March 17, 2016
John Kasich completed his journey to the Ohio primary with a victory. He spent the previous month and a half and 20 plus contests saying “wait til I get to Ohio.” In doing so, he likely (too lazy to look it up) set a record for most primaries lost before winning one.
Even the now departed Marco Rubio managed to win three times before Kasich got one. In taking 66 delegates from Donald Trump, he provided a service to the #NeverTrump squad. But you can only run in the state you govern once.
Where can Kasich get wins going forward? Are there a group of states where he can make an impact, or is he destined to divide the anti-Trump vote, actually helping The Donald?
To complicate things a bit, we don’t have any polling for future contests with only three candidate options. We also don’t have any polling taken after a Kasich victory. Were potential voters staying away from him because they preferred Rubio, because they doubted Kasich could win, or because they just don’t find him acceptable?
Lots of ifs. Let’s assume the best possible set of circumstances. Absent this rosy scenario he’s unlikely to win more than once or twice, if at all, going forward.
We would need to assume the following:
Kasich is helped by the slower schedule going forward
More than 20 states and territories voted over a period of fifteen days. It will take almost three months to process a similar batch going forward. Kasich has shown an ability to make more of an impact where he spends more time.
As distant as his second place finish in New Hampshire was, Kasich did manage to finish head of a whole bunch of higher-profile candidates. He got about as much support as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie combined, after Granite Staters were more than familiar with each.
His second best vote share was in Michigan, a neighboring state to the one he governs, and the place he spent more time campaigning than anywhere outside of New Hampshire and Ohio.
Lacking the national media stature of Trump and Cruz, unable to bring thousands and thousands of people to rallies, he needs some quality time in any state he might win. An inability to fully concentrate on Illinois likely contributed to his unimpressive third place finish.
Rubio’s core supporters would strategically move to Kasich or Cruz depending on their odds of stopping Trump in a given state
The more conservative of Rubio’s supporters abandoned him for Cruz while he was still in the race. If you thought Marco and Ted were roughly equivalent, but Rubio was a better bet for November, it was easy enough to move towards Cruz the minute he appeared more viable.
More moderate supporters, those not quite as conservative as their favored candidate, ditched Rubio for Kasich already. It’s how he wound up in low double digits in most recent primaries.
That doesn’t leave very much to pick through on Rubio’s carcass. We’re talking 5 to 10 percent of the vote, depending on the state. The problem is, if they were that strategic in their voting, they wouldn’t have stuck with him when it was clear he was doomed.
If they strongly preferred Cruz or Kasich to the other, they would have left already. These are the voters who are truly divided between the two. A great way to break the tie is viability, so Kasich needs states where he can get close enough that voters think supporting him would make a difference.
Kasich could win over some undecided and lightly Trump leaning voters who are looking for someone less rigidly conservative than Cruz
The first two items on the list aren’t enough. It takes a minimum of 35%, more likely at least 40% to win a three-way contest. Kasich is starting from a baseline of 10 to 12 percent. In a more suitable state, the number increases to 17 to 20%, roughly equivalent to where he stood in Illinois.
That’s another way to measure the ground he needs to cover. In order to have any relevancy, Kasich needs to win every remaining state that’s as favorable to him as Illinois was.
If we want to give him 5 to 8 points for camping out in a state, covering each of the sections where he’s likely to do well, fixating on the most ideal congressional districts in states assigning most of their delegates that way, it would bring him to the mid 20s.
If that made him appear viable enough to get the majority of the remaining voters who would have chosen Rubio, with only minor leakage to Cruz, we’re at 30, maybe 32 percent.
Not enough. He’d find himself slightly ahead of Ted, still trailing Trump by a good 7 to 10 points. It’s the worst of all worlds. Most remaining states are a combination of major metro areas with moderate suburban areas where Kasich can compete, and more rural or exurban communities where Cruz is stronger.
Trump plays in both. It’s why he’s ahead. Illinois and Missouri were the first tests of how well Cruz and Kasich can win individual congressional districts in a narrower race. South Carolina has the same rules, but Trump won by enough to sweep all the delegates.
We know all about Trump’s powerful core of support. At least 30% of GOP voters nationwide are with him to the death. In some states that makes his floor 35 to 40 percent, in others 25, but he’s starting from a strong position.
