2016 Republicans, Debates, State of the Race

Debate Prep: Last Call for Governors

October 26, 2015

The late, great Yogi Berra once said “it gets late early around here.”  The same is true for the once formidable pack of GOP governors.  Scott Walker is gone.  Bobby Jindal hasn’t registered outside of Iowa, raised $11 last quarter and has an approval rating back home of -20%.  Chris Christie actually sounds pretty good right now, but nobody seems to care.  John Kasich is presently invisible and Jeb Bush is now an official synonym for train wreck.

What kind of odds were available four months ago if you told someone George Pataki would find himself within the margin of error of most of these guys, but Donald Trump and Ben Carson would each individually have more support than all of the governors combined?

If you include Mike Huckabee in this group (and I don’t think he really fits it), the most common polling range is now 10-15%.  Combined.  The core group of Jeb/Kasich/Christie, those the establishment could get behind, sits at or below 10% everywhere outside of New Hampshire (15% most recently) and home states.  People aren’t polling New Jersey, but Kasich and Jeb are noticeably trailing Donald Trump and Ben Carson at home (Bush trails Marco Rubio in Florida too).

Is it already too late? Maybe.  These guys have lower approval margins than most non-Trump Republicans, without his base of loyalists.  In a world where it’s not 100% certain Rubio is conservative enough to get nominated, what chance do these guys have?  Bush, Kasich and Christie (our focus here) aren’t seen as conservative enough, Huck and Jindal are being overshadowed.  If Ted Cruz has to wait in line, how do those guys get in?

As it was, Kasich and Christie were pure New Hampshire-focused candidates.  Now Jeb is apparently joining them, having pared back some of his national ambition to conserve resources and explain a potentially poor Iowa result.  Kasich’s PAC did a big Granite State push, he’s at 5%. Christie has done many town halls, a format that usually works and is his preferred approach.  His name recognition is high.  Under 5%.  JebPAC is now blanketing the airwaves.  Single digits.

With the fourth debate coming soon after (November 10), and no rules yet for participation, nor indication of an undercard event, Christie and Kasich in particular need to make sure their post-debate national polls are strong.  Candidates need prep time, so expect a cut-off of 11/3 or so for deciding who is included.  The first post-debate polls will hit on Halloween or thereabouts.  While the most likely outcome is all 10 participants are kicked forward and pruning happens for the fifth installment on 12/15, you never know.

The RNC has some say, and Fox News is hosting, so you figure the establishment will be able to influence the decision.  The conspiracy theory question is whether they want Christie or Kasich out of the way to give Jeb a cleaner recovery path, or if they want to make sure to include them as you can’t have too many Nominee Trump alternatives.

So what do these guys do on Wednesday?

Jeb Bush

At this point I think both Christie and Kasich are more viable than Jeb.  That gives you an idea how down on Jeb I am.  Over the weekend, Bush created his latest terrible sound bite, sounding like somebody’s petulant kid or younger brother, complaining he could be happier doing something else than jousting with The Donald.

Top tier is gone for the foreseeable future, a casualty of the first debate and the cycle that followed.  Momentum and clear path forward are casualties of debate two and aftermath.  Now the project is to justify his continued existence in the race.  He’s preventing Kasich and Christie from getting a full hearing and preventing Rubio from rallying donor support.

His mission is to sound and look like he wouldn’t prefer to be in a dentist’s chair somewhere.  Jeb has very little to lose at this point.  Relaxing and having fun is the only way.  I fear he’s thinking the reverse, that a big performance will change the narrative.  As one of those candidates who is apparently one way with his friends and a candidate-bot under the lights, the only way he gets people to like him is to stop worrying if people like him.

With another round up soon after, this is his warm-up act and if it works, he can build on it in a couple weeks.  At this point, the absence of new damage is progress.

John Kasich

Kasich has to do two things, do them quickly, and repeat them two weeks later.  The first is to immediately stop sounding like a Rust Belt Jon Huntsman.  There is a difference between being the GOP Joe Biden, someone who can get things done across the aisle, who says quirky things sometimes and can remind you of a favorite uncle, and sounding like a self-righteous scold.

The second is looking forward.  So far, Debate Kasich is all resume, all the time.  He did this in Ohio, he did that in Congress last century.  His record is really good.  Helping to balance the federal budget and turning around a big Midwestern state (Ohio has made more progress than places like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, etc.), are big bonuses.

Bush was a pre-recession governor, he can’t point to how he would have dealt with Florida’s property collapse.  Christie’s line about New Jersey is “you should have seen what it was like when I got there.”  He may be correct, but it’s not as useful as being able to say he’ll make America look like his home state.

None of the other major contenders have executive experience in government.  None of the real contenders have any track record of accomplishment in Congress.  Kasich is uniquely positioned to run on his record.  More than enough voters want someone with experience to get him through a couple rounds.  But, it only works if he spends 80% of his time looking forward, talking about what he will do, and using his experience as proof he can make it happen.  Introduction time is over.

Somewhere in there is a good candidate, but Kasich needs to find him yesterday.

Chris Christie

I heard Christie on Face the Nation on Sunday.  He’s locked in.  More proof appeared on his way back from DC via Amtrak where he was asked to leave the quiet section and was spotted drinking a McDonald’s shake.  It’s possible Trump has used up all the demand for a loud, rude guy from the Greater New York Area.  Christie is definitely four years too late.  Jeb has more money, Kasich a stronger resume.

But he sounds good.  He’s also going to get a chance to talk about entitlements.  Unlike other relative moderates, he likes throwing punches.  Much like Fiorina, Christie likes fixating on Hillary Clinton and the timing is very good.  Though not quite on par with Carly and Marco, he’s a strong debater.  Having two shots in close proximity won’t hurt either.

Christie does not control his own destiny.  He needs Kasich to continue to sound wrong–if they both sound good, the Ohio governor has less baggage.  He needs Jeb to completely vaporize instead of playing zombie front-runner.  He needs Rubio to keep from completely taking hold, though he doesn’t need him to lose momentum.  Carly can’t surge again and box him out in New Hampshire.

That’s a lot to have happen/not happen, though each are very plausible on their own.  The good news is there’s nothing he can do besides do his thing.  Keep putting one foot in front of the other, pretend it’s 2011 and hope for the best.  It’s still easier than needing to adjust your tone.  As Yogi said, it’s not over til it’s over.

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