Kasich: Huntsman ’16?

There’s a fundamental truth in Republican politics that I hope will someday stop being true: there’s rarely any percentage at all in proclaiming oneself as a moderate.

That’s not because there are no self-identified moderate voters in the GOP; as of January of this year, according to Gallup, 24% of GOP voters fall into that category. But the dominant conservative faction in the party just cannot tolerate leaders who don’t share The True Faith, so unless one aims at capping one’s support at about one in five Republicans, it’s a bad idea to Go There.

Moreover, the Scarlet M can be earned by rhetoric and association, not just by issue positions or self-identification. And that seems to be the problem facing Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is declaring his candidacy today. In fact, explains FiveThirtyEight‘s Harry Enten, he’s bidding fair to become the Jon Huntsman of this cycle: beloved of the MSM and partly for that very reason distrusted by conservative voters:

Kasich, like Huntsman, is adored by the media, is seen as too moderate by GOP voters and appears to enjoy telling Republicans they’re wrong. As Kyle Kondik first pointed out in Politico, Huntsman entered the 2012 race with great press but went on to kill his campaign, in part by tweeting stuff like: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Huntsman won no primaries and dropped out of the race after the New Hampshire primary, where the only party affiliation he won was self-identified Democrats.

By any objective measurement, Kasich, who has a very long public record thanks to his many years in the House, is a lot more conservative than Jon Huntsman and really pretty similar ideologically to Jeb Bush. But what matters, says Enten, are perceptions:

Kasich’s problem is that he sounds a lot like Huntsman. That is, he defends moderate positions — often in a manner that comes off as condescending. Most prominently, he has embraced Medicaid expansion in Ohio. Once challenged on expansion, Kasich yelled, “I don’t know about you, lady, but when I get to the pearly gates, I’m going to have an answer for what I’ve done for the poor.” It isn’t just what Kasich said, but how he said it. As Politico detailed, this type of reaction is fairly typical for Kasich. He likes to yell and to tell people, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The press, of course, loves it. In April, The Atlantic said Kasich “could be 2016’s most interesting candidate.” Vox called Kasich “the most interesting GOP presidential contender.”

But it’s not a good way to win over Republican voters. When all Republican voters hear are moderate answers, they begin to think you’re, well, moderate. In June, YouGov asked voters four times to put candidates on a 0 (liberal) to 100 (conservative) scale. Kasich was rated as more moderate than all the other candidates except for George Pataki. Heck, even Christie was rated as slightly more conservative than Kasich.

And that, my friends, is a one way ticket to Palookaville in today’s Republican Party.

In theory, Kasich can fix his problem; the most efficient way would probably be to attack the godless liberal media whose adoration is helping crush him. But with just two weeks left before Fox News decides who makes the August 6 debate cut, and Kasich now definitely out of the top ten, it’s doubtful he can simultaneously elevate himself and change his ideological image that fast, particularly with the current fascination over Donald Trump soaking up so much attention.

And here’s the clincher: Kasich’s chief “strategist” is John Weaver; his ad man is Fred Davis; both were fixtures in the mighty Huntsman campaign.

So if you’re interested in Kasich-mania, watch closely. It probably won’t last.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.