However, he’s also benefitting from undecided voters who break to him at the last minute, and keeping leaners. While Trump doesn’t normally get as many late deciders as other candidates, he still pulls some. The 5% of the primary electorate that is just leaning Trump is just as susceptible to a new argument as any other less committed voter.
There are voters who think Cruz is too conservative and like Trump’s relative moderation/inconsistency on various issues. They support The Donald despite his bombast, not because of it.
It’s not a huge swath of voters, but they exist, particularly in the areas Kasich is already strong. He needs to convert them through a combination of regular contact and targeted message.
Doing this would lower Trump from 38 to 42 percent in an average state (he wound up just over 40% on March 15), to closer to 35%. If Kasich adds a final 5 points to the 30 to 32 we previously gave him, he’s got a fighting chance to top Trump in targeted states.
If this sounds like an incredible reach, it is. So was finishing ahead of every non-Trump in New Hampshire and somehow surviving with a bunch of distant third, fourth, and fifth place finishes to compete in Ohio.
Our job here is to create a path, not an easy or likely one.
One more condition. Kasich needs to win outside the Midwest. If he had done better in Illinois or Michigan, there was an argument that the Rust Belt will decide the election and he was the candidate clearly favored by this important region.
With Trump winning Illinois and Michigan by strong margins and finishing almost 30 points ahead of Kasich in Missouri, this argument does not work. While Kasich needs places like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Wisconsin, victories would only bring him parity with The Donald.
Three other regions have significant voting left. The Intermountain West and Plains States, Northeast, and Pacific Coast. The first of those is out. That’s Cruz Country. The less Kasich does there, the better.
We have no proof that a push from Kasich hurts Trump more than Cruz. We know Kasich needs to spend all of his resources in the places where he can actually compete. Winning Pennsylvania will require considerable time, energy and money ahead of April 26.
It’s his birthplace and borders Ohio. If Kasich can’t win there, there’s no reason for him to persist. The state has multiple regions and media markets. He needs to hold his own around Pittsburgh, do well in the Philly suburbs and keep from getting obliterated in between.
A poll from a month ago had Trump, Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio at rough parity, with another fifth undecided or committed to candidates who are now out. It’s just one data point, but indicates this is a very reasonable target. If he spends a full 10 to 14 days in state, he can win.
You’ll see the more recent survey with Trump well ahead, but he’s still under 40%, and the previous poll indicates voters are willing to consider Kasich if they think he has a chance. The better result was after New Hampshire, the worse one after the first Super Tuesday.
In both Michigan and Ohio, Kasich’s poll results were highly dependent on his perceived viability. There’s no reason to think Pennsylvania isn’t similar. He needs a strong result somewhere before, to get him enough of a boost to have others jump on the bandwagon.
Now about that other strong result. It’s not going to happen in Utah or Arizona on March 22. Neither state sets up well for him, both favor Cruz. He doesn’t have the time to make an impact or the ability to play the leading anti-Trump. Doing well enough to cost Cruz a win doesn’t look good either.
Kasich both needs to stop Trump and make the case he’s the best alternative. In this case, stopping Trump comes first, even if it benefits Cruz and leads him to spend more time imploring Kasich to get out of the way.
The first opportunity is Wisconsin on April 5. It’s tricky. You’d think a purple-blue Midwestern state is a good place for Kasich. Not really. Most Republicans there are fairly conservative. They elected Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. Yes, Paul Ryan is still a conservative.
Kasich made no impact in Iowa or Minnesota, two states that are at least somewhat predictive here. Wisconsin is a good Rubio state. A viable Marco would have won here.
The most recent poll is about a month old. Trump was out in front with 30 percent. Cruz had 19, Ben Carson 8. I think we can safely rule all of those votes off limits to Kasich. Even if we want to argue he can win a few Trump leaners, that 30% is probably his floor, especially since he’s probably in line for a few Carson votes.
Kasich had 8%. Rubio was at 20. We should probably split that between Kasich and Cruz, which would push Kasich towards 20% and Cruz close to 30%. If you divide the Carson vote between Trump and Cruz, it looks like this:
Trump 35% or so
Cruz 35% or so
Kasich 20% at most
Not a recipe for success. Even if he were to win the vast majority of undecided voters, that still adds up to third place. Normally, I’d suggest Kasich punt, and look forward to later opportunities.
