As Republican presidential candidate John Kasich brings his faux-humble, golly-gee-aw-shucks-I’m-just-a-mailman’s-kid routine to New York to beg for votes in the Republican primary, while condescending to Jewish yeshiva students, it is worth asking the question: What does he gain by staying in this race that he has virtually no chance to win?
I’m not being flip when I say he has no chance to win it, either. I mean Kasich was mathematically eliminated long ago. Clinching the nomination requires 1,237 delegates. Kasich currently has 143, with 769 outstanding. Which means he has to snag north of 130 percent of all the remaining delegates to win outright. Which is not possible in this space-time dimension.
Heck, Marco Rubio still has 28 more delegates, and he dropped out of the race a month ago. Think about that. Kasich has had a month to make up a tiny deficit against a guy who dropped out of the race and has barely been seen in public since. And he couldn’t do it! He couldn’t even cut into Rubio’s lead on him by one delegate. He might still pick up enough votes here and there to deny his two rivals delegate sweeps in a few states, which could keep Trump from hitting that magic 1,237 on the first ballot in Cleveland. But maybe snagging a delegate or two in Maryland isn’t an argument for why the GOP should get behind him.
In short, the Ohio governor is not getting anywhere near Cruz or Trump the rest of the way. If he was an NBA team, we would say he’s been “playing for pride” since, oh, around Christmas.
At one time, Kasich’s strategy was to hang in until Cleveland, at which time he would emerge as a consensus pick at a brokered convention. Indeed, he can still argue that he should be that pick. Recent polling shows him to have the best shot among the remaining Republicans at beating Hillary Clinton in the fall. Real Clear Politics has his favorability rating at 42.6 percent, well above those of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. (What a pitch that could be in ads: Vote Kasich! Statistical polling indicates he’s slightly less repugnant to voters!) Head-to-head polls this far out aren’t all that predictive, but they are about the only measure we have besides gut feelings, so candidates will still use them.
The inability of head-to-head polling to move the Republican Party off its current stance of hoping Cruz can derail Trump has led to some frustration from Kasich and his team, which has to publicly pretend he’s the better alternative and could slow down the Trump Train if only the GOP would wake up and smell the strong Ohio coffee. His spokesman told NBC News that if the “Never Trump” forces were serious, they would be “going all out to keep Trump under 50 percent in New York.” (If Trump finishes with above 50 percent of the vote in New York and each of its individual congressional districts, he sweeps all the state’s delegates.)
In truth, though, the GOP’s disinterest in Kasich makes sense for a couple of reasons. One, rumors have abounded that some of the party’s more rational heads have already given up on winning the White House this fall and are now focused on limiting the damage that could be done to down-ballot candidates. Republicans were already going to have a hard slog to keep from losing their Senate majority, and they would also like to keep Democrats from closing the gap in the House by more than a handful of seats.
Keeping those congressional majorities requires turning out a conservative base that could get excited about Cruz or Trump. So even if either of those two were to get stomped in the presidential race, at least the voters would also mark their ballots for Republican candidates in other contests. Conceding the presidency, limiting the damage in Congress and regrouping for the 2018 midterms and beyond might be the best Republicans can hope for at this point, and they know it.
But will the base get excited enough to turn out for John Kasich? It’s doubtful. He has too many strikes against him in this rigidly anti-establishment year. The 18 years he spent in Congress mark him as that most repugnant of creatures: a Washington insider. Despite toeing the standard GOP line that Obamacare needs to be repealed and replaced, as governor of Ohio he accepted the law’s Medicaid expansion, thereby incurring the wrath of ultraconservatives opposed to helping poor people gain access to healthcare. He may have earned some conservative credibility with his hardline anti-abortion stance. But in general, he does not speak fluent wingnut as well as Cruz, or have the arrogant swagger of Trump.
Another reason the establishment might be so resistant is that Cruz has outworked Kasich in hustling to snag delegates away from Trump. The Ohio governor does not seem to have an operation nearly comparable to Cruz’s for hitting state conventions and hunting up loyalists who will vote for him on a second ballot in Cleveland. Cruz’s Herculean efforts have likely endeared him to the grassroots and maybe even earned him some grudging respect from the “Never Trump” wing of the GOP, even if they still hate him on a personal level. Kasich’s neglect in this area would diminish enthusiasm for him even if he somehow still grabbed the nomination. Again, that hurts the GOP down-ballot. Which makes him a bad bet.
So why stick it out? Kasich already has a full-time job running Ohio, though his constituents seem more patient with his presidential ambitions than New Jersey residents were with Chris Christie’s. He still has two years left before he’s termed out as Ohio’s governor, so he’s not in a rush to audition for a job with some conservative media outlet or other. He might be determined to not drop out before the convention in his home state in July, but this is an awfully large investment in time and money for a symbolic gesture.
It’s also possible that even knowing his candidacy is a lost cause, Kasich still wants to keep preaching moderation and reasonableness to the masses to counter the damage Trumpism is doing to his beloved Republican Party. If that’s the case, then for all the nobility of the effort, he’s likely too late.