An Ohio win won't save him.
Maybe I’ve been watching too much Walking Dead lately. Maybe it was Chris Christie’s vacant Super Tuesday stare. But these days, I keep thinking of John Kasich as the guy in a horror movie who you know is the next to get caught by the zombies. “That guy” is always a little late to the game (our heroes meet him on the way, a sure indicator that he’s not in it for long). He is usually only there to draw contrasts with the protagonists, and there’s no way to envision him fitting into the remainder of the movie’s plot. And so it goes with Kasich. Even if he wins his home state of Ohio—the opportunity that many pundits hold out as his only path to the nomination—he will not defeat Trump, or play a significant role in the rest of the election season.
A good rule I’ve found in this election season is that the closer someone is to the inside of the GOP establishment, the more they know about and respect Kasich; the further away, the less they know or care about him. So when he entered the race on July 21—more than a month after renegade Donald Trump and insider Jeb Bush—he already seemed an afterthought to many. He never managed to get his voice heard above the Trump roar. Even his stance as the candidate of hope was developed late in the game—more a response to Trump than the stirrings of his own heart as a zealous advocate of conservative principles.
Failing to distinguish oneself as someone the audience cares about is a sure sign of doom in both elections and zombie movies. Pundits should praise Kasich more for his effort to set a positive tone, and the fact that they have not is a testament to the tone of this campaign—harsh, combative, and negative. Republican voters—particularly those voting in droves for Trump—don’t want to hear that there can be a positive message in the time of Barack Obama.
But more damning for Kasich’s candidacy is the fact that there is no clear way he fits into the storyline of the 2016 election. Reporters love to speculate about a “brokered convention” (when no candidate wins a majority of the delegates), in which someone like the Ohio governor could emerge as a favorite son. But beyond some conniving around the vice presidential slot, a true brokered convention has not happened since 1920, and in the dynamics of the modern presidential nominating system, such machinations simply do not work. The threat of a Trump third-party run, combined with the hostility of his supporters for any brokered candidate—especially one soundly rejected at the polls—would doom such a strategy.
Some have speculated that Kasich might bolt the party and join Hillary Clinton on a unity ticket, but it’s hard to see how such a plot would help her navigate her way to a presidential win. Her own party—particularly young Democrats—are already looking to her left. Should she nominate a Republican old enough to have voted to impeach her husband, she would lose such voters.
Could Kasich be Trump’s running mate? Again, it seems unlikely. The VP candidate is often an attack dog, and although Trump does not need one of those, Kasich would provide Trump with some much-needed policy expertise. But there’s the rub—Trump doesn’t seem to be in the market for policy expertise, at least for use on the campaign trail. The VP most often serves as a proxy or a warm-up act for the candidate, and it is hard to imagine either Kasich’s policy-heavy rhetoric or his message of civility serving well as either.
After Super Tuesday, Kasich is falling further behind. If he fails to win Ohio, the zombies will close in. And when he drops out, it will only lighten the load of the remaining band of candidates.
Daniel Klinghard is an associate professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.