidate, he says – adamantly – that he will not accept the slot.
Still, the fact that Kasich is still on the debate stage at all — and will likely go the distance — says a lot about his underlying strengths as a party spokesman. He clearly has enduring appeal to a significant segment of the GOP electorate that’s grown weary of the mockery the party seems to be making of its own nominating contest. No one thought Kasich would qualify for the debates — but he did, and he’s been close to the national spotlight ever since. In a race where people have marveled at Trump’s persistence against all odds, Kasich’s refusal to fade from view may be just as unexpected – and almost as consequential.