Ohio Gov. John Kasich is selling himself as the voice of “light,” a positive alternative in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Political experts say it is unclear how that message will resonate as Kasich takes his campaign into more conservative southern states and in an atmosphere where large swaths of the electorate are just plain mad.
“I appreciate what Gov. Kasich is trying to do, but I think it cuts against the grain of where the electorate is right now,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies. “I am not sure it’s a viable long-term strategy.”
In a speech after his second-place showing in the New Hampshire Republican primary Tuesday night, Kasich told supporters that he had prevailed with a positive message despite millions spent on negative ads against him.
“We never went negative because we have more good to sell than to spend our time being critical of somebody else,” Kasich said. “And maybe, just maybe, in a time when clearly change is in the air, maybe just maybe we’re turning the page on a dark part of American politics because tonight the light overcame the darkness of negative campaigning.”
The message worked well for Kasich in New Hampshire, a state where moderates and independent voters are strong. But ultimately Kasich did not prevail against the harsh rhetoric of businessman Donald Trump, who led the race with with 35 percent of the vote, more than twice the 16 percent garnered by Kasich.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas placed third with 12 percent, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush with 11 percent, just edging U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who also took 11 percent.
“Kasich finished second. He deserves credit for that,” said Kyle D. Kondik, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
But, said Kondik, “New Hampshire pretty overwhelmingly voted for the pitchfork candidate, which is Trump.”
Kasich could not be reached for comment for this story.
On Wednesday New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina dropped out of the race after poor showings in New Hampshire.
Kasich is not alone among the GOP field in attempting to take the high road. Bush originally made a point of saying he would stay positive, although as he struggled to gain traction he’s backed away from that to some extent. Rubio also has sometimes taken a more optimistic tone, but political experts say the prominent tone on the GOP side is one focused on reaching people who believe there is much wrong with the country, its direction and Democrats.
“By any reasonable measure the electorate right now is upset. Candidates who are running based on that tend to be doing well right now,” Smith said. “Right now the depiction of government is negative, and people are feeding in to that.”
He said that is how Trump can get away with repeatedly making debunked statements, like his claim Tuesday that the unemployment rate in the U.S. could be as high as 42 percent not the 4.9 percent reported by the government.
“It deeply distresses me. I would love for our politics to be rational, for it to be argumentative, for it to be principled, for it to be evidence-based,” Smith said. “But we live in a visual culture where television and visual imagery is the dominate medium and those kinds of things kind of fall to the wayside.”
It isn’t unusual for the party out of power to preach gloom and doom in an effort to unseat the incumbent party, said Kondik.
“Republicans see a political advantage in using apocalyptic language in part because they’re trying to suggest that the current administration, which is a Democratic administration, is not doing a good job,” Kondik said. “And to the extent that they can make Obama look bad and make his approval ratings worse, they also make it likelier that they will win the election.”
It is arguable that the country was in far worse shape when Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008 and when Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 than it is now. But both candidates were known for their positive messages of hope, themes that resonated with voters and sent them to the White House. Kasich is one of many Republicans who name-check Reagan and his shining “city on a hill” and “morning in America” quotes.
“Even though President Obama and President Reagan were very optimistic in their campaign proposals, they were very critical of the current state of affairs,” said Smith. “But they delivered the message with a very positive tone.”
Even though the economy is on the mend, nagging issues leave voters feeling insecure and angry, said Paul Leonard, adjunct professor of political science at Wright State University. He said people are worried about job security, lack of retirement savings, poor educational options and the possibility of another war.
He said it has created “an army of discontent.”
“It’s not a matter of being in bad times, it’s a matter of being in a time of uncertainty,” said Leonard. “I think you combine that uncertainty in people’s lives with the persuasive power of people like Donald Trump, and I think that makes for a dangerous mix.”
Leonard was encouraged by Kasich’s strong showing in New Hampshire because he hopes Kasich is right, that a majority of people do want politicians to be positive and solution-oriented.
“His style is completely different than Ted Cruz or Donald Trump. Ted Cruz is dark. Donald Trump is dark. John Kasich is light,” Leonard said.
Democratic political strategist Dale Butland isn’t so sure the Kasich that residents of New Hampshire saw is the real John Kasich.
“The Prince of Light and Hope is a far cry from the old John Kasich that we know and love here in Ohio,” said Butland, who is spokesman for U.S. Senate candidate P.J. Sittenfeld and former press secretary and chief of staff to retired U.S. Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio.
“(Kasich once) talked about running people over with his bus if they didn’t knuckle under. And he called a police officer an idiot,” Butland said. “So the question for South Carolina and beyond is which John Kasich is going to show up: Dr. Jekell or Mr. Hyde.”
Kondik and Leonard both believe Kasich has evolved and matured.
“For people who know Kasich in Ohio, it’s not natural for them to think of him as a kumbaya candidate, but that is what he was (in New Hampshire),” Kondik said. “And to Kasich’s credit, I think he came into office with more of a partisan edge than he’s shown.”
Kondik pointed to Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid to help poor people get covered under the Affordable Care Act, a move that infuriated conservatives and for which he well may pay as the primary battle heads into more conservative terrain than New Hampshire.
South Carolina is the next primary state and has a history of some rather nasty battles. Nice might not play well, said Leonard.
“I think it’s going to be a real heavy lift (for Kasich) in South Carolina,” he said.
“I think Kasich’s argument can work well in New Hampshire because they have a lot of independent voters. You’re trying to preach compromise and problem solving,” Smith said. “But when you get into deeply Republican states, that’s not going to be a message that resonates.”
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