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Eye On Candidates
February 10, 2016

Kasich Wins N.H. Expectations Game – Now What?

The top-line winners in last night’s New Hampshire primary were Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side and businessman Donald Trump on the Republican side. Arguably, however, the biggest “winner” of the evening was Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who surged to a clear second-place finish last night while finishing ahead of his fellow governors, Florida’s Jeb Bush and New Jersey’s Chris Christie.

As numerous media outlets this morning are reporting, Kasich’s runner-up status ought to breathe new life into a campaign that had bet everything on a strong finish in the Granite State. Here is how The Washington Post described it:

With second-place finish, Kasich is thrust into relevance

John Kasich was “irrelevant” in Donald Trump’s assessment three months ago. After a second-place finish Tuesday, Kasich has a rejoinder: Not anymore….

He skipped the Iowa caucuses, betting that his centrist, laid-back brand wouldn’t break through in that conservative bastion. Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, he sneaked up from behind the pack, designing a data-driven campaign to target Republicans and independents alike.

In the end, when voters here tuned in most intensely in the closing days, Kasich was in position to grab them. A quarter of the GOP electorate decided late, and Kasich performed strongly among them, according to network exit polls….

But Kasich still placed far behind the front-runner Trump. And he faces a far greater challenge. He must compete in less-hospitable Southern territory before heading to his home ground of the Midwest.

In describing Kasich as one of the winners of the evening, The Hill had this to say:

The battle among establishment Republicans in New Hampshire was fierce — and Kasich won it.

The Ohio governor virtually camped out in the state, pinning all his hopes on its love of idiosyncratic candidates who don’t toe the party line. He held more than 100 town hall meetings, respecting Granite Staters’ famous love of retail politicking.

That, a solid debate showing on Saturday night and days of bad press for Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) combined to deliver a second-place finish for Kasich.

But he faces … an uphill fight in the Feb. 20 South Carolina primary and in the Deep South states that are among those voting on March 1. 

Still, this was a moral victory for the governor.

A recurring theme of the coverage of Kasich’s big night, however, is that he faces serious tests ahead. His campaign organization in South Carolina and Nevada, the next two states with nominating contests, lags far behind those of his better-funded rivals. And while he is likely to get a needed injection of funds from donors after last night, the so-called “SEC primary” in March will require significant resources to compete in, and it’s unclear if Kasich can raise enough to be competitive.

As The New York Times reported this morning, Kasich’s campaign seems to recognize it can’t compete in South Carolina and plans to focus their efforts on the contest beginning in mid-March:

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, the second-place finisher in New Hampshire with less than half the support of Mr. Trump, arrives in this more conservative Southern state where he has little staff or support….

Mr. Kasich’s campaign, already looking beyond South Carolina, issued a statement on Tuesday night that he was in position to win the Michigan primary on March 8 and continue a fight for the nomination in other Midwestern states.

The Cincinnati Enquirer report on their home-state governor’s campaign includes more details on the schedule and strategy of Kasich at this point:

In South Carolina, where voters head to the polls Feb. 20, and in the group of Southern states voting March 1, voters have viewed Kasich as too moderate for their conservative tastes. He must attract enough money to persevere even if he doesn’t win many delegates there.

And he must hope he can maintain momentum until mid-March. He'd count on wins in Michigan on March 8 and Ohio on March 15 to give new fire to his campaign. Indeed, Kasich is planning campaign events in Michigan next week, giving up at least two days he could be spending in South Carolina.

Still, the Kasich team says it will be able to make up lost ground in South Carolina. Kasich has campaigned regularly in the Palmetto State, focusing on coastal areas, which tend to be more moderate. His political action committee's targeting has included African-Americans who are more moderate voters.

The optimism of the Kasich team may be justified, but a Politico article from earlier this week suggested that he and fellow governor Chris Christie, if he stays in the race, have a long, hard month ahead of them:

For John Kasich and Chris Christie, even the dream scenario here is followed by a monthlong nightmare.

Both camps have all along banked on a strong showing in New Hampshire to provide a springboard, but even if they beat expectations Tuesday, there’s trouble ahead: a plunge immediately into a string of states inhospitable to their brand of centrist politics. Conservative South Carolina and unpredictable Nevada await, followed by the dozen, mostly Southern states that have turned March 1 into this cycle's "super Tuesday."

The trail doesn't get any easier until mid-March, and to survive until then, the candidates have a two-pronged plan: hope that neither Ted Cruz nor Donald Trump can build an insurmountable lead by consolidating the race’s outsider support, and work to pick up delegates on the margins, even in states where they have little hope of winning outright.

But as they scramble to keep competitive, both camps will be haunted by their all-in investments in New Hampshire. Neither has built up a significant organization in the states that will jointly make up this cycle’s version of “super Tuesday,” and outsider observers are openly skeptical that, wherever they finish in New Hampshire, either has the pieces in place to make headway in the month ahead.

The article points out that there are a few states on March 1 that might be more hospitable to Kasich, including Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia, and that could at least help avoid a complete blowout on that day if he fares as poorly in the Southern states as seems to be expected. Then, his home state of Ohio holds its primary on March 15, which could revive what might be a flagging Kasich campaign by this point. Also helpful to Kasich will be that states holding primaries before March 15 must award their delegates proportionally, meaning none of the other candidates is likely to have built a large lead by that point.

Kasich had a good night in New Hampshire, and there is a path to the nomination for him as a result. But his lack of campaign organization in the next several states combined with a generally more conservative electorate turning out in the upcoming contests suggest he still faces a steep climb, particularly if Bush or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio perform well in the next several contests, allowing them to be seen as the main alternative to Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at a time while Kasich is lying low waiting for Ohio to vote.