Why I Keep Forgetting About John Kasich

by Stuart Rothenberg October 9, 2015 · 10:47 AM EDT

The Republican contest for president probably will boil down to a fight between a pragmatic conservative, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and either an uncompromising conservative, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, or an outsider, like Ben Carson.

Most of the GOP hopefuls fit into either of those categories, but Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich doesn’t.

That shouldn’t be surprising. As I observed in a late April column, I expected Kasich, who was not yet in the race at that point, to run as a conservative outsider who would fight for the middle class but also stress the need for his party to be compassionate and caring.

Addressing the question of whether Kasich was in the GOP’s top tier, I suggested he needed to raise money, demonstrate he has the maturity he lacked when he last ran and prove he is able to excite “a broad swath of Republicans in a crowded field” before placing him in the top group of contenders.

As I talk with audiences around the country about the GOP race, I have encountered a number of Republicans who like Kasich and hope he will be on the national ticket. But the Ohio governor has yet to catch the attention of enough Republicans, and his path to victory is no clearer now than it was in the spring.

National polls generally show Kasich sitting in the 2 percent to 4 percent range, about in the middle of the GOP pack. He sits around 2 percent in Iowa, placing him more toward the back of the field. He showed strength in New Hampshire, where he finished second with 12 percent in an Aug. 26-Sept. 2 NBC News/Marist survey. But since then, Kasich has slipped.

A Sept. 17-23 CNN/UNH/WMUR survey of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire found the Ohio governor getting 7 percent and bunched with Marco Rubio (9 percent), Ben Carson (8 percent) and Jeb Bush (7 percent). That group trailed both front-runner Donald Trump and runner-up Carly Fiorina by a considerable margin. And a more recent Sept. 23-30 NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll showed Kasich in the middle of the pack with 6 percent.

Kasich clearly is focused on the Granite State, and with good reason. He has a number of veteran New Hampshire Republicans backing him, including former Sen. John Sununu and former Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath, and the state’s traditional focus on economic issues (rather than social issues) and open primary, which allows independents to vote in the primary of  their choice, could help him find a receptive audience.

In terms of a path for the nomination, the demise of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom I regarded as a problem for Kasich back in April, removes the other Midwest governor from the race. And Ohio’s significance in the general election remains a huge part of Kasich’s appeal for many Republicans.

Money remains a question mark. Kasich’s super PAC raised $11.5 million in May and June, even before he officially entered the race at the end of July. His third-quarter fundraising numbers obviously will attract plenty of attention.

All in all, Kasich has not done badly so far. He has a strategy and qualities that some Republicans like.

So, what keeps me from believing that Kasich has enough upside to win his party’s nomination? It’s pretty simple: Kasich appears to be the favorite Republican hopeful with both members of the media and Democrats (see here, here and here).

Both groups find him tolerable because they regard him as less conservative than the other alternatives, and they like his comments about the less fortunate and government’s responsibility to them. (The Club for Growth, on the other hand, was critical of Kasich’s record as governor.)

Unfortunately for Kasich, being the preferred Republican among journalists and Democrats isn’t exactly the credential that someone seeking the GOP nomination should want.

Four years ago, many in the national media fell in love with former Utah governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, whose style and agenda made him less attractive to conservatives. Not surprisingly, Huntsman didn’t do well in the race for the Republican nomination, and he exited early.

Kasich has a long record and plenty of accomplishments, both on Capitol Hill and in the governor’s office. And the appeal that his state has to more pragmatic rank-and-file Republicans is undeniable. He certainly continues to bear watching.

But he still has not yet proved he can stand out from the crowd, and he may need the demise of one or more of the other more establishment candidates to clear a path to the top tier. Until that happens (if it ever does), Kasich continues to be squeezed in a very crowded, but unpredictable, race.