John Kasich’s Pyrrhic Victory in Ohio
With the passing of Super Tuesday II, Ohio Governor John Kasich finally notched his first victory in thirty tries by winning his home state of Ohio. Kasich’s margin over Donald Trump was two-thirds of the seventeen-point victory Senator Ted Cruz managed in his home state of Texas. Largely consistent with an Opportunity Ohio poll done on March 9-10, Kasich finished with 47%, Trump with 36%, Cruz with 13%, and Senator Marco Rubio with 3 percent.
When the dust settles on the 2016 election, it may just turn out that Kasich’s Ohio victory is one he will wish never happened. Let me explain by walking through two scenarios.
The worst case for Kasich going forward is that he does not win another major primary or caucus and fails to convince delegates at the Republican National Convention to select him as the party’s nominee. His pursuit of The White House ends with him going 1-50 in the states and District of Columbia, which would be a worse record than Rubio had before suspending his campaign yesterday. Many Republican voters will view Kasich’s campaign as the one that prevented Cruz from stopping Trump, as he will siphon votes from Cruz (see results in Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina). Kasich’s continued presence in the race only helps Trump continue to win most of the time.
The best case for Kasich is that he picks up a few more wins and succeeds at convincing delegates at the convention to pick him as the party’s nominee. At that point, Kasich enters the general election against Hillary Clinton from the weakest position of any Republican nominee in modern history. Even President Gerald Ford entered the 1976 convention with a majority of delegates over Governor Ronald Reagan (and won on the first ballot). In case you forgot, Ford lost to Governor Jimmy Carter – as did contested convention winner Thomas Dewey in 1948.
Regardless of which scenario occurs, the Republican nominee faces two enormous problems.
The first is the Electoral College. As I’ve detailed here, the Republican candidate enters the general election with 206 Electoral Votes versus 259 for the Democratic candidate, based on how states voted in the last six presidential elections. That allocation leaves just 75 Electoral Votes from five states (Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia) up-for-grabs. Kasich’s showings in Florida, Nevada, and Virginia, unlike Trump’s decisive victories in those states, were very weak. In contrast, Kasich’s win in Ohio only bested Trump by 11% who still managed to get 36% of the vote.
If the pattern from the last six elections holds in 2016, Clinton only needs to win Florida or Virginia to win the presidency. Ohio won’t even matter at that point, making Kasich’s uber-focus on Ohio irrelevant. It is true that no Republican can win the presidency without Ohio, but they first must win Florida and Virginia. Ford didn’t have to deal with this landscape in 1976.
The second is the impact of a bloody convention fight and denying Trump the nomination after he secured a majority of delegates. I find it utterly implausible that a contested convention enhances the Republican nominee’s chances of winning the general election. History seems to agree with that observation. If it is Trump, the Republican Party will be saddled with his well-documented baggage. If it is not Trump, a meaningful portion of his loyal base of voters – he has yet to receive less than 21% in a primary and hit well north of 30% in more than half the primaries – will simply not show up in November. Even worse, those voters could vote for Clinton to get the last laugh on the Republican Establishment.
Ford lost to Carter in 1976 by 2.1 percent. Had just 6,000 votes in Ohio and 7,500 votes in Mississippi gone the other way, Ford would have secured a 272 Electoral College victory on the heals of the Watergate Scandal. Perhaps Ronald Reagan’s pursuit of the nomination to the convention didn’t have an impact in the general election, but odds are that it did.
Contrary to Team Kasich, a contested convention will only ensure a Clinton presidency unless by some stroke of luck she is indicted before the election (that possibility will become like the 2008 birth certificate and 2012 Benghazi obsessions of Republicans for the 2016 election). A Clinton indictment puts any Republican in The White House, including Trump.
Because up to now Kasich has largely been irrelevant, the national media has barely dug into his record. Should he become the nominee at the convention, both the national media and Team Clinton will ensure that the “awe shucks, can’t we get along” nice guy persona Kasich has been able to adopt will get replaced by the guy who called a police officer an idiot, who threatened to run opponents over with a bus, and whose jobs record is mediocre.
It is too bad Kasich has surrounded himself with sycophants and members of the consultant class who are making lots of money now and stand to make even more in the Fall. The smartest move for Kasich would have been to drop out after Super Tuesday, thereby increasing the odds that Cruz could have stopped Trump before the convention. Kasich isn’t running a Reagan-esque insurgency; he is making it possible for an imposter to kidnap the Republican Party. By exiting gracefully on March 2, he would have looked like a statesman who cared more about the Republican Party than about his own messianic quest for the presidency.
More importantly, he would have preserved his standing to run in 2020 as a former governor and presumptive nominee. Instead, he is going to be the guy who either helped Trump win the nomination or left the party mortally wounded by a convention bloodletting resulting in a November loss to Clinton. Should he snatch the nomination at the convention, he may get the one chance that eluded him in 2000, but the price he is paying to get it will be too high. Unlike Reagan who emerged from 1976 stronger, Kasich will exit 2016 much weaker. He will not get another chance in 2020.
As they say, be careful what you wish for. Kasich got his wish by winning his home state, which frankly shouldn’t be that big of a surprise. Unless he is able to overcome both the Republican Electoral College disadvantage and a bloody convention, his Ohio primary victory likely will be his last and one he will regret having gotten.