Don’t look now, but there’s a new candidate on the rise in New Hampshire. He’s hot, he’s fresh, he’s burning up the polls, he’s … John Kasich. Yeah. That guy. The guy you forget is running for president until each new debate rolls around and you’re like “oh yeah, John Kasich.” Up to this point, the Ohio governor’s most lasting achievement on the campaign trail was bumping Rick Perry from the prime-time debate stage and dooming his campaign to an early, ignominious termination. Kasich has been spending his campaign huddled in New Hampshire, preaching a positive, results-oriented campaign message that is designed to draw independents. And, according to a slew of recent polls, it’s starting to pay off at just the right moment.
The RealClearPolitics polling average shows that Kasich now holds a narrow lead in the jumbled race for second place in New Hampshire, having overtaken Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio in the last month. He’s a bit of a weirdo – he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt this week that “I consider myself the Prince of Light and Hope” – but New Hampshire is a weird state, and Kasich can at least claim to offer something different than what the other candidates are selling. He’s the closest thing the GOP race has to a moderate, what with his Medicaid expanding and refusals to rip up the Iran nuclear deal on day one (though he’s still an antiabortion rights nut and a fan of wildly regressive tax policies, so “moderate” is kind of a misnomer). And he’s actually running the relentlessly positive campaign Jeb Bush pretends to be running when he’s not spending millions on attack ads. And right now Kasich-mentum looks like it might be on the rise.
If that is the case and Kasich really is gaining traction less than three weeks from the primary, that’s bad news for the segment of the Republican Party that wants to keep Donald Trump or Ted Cruz from becoming the nominee. New Hampshire is supposed to be the redoubt of establishment Republicans, and while Trump has been dominating the polls, the fight for second place is seen as critical to the establishment’s hopes of preventing the race from turning into a two-man fight between Trump and Cruz. If the right establishment candidate finishes a strong second in New Hampshire, the thinking goes, then he’ll have momentum, and that momentum will help him win South Carolina, and then the party unites behind him and he eventually triumphs over the Trump/Cruz insurgency. That’s the incredibly risky plan establishment darling Marco Rubio has sketched out, at any rate.
That strategy only works if you have a strong candidate who can rally the party against Trump and Cruz, and that ain’t John Kasich. He may be doing decently well in New Hampshire, but that’s the only state in which he’s showing any signs of life. Being a happy and relatively moderate Republican might play well with New Hampshire independents, but it won’t do you much good in more conservative states, especially when you do things like expand Medicaid under Obamacare and then suggest your critics don’t know how to be good Christians.
More significantly, a Kasich second-place finish in New Hampshire would make it extremely difficult for more ideologically acceptable candidates like Rubio or Jeb Bush to argue that they have a viable path to the nomination. If they lose in Iowa and then finish behind Trump and Kasich (and maybe even Ted Cruz) in New Hampshire, what case can they make that they’re the strongest candidate in the race? How can they take down Donald Trump when they can’t beat Kasich in a state that’s supposed to be tailor-made for establishment GOP candidates?
Kasich has said that a bad showing in New Hampshire would be the end of his campaign. If Kasich-mentum holds out, however, he’ll have every reason to slog on through to South Carolina and ensure that the establishment Republican vote remains split among several candidates. That would be nothing but good news for Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.