Experience, Paired With Spontaneity, Could Be The Recipe For A Kasich Primary Surge

Sep 3, 2015

Ohio Governor John Kasich’s presidential campaign is enjoying boom times in New Hampshire – a surge in the polls, and growing crowds at his public events. At the heart of that recent success may be Kasich’s unique political personality.

As a two-term governor who also spent almost two decades in Congress and did a brief stint on Wall Street, Kasich could safely be described as a member of the Republican Establishment. But out on the campaign trail, he doesn’t exactly sound like your typical establishment candidate. Take for example, this moment from a house party in Bedford this week.

“I’m just who I am," Kasich said. "I’m not gonna put two ice cream cones in my mouth or take my shirt off. That’s not what I’m gonna do.”

In the midst of a very crowded field that includes several other governors, Kasich has been complementing his political record with sheer personality. It’s a brand of politics that proved successful in Ohio, where he won his gubernatorial re-election by a wide margin.

Howard Wilkinson is a political reporter with public radio station WVXU in Cincinnati, Ohio who has covered Kasich for over thirty years. He describes Kasich this way:

“He's a whirlwind; I mean he’s hard to keep up with," says Wilkinson. "He talks a mile-a-minute. He doesn’t follow a script; his speeches are almost stream of consciousness.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Wilkinson points out that it’s not just Kasich’s rhetorical style that sets him apart. On issues like the Common Core education standards and Medicaid expansion, Kasich is often at odds with his party’s mainstream.

“He doesn’t always follow the Republican orthodoxy," says Wilkinson. "And he talks about things like the Medicaid issue in biblical terms. He talks about ‘we have to do everything while we’re on this earth to help the people who are less fortunate than us.’ That’s a kind of Republicanism that a lot of Republican voters are not used to.”

At the same time, Kasich’s policies on many core issues put him well within the Republican mainstream. On healthcare, he has been a staunch critic of Obamacare, and on abortion he is strongly pro-life.

This mix of moderate and conservative policies, decades of political experience, and an informal attitude is a recipe that so far seems to be working for Kasich. Over the past month he has risen to second place within the GOP presidential field in New Hampshire polls.

At a town hall in Henniker this week, Kasich put his brand on display. When a voter asked about fiscal policy, he couldn’t resist starting with a joke.

“The fiscal policy or the physical policy?" joked Kasich. "I can tell you about the physical policy, I got up this morning – oh you meant the fiscal policy?”

In a moment that was emblematic of Kasich’s broader campaigning style, he immediately followed that by describing his years of experience writing budgets in Congress and in Ohio.

But Kasich’s penchant for speaking off the cuff is not without risks. Back in 2011, Kasich ignited controversy when he called a police officer who pulled him over for a minor traffic violation “an idiot.”

More recently, at a Republican presidential forum on education in New Hampshire, he upset many educators when he joked that he would abolish teachers’ lounges when he was "king" of America.

Credit Mike Munhall

But this willingness to go off-script seems to be attractive to many New Hampshire voters, even for those who don’t exactly agree with his politics.

Elana Lopez is student at New England College where Kasich held a recent town hall. Enjoy though she considers herself a Democrat, she left with a good impression.

“He’s actually really cool," said Lopez. "He was really nice and I like his opinions on a lot of things, a lot of things I was like I don’t really like that but all in all he was really cool. He was genuine.”

For Ken Foote, a self-described independent voter from Bedford, Kasich’s style is a refreshing change of pace.

“Everyone else it’s the same kind of speech, the same kind of talk," explained Foote. "You know after a while, it’s stale. I thought [Kasich] did a better job than other people I’ve heard. Jeb Bush was here I heard him, he’s a very sharp guy, smart. But same thing, he comes across as a politician. Where John seems a little more regular I guess.”

While Kasich may be refreshing to some New Hampshire voters right now, there are still five months before Primary Day, when voters will decide whether his brand has gone stale.