Ohio Gov. John Kasich's two paths: Will he challenge President Donald Trump in 2020?
Jessie Balmert, [email protected]
Published 9:48 p.m. ET April 2, 2018 | Updated 9:41 a.m. ET April 3, 2018
Ohio Gov. John Kasich argues in his book "Two Paths: America Divided or United" that Donald Trump was able to win the nomination and the White House by tapping a long-term erosion in American culture. USA TODAY
It doesn't matter that the Ohio governor lost the 2016 Republican primary to now-President Donald Trump after claiming victory in just one state. It doesn't matter that GOP candidates in Ohio's governor race have distanced themselves from Kasich at every turn. It doesn't even matter that his chances of upsetting a sitting president are slim at best.
The heart wants what it wants. Or, to quote the governor's favorite pop star, Justin Bieber: "Never say never."
That's where Kasich finds himself in April 2018 – months before he would need to make a firm decision about a third presidential run. With his career as governor coming to a close, Kasich faces two different paths for his future.
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Behind door No. 1 is a career as a political pundit, investment banker or board member of a major U.S. company. Kasich has experience in business and television – first as a Fox News host for six years and more recently as a frequent guest on Fox News' more liberal cable news competitors.
That's the most likely path. It doesn't include asking billionaires for money, defending his Medicaid expansion or eating New York-style pizza with a fork.
But Kasich is keeping another door open. If Trump doesn't run again, or if the president is plagued by scandal, or if Republicans clamor for an alternative, Kasich will be there, ready and waiting.
That is one reason the governor is traveling to New Hampshire Tuesday. He wants the Granite State and its early-primary voters to remember him – just in case.
John Kasich, independent
No sooner did Kasich team up with Colorado's Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, on health care than people started speculating about an independent bid for president. The pair even inspired a celebrity couple name for their unity ticket: Kasichlooper.
Kasich has considered an independent bid, but it's unclear how seriously.
There are good reasons to avoid a third-party campaign: They've never before led to the White House. (The most successful third-party candidate was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 when the former president earned just 88 electoral votes.)
"Running as an independent for president of the United States is a fool’s errand," said Andrew Smith, director of the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire.
One reason is institutional: Republicans and Democrats set up the systems that help their candidates win. Forty-eight states, including Ohio, have a winner-take-all allocation of their electoral votes. In those states, along with the District of Columbia, an independent candidate would have to best both the Republican and Democrat to win any electoral votes at all.
Another is behavioral: People don't like voting for people who can't win, said Walter Stone, a professor emeritus at University of California-Davis and author of "Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence."
Republicans and Democrats often complain that independent candidates are simply spoilers. In 2016, plenty called a vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein a vote for Trump. In 2000, Democrats wailed that Ralph Nader had helped George W. Bush win Florida.
"If I were advising John Kasich, I would advise him to not run as an independent," Stone said. "Although it is very difficult to unseat an incumbent president, if you can win the nomination then you have a much better chance of winning the election."
John Kasich, Republican
Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger stood in front of a giant "New Way" sign at a Los Angeles-area rally, looking out into a crowd of Republicans fed up with divisiveness in Trump's GOP. Kasich was seated in the front row.
“John, get back to Washington and kick some butt, OK? And take care of this mess once and for all. We can’t take it anymore,” Schwarzenegger said.
The people in that room, including Schwarzenegger, are Kasich's kind of Republicans: moderate voters more concerned about shoring up the nation's finances than fighting over border walls. But are they an endangered breed in the party of Trump?
Kasich's best path to the White House is through the Republican Party – but it's a narrow one.
Six in 10 of New Hampshire's GOP voters plan to pick Trump again; just 18 percent would vote for someone else, according to the most recent University of New Hampshire poll.
"I don’t think there is an opening within the Republican party right now," said Smith, the University of New Hampshire pollster. One poll even showed Trump beating Kasich, 62 percent to 27 percent, in Ohio. However, another New Hampshire-based poll showed Kasich just 6 percentage points behind Trump in a two-way race.
(To be clear: The first primary is just under two years away and most voters aren't paying attention.)
Former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, who supported Kasich's 2016 presidential bid, says the Ohio governor is better suited to challenge Trump than any other GOP candidate. (Think Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake or Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.)
New Hampshire voters and donors already know Kasich. He was an early supporter of New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a more middle-of-the-road Republican like Kasich. And he campaigned in New Hampshire heavily in 2016, finishing second in the nation's first primary – although distantly.
In New Hampshire, Kasich is "a known commodity. He hasn’t worn out his welcome," Rath said.
Why New Hampshire?
New Hampshire's Republican voters – unlike those in Iowa or South Carolina – are more concerned with being economically conservative than socially conservative. That's why Kasich targetted the state in 2016 and why it would be a key part of any 2020 bid.
Dave St. George runs a cafe in downtown Henniker, a town of about 4,800 people where Kasich will speak Tuesday. St. George remembers the Ohio governor from Kasich's 2016 presidential bid and thinks he could do well against Trump.
"Against this clown? Absolutely. (Trump) promised too much," St. George said. "Hopefully (Kasich) will be able to have another shot."
New Hampshire has a substantial number of "undeclared" voters, who choose each primary to pull either a Republican or Democratic ballot. But that doesn't mean the state is filled with independents, Smith cautioned. Most people stick to one party even if they aren't registered as Republican or Democrat.
New Hampshire also has a history – well, at least one instance – of unseating incumbent presidents.
In 1968, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy won 41 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote, securing more delegates than sitting President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, who was in the middle of fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam, was stunned and decided not to run for reelection.
But McCarthy didn't go on to win the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency, proving how difficult the road to victory can be. Still, if there's a path for Kasich, it goes through New Hampshire.
"If there is a challenge to (Trump) going forward," Rath said, "it’s going to start in New Hampshire."