January 31, 2016
The New York Times has endorsed John Kasich for president. Well at least until he’d actually face a Democrat. They endorsed Hillary Clinton too. Want to take any bets on who would get the nod in November?
Reflex is to think nothing could harm a 2016 Republican presidential candidate more than a nod from the Times. This isn’t the New Hampshire Union Leader choosing Chris Christie, something that gave him temporary momentum, but probably winds up not mattering.
It’s not the Des Moines Register choosing Marco Rubio (along with Clinton). The DMR isn’t going to win the caucus for Rubio, but it probably only harms him with voters who would have chosen Ted Cruz or Donald Trump anyway. Few voters are going to say they chose Jeb Bush over Marco because Rubio got the endorsement.
This is the Times. Rubio got his first polling bump last spring when the paper published critical stories on his personal finances and driving record. Running against the NYT is one of the safest decisions a GOP candidate can make.
Kasich adds this to support from all but one paper (the Union Leader) in New Hampshire and the Boston Globe. He may sit in low single digits in Iowa and national polls, but he’s winning the newspaper primary. All of his chips are on New Hampshire.
Unlike Iowa, which still seems like a two-way race between Trump and Cruz, with Rubio lurking and Carson trying to maintain some semblance of his base, the Granite State has at least 5 candidates who could finish as high as second. Kasich is to the upper end of this pack.
As long as Cruz doesn’t finish second, Rubio can get away with finishing third. Jeb is making noises like he will stick around regardless of the result, but realistically he needs to finish ahead of the other governors to have a reason to exist.
Kasich needs to finish second, ideally within shouting distance of Trump, should The Donald retain his current position at the top of the heap. The Times helps his quest. New Hampshire is full of moderate Independents who like the idea of someone the paper has declared “the only plausible choice for Republicans.”
Especially if a Clinton win in Iowa lowers the drama on the Democratic side, pushing swing voters to the GOP primary, the endorsement turns Kasich into a full-fledged third-way, No Labels-friendly candidate. Normally Times support writes its own attack ad. If Kasich survives to South Carolina it will. For now, that doesn’t work.
If pollster ARG is correct (others have Kasich a couple to several points lower), he’s already in the 17 to 20 percent range. For the fun of it, let’s pretend the primary results (after Trump and Clinton victories in Iowa) look like this:
Kasich would have momentum, press and all of that, but a message and group of endorsers very unsuited for the upcoming terrain. Rubio and Cruz, once thought of as the inevitable final pairing, would both find themselves weakened.
This is the scenario the Ohio governor has dreamed of for months. Are there enough anti-Trump voters to rally around a NYT-supported candidate who sounds like he belongs to the politics of another era? Could Cruz stay viable long enough to peel at least some votes away from Trump? Would Rubio have time to straighten things out after two straight bronze medals?
In 2008, John McCain won both the New York Times and Republican primaries. So far, the theme of 2016 is Never Again. It would seem Kasich is sailing into impossible headwinds. But this was his plan the whole time.
If Trump has taught us anything, it’s that a candidate is sometimes smarter than the people analyzing him. There is zero data indicating Republican primary voters anywhere outside a small corner of New England have any interest in what Kasich is selling.
What if Kasich is smarter than we are? He’s probably just playing the only card available. That card is probably a three of hearts. I’m only 90% sure he doesn’t have the two, four, five, and six.