October 9, 2015
John Kasich is very popular. In Ohio. While quizzing swing state (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania) voters on their presidential preferences, Quinnipiac asked Ohioans how they felt about their governor. By greater than a 2:1 margin, it was thumbs-up.
You’d think this was great news. Ohio tends to vote for the winner in presidential elections. Republicans virtually never win without it. Kasich would very likely carry his home state next November.
Though Ohio leans toward the GOP, it also indicates he might do very well in slightly Democratic leaning Pennyslvania (where Kasich was born) and perhaps even in Michigan, which is bluer still.
If Republicans are looking for someone who can push a lower-tax, pro-growth agenda while keeping moderates on board, it’s a great advertisement. He’s even managed the transition from full-time to occasional governor without upsetting the locals. This poll was a record positive result for Kasich.
So why isn’t such a well-received active governor, who slashed taxes and budget gaps doing better in the GOP race? You can say all you want about it being an outsider year, but Kasich still trails Jeb Bush in most polls and has recently lost ground to Chris Christie.
Shouldn’t he at least find himself the establishment front-runner, especially with Jeb so shaky? Is this proof the GOP has taken their collective marbles and rolled them down the hill?
No. It’s logical and inevitable that someone doing that well in Ohio would struggle in a primary contest. The same would hold true for a Democrat with equal popularity. It has little to do with Kasich himself, or the state of the modern GOP. It’s a structural issue.
Draw yourself two intersecting lines, one vertical, one horizontal. The horizontal line represents size of state, the vertical, how partisan (degree of red or blue). This gives us four quadrants.
The bottom left is small state, less partisan. Think somewhere like Iowa or New Hampshire, a purple state with a smaller population that is also pretty homogenous. It’s very easy for a governor to win high approval ratings. Current Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is working on his 6th term.
He’s not super ideological and a smaller state will often adopt a successful governor after a bit, the same thing worked for Bill Clinton in Arkansas, which was pretty purple during his tenure.
The top right quadrant is a big, partisan state. Right now Texas, New York, California, and Illinois are good examples. Being the majority party governor is a good foundation, it gave George W Bush a head start in 2000, and put pre-debate Rick Perry on top of the polls in 2012. Senator Obama had a leg up in 2008. You get the idea.
Trying to run from the minority party is tricky. George Pataki, 3-term New York governor is an afterthought. Even if he had charisma, the positions and tone required to win that often in the Empire State disqualify him.
Chris Christie is struggling with this. New Jersey doesn’t quite qualify as a big state, but it’s at least mid-sized. During his first term, he was actually popular with New Jersey voters and national Republicans, but gravity has returned. While he sounds like a GOP candidate, he’s not liked real well anymore.
Top left is a smaller, more partisan state. This is an easy place to be, though a candidate can wind up limited when running for national office if not packaged correctly. The great part is the same governing or voting record that plays well at home will also work in a primary.
Examples are Vermont and Louisiana. Bernie Sanders has managed to stay consistent and get ejected by having an audience amenable to his views. Conveniently, a large chunk of current Democrats are thinking like Vermonters.
Though the degree to which he’s irritated Louisianans is almost unprecedented, Bobby Jindal has a record that is perfect for a Republican primary. If anything, his pitch is too strident, but again, he doesn’t have to worry about a conflict.
Kasich, Bush, and Marco Rubio wind up in the bottom right corner, large purple state. Jeb was a popular governor in his day, due to effective conservative governance with a moderate tone, fairly similar to what Kasich is doing now. It worked. His record is legitimately conservative, he easily won re-election and left office with strong approval ratings.
That’s also why many conservative primary voters don’t trust him. Jeb didn’t always sound like a conservative. Given that many Republicans (like Jeb’s dad) who sounded kind of squishy governed kind of squishy, it’s easy to see why GOP ears aren’t responding.
Kasich is staying true to the tone that has worked in Ohio and would work in a general election, but isn’t getting much traction. Jeb is changing his tone to sound more conservative. The problem is that doesn’t fit him. He tried this in Florida in 1994 and lost the general. You can’t be what you’re not.
What about Rubio? Why does he sound good to Republican ears? Because he’s not as popular. You can get elected as a partisan in a purple state, just not with overpowering majorities. Rubio would have won re-election in 2016, but not by a huge margin over a strong candidate. He’s popular enough.
So that’s the fix Kasich finds himself in. He’s provided excellent evidence he could do well both next November and afterward. His apostasy on Obamacare was probably just enough to convince moderates to go along with the rest.
As many pundits like to point out, Ronald Reagan compromised on things to get the bulk of his conservative agenda through. In his case, it was domestic spending. To get large tax cuts and a military bulidup, he had to give somewhere, and it was there.
But he didn’t run in the 1980 primaries on running a large deficit to buy off the Democrats. Quite the contrary, he criticized Jimmy Carter’s spending habits. Whether he realized what was ahead is unknowable, but Reagan had a saleable product.
Republicans forgave him on the compromises, because he produced big results in return. You beat the Soviets and usher in 20 years of economic growth and nobody cares if you let Tip O’Neill get away with a few.
In Reagan’s day, California was purple and even running as a conservative, he won a large victory for governor in 1966. He sounded like one in office too, and while he was re-elected in 1970, his margin was significantly smaller. Though popular and successful in office, he was less popular than Kasich is now. Like Rubio today, he was popular enough.
I’m not sure how Kasich exits the trap, but he is definitely proving there is such as thing as being too popular, even for a politician.