The only other state voting after March 22 and before April 26 is New York on April 19. You can argue Kasich might manage to win selected congressional districts, but if he can’t beat Trump in Wisconsin, how the hell is he going to in Manhattan or on Long Island?
He needs to go all in on Wisconsin, with the understanding a third place finish effectively ends his candidacy, and a second place result weakens it from an already shaky place. The current Kasich message is potentially great for a general election, but not acceptable to unify the GOP.
It’s time for the more conservative version of John Kasich to make an appearance. He can still stay hopeful, still hug people at town halls. He needs people to see him as the cuddly Scott Walker most of his actual record indicates he is.
A viable Kasich reformats himself as the Goldilocks solution. More friendly and less ideological rigid than Cruz, more consistently conservative than Trump. It’s not just enough to sound more adult than Trump, he needs to get to his right.
This already happened in Ohio. Kasich did very well with self-described very conservative voters. He debated Trump through the airwaves on trade. Candidates like Rubio and Jeb washed out because they mistakenly assumed a majority of GOP voters were in favor of trade agreements.
Kasich is pushing back against Trump, arguing more American jobs are dependent on exports than most realize. His own Rust Belt state decided to agree. Though Trump won the counties along the West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania borders, Kasich swept most of the rest of the state.
Trump will always win the voters most negatively impacted by globalization and low import tariffs. But Kasich needs those who are concerned about the impact, but not personally devastated.
The growth of outsourced service jobs means a wider percentage of Republican voters are starting to wonder if they’re next. Kasich’s ability to engage on this topic in Wisconsin will determine whether he gets to have a say in who gets nominated, and if there’s any chance that’s him.
A win in Wisconsin would completely change the narrative. If it happens, it’s very narrow. He’d wind up winning 35/33/32 or something. However, it’s the only GOP contest that night, the only one in a four week period.
If Cruz can win Arizona and Utah, it would make the second straight election night with no Trump victories to report. He would now seem very stoppable. Furthermore, it would mean Cruz and Kasich each have their strengths and the best approach for #NeverTrump is to support each where most beneficial.
Both candidates would then ignore New York. Sure, Trump would pick up plenty of delegates. But if he didn’t win Arizona, Utah, or Wisconsin, at best that would get him mostly back on track for the 1100-1150 he needs to make it hard to pick someone else.
It’s his home state. Nobody would give him much credit for it. If Kasich spends most of his time between now and April 5 in Wisconsin, with occasional side trips to Pennsylvania, he can spend most of April in the mid-Atlantic states.
Five states vote on the 26th.
The first three are better targets. We covered Pennsylvania. An early March poll in Maryland had Kasich at 18%. That’s a good number by his standards. We have no polls in Delaware, but it’s the type of moderate Republican place that should play well for him.
The three states are contiguous. Kasich could spend three weeks in the same area. Pennsylvania is the hard one. Trump and Cruz will both contest it vigorously. If Kasich can win it, he’ll take the other two.
New Hampshire kept him in the race until Ohio. That bought him a pass to Wisconsin. Not a narrative change, just a pass. He’s still not perceived as anywhere near viable. A win in the land of cheese and the Green Bay Packers would alter things enough to get Mid-Atlantic voters to look at him.
Winning 3 of 5 states on April 26, and taking the majority of delegates is an actual shift. That would mean he won more states than Trump or Cruz since it became a three candidate race after March 15.
Connecticut is a Trump state. Part of it is a bedroom community for Manhattan. Part of it resembles the industrial part of Massachusetts that gave The Donald his biggest percentage win there. There isn’t enough in between for Kasich to have a real shot.
Rhode Island is worth a flyer if polling after Wisconsin indicates he has a chance. A loss wouldn’t harm him much, and a win would let him go 4 for 5. The state is tiny. Most of the population is in the Providence area or along the coast.
He could probably spend a couple/few days there without imperiling the rest of his plan. The state has few Republican voters and chose moderates whenever they voted GOP. It’s probably still better for Trump, but worth a look. Independents can participate, but no Democrat cross overs.
Time for a quick break. We’ll pick the contest up in May for Part Two tomorrow.