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Eye On Candidates
January 21, 2016

Kasich “Peaking” at the Right Moment?

Political observers have talked about “peaking” in the presidential nominating contest at the right time, transferring a concept from the world of athletics into the political arena. The idea is basically that a candidate should try to avoid rising into the top spots too early because he or she may be unable to sustain the demands expected of a frontrunner.

It’s not a theory that applies to all candidates – few would argue at this point that businessman Donald Trump “peaked” too early – but for lesser-known candidates there does appear to be some truth to it. Arguably businesswoman Carly Fiorina rose too soon in that her campaign organization was simply unable to take advantage of the attention she received following her second stellar debate performance (there are alternate theories regarding her failure to sustain the momentum as well, of course).

Instead, she might have been better off had she remained in the second or even third tier of candidates for a while longer, giving her time to build her campaign and hone her message, and banking on a later rise closer to the actual voting. But that assumes candidates have the ability to control when they rise to attention, which of course is not a given.

Whatever the merits of the “peaking” theory, it appears that right now Ohio Gov. John Kasich is benefitting from a sudden burst of attention and support, at least in New Hampshire. Bloomberg Politics reports:

The Wild Card: John Kasich Rises in New Hampshire

In the chaos that is the New Hampshire Republican primary, one candidate is steering clear of the bumper-car madness and quietly creeping ahead of his rivals.

John Kasich places second in New Hampshire in five out of six recent polls, behind longstanding front-runner Donald Trump. In three of them he's tied for second—with three different candidates: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. His rise over the past few weeks is palpable and reflected in the RealClearPolitics average of Granite State polls, which confirms his second-place standing there….

Kasich has recently picked up endorsements from The Nashua Telegraph and Portsmouth Herald as he barnstorms churches, businesses and community centers this week. His goal is a strong finish in the Granite State that makes him the clear establishment favorite and gives him the resources to compete for the delegate-rich blue and purple states down the road, such as Michigan and his home state of Ohio, where he's popular.

A strong finish in New Hampshire would undoubtedly boost Kasich’s chances at the nomination, but obstacles remain, as the article explains:

More troubling for Kasich, however, is what happens after New Hampshire. Even if the governor and former chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee places comfortably ahead of his establishment rivals and clears the center-right lane, his obstacles are daunting. He's a misfit for the angry, populist mood of the conservative base. He's stuck at 2 or 3 percent in national polls and isn't competitive in other early states. Just 21 percent of Republican voters across the country view Kasich favorably, while 28 percent view him unfavorably, according to a Monmouth survey released Wednesday.

Kasich’s rise has gotten a great deal of notice in recent days, such as this by The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin:

Don’t look now, but Ohio Gov. John Kasich has moved into second place in the RealClearPolitics averages for the New Hampshire GOP presidential primary. You can agree that the newest poll from ARG showing him at 20 percent is an outlier, but it is hard to ignore a raft of other polls showing Kasich to be competitive against former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

Political observers, including those with the other campaigns, don’t really take Kasich seriously. He’s not a constant presence in national media, so his campaign flies somewhat under cable TV’s radar screen. Critics point out that his debate performances have been unappealing and his unfavorable ratings remain high. That said, opponents disregard him at their peril. His record as a budget balancer and his blue-collar appeal are a good mix for the GOP and independent voters in the Granite State.

As Bush, Christie and Rubio knock one another, Kasich stands somewhat apart, with millions of dollars in positive ads to cushion him. No one can accuse him of not working in New Hampshire, where he seems to spend as much time as Christie….

Rubin notes that Kasich’s poor standing in Iowa may be a drag on him once voting starts in New Hampshire, however:

Moreover, Kasich is likely to finish in low single digits in Iowa, far behind, for example, Rubio. If the perception forms that he really is not a candidate who can go anywhere but New Hampshire, voters may hesitate to give him votes that could go to a stronger standard-bearer for moderates in the party.

Nate Cohn at The New York Times also reports on the growing Kasich momentum, while expressing some skepticism about the poll showing him with the largest lead:

I can’t say whether Mr. Kasich has really surged in New Hampshire; it is always better to look at all the evidence, and there just aren’t many recent polls in New Hampshire.

For good measure, the poll is not a reputable one. The American Research Group has an unusually lengthy record of high-profile misfires, including for almost all of the 2008 Democratic primaries and in the 2012 general election….

That said, it may be on to something. Another recent poll, conducted by Monmouth University between Jan. 7 and 10, showed Mr. Kasich rising to 14 percent — his best showing since early August, and ahead of all of his establishment rivals, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush.

One of the things Cohn notes, which was also reported in the Bloomberg Politics and Rubin articles, is that he’s currently not being targeted by any of the other candidates, potentially allowing him to offer his message uncontested:

Mr. Kasich’s establishment rivals are all facing or deploying negative television advertisements against one another. It’s a natural opportunity for Mr. Kasich, who isn’t being attacked — much in the way that John Kerry surged in Iowa as Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt attacked each other in the final two weeks of the 2004 race in Iowa. In the most recent Republican debate, Mr. Kasich didn’t necessarily stand out but presented himself as a sunnier alternative, and he has also been endorsed by a few New Hampshire newspapers.

It’s sometimes hard to know how cause-and-effect works at the end of the primary season. Recent cycles make it very clear that the race can change abruptly over the final two weeks, but often there aren’t explanations for big shifts. When voters like multiple candidates, a single good result and an accompanying media story line could be enough to elevate a candidate.

What’s clear is that a Kasich surge would be a significant turn in the race. It would make it far more difficult for another mainstream candidate to consolidate the establishment vote ahead of the South Carolina primary. Mr. Kasich could even do so well as to become the establishment front-runner himself, although there are reasons to question whether he would be as strong a challenger as someone like Mr. Rubio, who seems to have a closer connection to mainstream conservatives.

It seems clear that Kasich is rising at this moment, and for someone previously considered to be a second- or even third-tier candidate, the timing couldn’t be better – right before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, with plenty of time to make the most of the opportunity but not so far away from voting that he is likely to fade away. It’s impossible to know who will rise at the last moment, and there may be time for at least one more candidate to rise up. But the Kasich team ought to be pleased with the timing of their moment in the spotlight.