photo by Gage Skidmore
I am pretty sure that if Ohio Gov. John Kasich were 10 years younger, he would have already dropped out of the Republican presidential nominating race. But he isn’t, and as of this writing he hasn’t - so let’s consider why not.
It is clear to the entire known universe, other than Kasich himself, that he will not carry his party’s banner in November. His campaign’s apogee, a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, came only after he made scores of appearances in that low-budget state, shook virtually every hand in and around the White Mountains, and attracted a large swath of unaffiliated voters who are neither representative of the GOP’s national makeup nor permitted to participate in the nominating process in many other states. Not to mention Kasich was the unintended beneficiary of Chris Christie’s takedown of Sen. Marco Rubio on behalf of Jeb Bush.
Now that Christie and Bush are both out of the running, much of the GOP apparatus is pushing to consolidate the support of so-called mainstream Republicans behind Rubio in order to prevent Donald Trump from becoming the nominee. After Bush’s departure, a variety of Republican officials, including many Floridians whose support had been split between their state’s two candidates, officially endorsed Rubio to that end.
Some Rubio supporters went further, however, with outright calls for Kasich to quit the race because staying will accomplish little other than damage to the Rubio campaign.
Kasich is the largest remaining obstacle to consolidating report behind Rubio. Ted Cruz is making a point of running against the GOP establishment, which will back him only as a last resort. Trump has also found Cruz’s Achilles’ heel by, improbably, splitting the evangelical vote with him while drawing a host of more secular blue-collar voters into the process, which has diluted the impact of religion even in Bible-Belt South Carolina. If Rubio can pull things together, Cruz’s high point will probably prove to have been that Iowa caucus where he taught Trump that, yes, a ground game really does matter.
By staying in the race, Kasich helps Trump and, to a lesser degree, Cruz. So maybe he wants to see Trump or Cruz become the nominee.
I don’t think so.
Maybe Kasich really believes his campaign’s spin that, by dint of outlasting the many other governors who once vied for the nomination, he is the inevitable choice of a party and a nation that crave executive experience. Yet most of the other governors were gone before the first Republican entered a caucus room or voting booth, and the Trump-Cruz anti-establishment movement has blown away the combined vote of the governors who remained. Not the vote of any individual governor; all the governors together. If this is his theory, Kasich is selling a product for which the market has shown very little demand.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that Kasich is displaying “confirmation bias,” which is something we see a lot in the investment world. People tend to credit information that supports their theses - such as that a successful investment is evidence that the investor knows how to beat the market consistently - while discounting evidence to the contrary, such as other investments that did not work out so well.
In Kasich’s case, he has elevated a comparative success like New Hampshire to convince himself that his campaign has traction, while downplaying his back-of-the-pack finishes in Iowa, South Carolina, this week’s Nevada caucuses and (in advance) most of next week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Instead, he has focused on just a couple of states where he thinks he has a chance to do well next week, such as Virginia and Vermont, even though there is no realistic path to the nomination through winning only that handful of states.
Kasich has really pinned his hopes on home-state Ohio, whose winner-take-all contest is March 15, and on other big states like New York and California that also have big-stakes primaries relatively late in the season. Yet there is no evidence at all that Kasich could finish ahead of Trump in, say, California or New York, regardless of whether Rubio stays in the race or leaves it.
Kasich is not stupid. But he is ambitious – anyone who runs for president is ambitious by definition – and, at his age, he knows this is likely his last chance. As a vice-presidential nominee on a ticket headed by Rubio, his experience and Midwestern base could really help his party, especially as a counterbalance to Rubio’s youth. This is the role Joe Biden served for Obama. But Kasich has thus far rejected such speculation outright when asked.
And I can understand why he has, when I think about the echo chamber in which he has campaigned for the past year. When the only campaign events you attend are your own, you only meet people who either support you or are open to supporting you. Of course Kasich thinks GOP voters want him to keep running. The only GOP voters he meets are the ones who want him to do just that.
Being socially liberal, I do not usually think of myself as mainstream Republican, though I would like to be. I am sure most people would consider me “establishment.” If Kasich were the nominee, I would have no problem supporting him, though I think he would be a comparatively weak candidate against Hillary Clinton. He will be the reincarnation of Mitt Romney. I doubt Clinton would mind running against that at all.
If Kasich were younger, I think he would drop out now, welcome a chance to run on a Rubio ticket and set himself up to run again in 2020 or 2024. But he isn’t. For now at least, it looks like he does not want to be the next Joe Biden, who surrenders his own White House dream, helps a younger man win the prize and ultimately decides that opportunity has passed him by.