John Kasich has begun to talk in biblical terms when discussing his quest to defeat Donald Trump and his fellow GOP presidential rivals. “Look, we have a lot of candidates who like the Prince of Darkness,” Kasich told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. “I consider myself the Prince of Light and Hope, and I don’t spend all my time getting people riled up about how bad everything is.” For the Republican Party, though, Kasich’s current surge in New Hampshire looks less like heaven than it does like hell.
With less than three weeks to go until the Granite State contest, Trump remains on pace to post a potentially race-altering win in the first-in-the-nation primary. But while the GOP establishment is still rightfully dreading a Trump victory, they now face the prospect that Kasich may steal the second-place spotlight from one of his party-backed rivals who would be better positioned to use it as a springboard to challenge Trump or Ted Cruz moving forward.
An American Research Group poll conducted over the holiday weekend found Kasich in sole possession of second place in the state with the support of 20 percent of likely GOP primary voters, 7 points behind Trump and 10 points ahead of third-place Marco Rubio. The Ohio governor’s rise—he’s up an average of 6 points since the week before Christmas—comes as he’s more or less moved his entire campaign to New Hampshire and as he’s notched a handful of endorsements from local newspapers there.
Kasich’s top-line numbers in the ARC survey are a bit of an outlier—he hasn't exceeded 14 percent in any New Hampshire poll in more than five months, nor come within 7 points of Trump since last summer—but his position is not. In the RealClearPolitics rolling average of state surveys, Kasich currently sits in second place at 13.3 percent, nearly 18 points behind Trump but with narrow leads over Rubio (11.5 percent), Cruz (11.3 percent), Chris Christie (8.3 percent), and Jeb Bush (8.3 percent). Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight estimate that, based on state polls alone, Kasich has a 12-percent chance to pull off the upset and win the primary outright, and a 14-percent chance when you factor in national polls and endorsements. Meanwhile, they give Rubio a 10-percent and 17-percent chance, respectively. While the GOP establishment would love to see either man deny Trump a victory, the more likely outcome is the two men battle it out for second place in a crowded field.
A Trump victory on its own would do plenty of damage to the GOP establishment. As I explained earlier this month, if the Donald wins, he will have bested the best the Republican establishment has to offer in a state where they’d have no excuses given primary voters there are considerably more moderate and establishment-minded than Iowa’s GOP caucusgoers. But the GOP’s problems get that much worse if Kasich is the one who wins the establishment race within the larger one.
My colleague Jim Newell addressed this danger back in November when Kasich was polling in fourth place: Each vote for Kasich is one that could instead be going to Rubio—and the GOP establishment favorite-by-default will need each and every vote if he plans on leaving New Hampshire with anything that could be mistaken for momentum. The damage Kasich will inflict to the establishment’s efforts to win the nomination is compounded if Kasich isn’t just siphoning off votes from Rubio—or from Bush or Christie—but finishing ahead of them in the final standings. A strong, second-place finish in New Hampshire would give Kasich’s campaign some life and some cash, yes, but it won’t change the fact that his unapologetic conservative apostasy on everything from immigration to Medicaid expansion to marriage equality makes it incredibly difficult to imagine him consolidating enough support to pass Trump and Cruz a couple months down the road—which will be the best and perhaps only path left for any of the establishment-minded candidates still in the race after New Hampshire. Meanwhile, Rubio, Bush, and Christie—all considered stronger GOP candidates than Kasich—would head to South Carolina having to explain what went wrong in New Hampshire, a state they knew they needed to do well in. (Rubio, in particular, would be wounded: It’s mighty difficult to look like your party’s savior when you lose in an establishment-minded state to both a guy who’s running against the establishment and someone else running toward it.)
It’s possible, of course, that Kasich could use a second-place finish in New Hampshire to become the establishment’s chosen candidate, and that scores of Republican lawmakers and governors currently sitting on their hands could jump in and rally around a man who takes great joy in telling conservative voters they are wrong. But the more likely scenario is that Kasich’s strong finish would give him the reason he needs to soldier on, but not enough of one for the better-funded Rubio or the much-better-funded Bush to drop out. In that scenario, Trump and Cruz would remain the favorites while the establishment would still be stuck in purgatory looking for one of its own.
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