Admittedly, 2016 is a year in which the electorate—especially the rebellious voters who have turned the GOP primary season upside down—aren’t putting a premium on political experience. But of the five Republican candidates left in the field, there’s one person who has the traditional résumé indicative of a president of the United States.
That would be 63-year-old John Richard Kasich of Ohio. He’s a pro-life conservative who emphasizes the working poor. He’s a fiscal conservative who helped maneuver President Bill Clinton into balancing the federal books in the 1990s budget wars. He is also, not to put too fine a point on it, governor of a big Midwestern state with a significant distinction: No Republican has ever ascended to the White House without carrying Ohio.
And the Republican “establishment” is trying to force him out of the race.
I don’t have a horse in the GOP nomination fight, but it was hard to argue with Kasich, who said yesterday that anyone calling for him to leave the 2016 race needs to “chill out.” He has as much right to stay in this race as anyone else—and more than some. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
First, let’s talk about the panic that has gripped vast swaths of the Republican Party in the wake of Donald Trump’s smashing victory in Nevada on Tuesday. After months of denial about the strength of Trump’s appeal and wishful thinking about his imminent demise, the GOP establishment now fears that Trump is on the verge of running away with the nomination. Hence the frantic calls for some sort of “unity ticket,” or for Kasich and Ben Carson to get out—or even for Rick Perry, freshly cleared by the courts Wednesday of bogus and politically motivated charges, to get in as a third party alternative. Republicans are grasping for something, anything, to stop Trump before it’s too late.
The trajectory of this race reminds me of the plot of the classic 1983 anti-war movie “WarGames.” The film starts innocently enough, with a teenager trying to pirate the latest video games accidentally hacking into the U.S. defense network. The computer responds by asking the now iconic question in its halting, robotic voice: “SHALL WE PLAY A GAME?”
This is more or less how the Republican establishment viewed Trump’s entry into the 2016 race: a harmless diversion that would be over in a few weeks. Eight months later Donald Trump is at DEFCON 1, threatening to nuke the Republican establishment and win the nomination, and GOP elites are running around shrieking like Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy trying to break into NORAD and pull the plug on the whole thing.
Except it’s looking more and more like this movie ends with the computer winning. Trump heads into Super Tuesday on March 1 with the wind at his back. He’s leading in 10 of the 11 states up for grabs that day, with a combined 595 delegates in play.
The only state where Trump isn’t leading is Texas. Ted Cruz currently has an eight-point lead in the RealClearPolitics Average, though the most recent poll, by Emerson College, shows his lead at just one percentage point.
Obviously, Texas is a must win for Cruz. If he loses his home state to Trump, his rationale for being the Trump-stopper is demolished. Similar tests awaits Rubio and Kasich on March 15, when both Florida and Ohio are up for grabs as winner-take-all states, for 99 and 66 delegates, respectively.
In Florida, polls taken in late January show Trump with massive leads and, equally as stunning, with support over 40 percent in a multi-candidate race. A new poll is expected later this morning from Quinnipiac University, which will take into account most of what has transpired in February and will give us a better understanding of where Marco Rubio stands in his home state.
In Ohio, there’s not much data to work with either. The most recent poll, also conducted by Quinnipiac last week, shows Kasich trailing Trump by five points, 31 to 26. Things could, and probably will, change by mid-March, but at the moment Kasich remains within striking distance.
Imagine we wake up on Wednesday morning, March 16, to find that Sen. Rubio has lost Florida to Trump, while Gov. Kasich has beaten Trump in Ohio. If that happens, how do Rubio’s supporters, which include much of the existing GOP officialdom, make the case that Kasich should defer to Rubio? Why wouldn’t the logical argument be the other way around?
Kasich bolsters his argument by pointing to the fact that he runs far better against Hillary Clinton in general election match-ups than either Cruz or Rubio. So why wouldn’t establishment Republicans rally behind the most “electable” candidate who carries his home state in the primary?
As we’ve already seen, anything can happen in a race as crazy and unpredictable as this one. Which is why John Kasich has every right to stay in this contest through March 15 and let Republican voters in Florida and Ohio have their voices heard. Until then everyone should listen to Kasich and chill out.