John Kasich is a bit of an optical illusion. He looks like a dud—too nice to win! but maybe secretly not nice!—just so long as you squint and ignore the misty future beyond the Republican National Convention. To the nearsighted, Donald Trump owns this primary, and Ted Cruz is aiming to own the delegates; meanwhile, Kasich got Ohio, and not even all of it. Loser!
But come November, the optics reverse. Nearly every poll suggests Trump will lose catastrophically against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the general election. Ted Cruz appears to fare better, but not better enough.
Meanwhile, Kasich somehow excels. Head-to-head polls show him soundly trouncing Clinton and holding his own against Sanders, which is no small feat. This kind of weakling-to-winner turnaround is the stuff of Charles Atlas, with Kasich cast as the shrimp who gets sand kicked in his face but ultimately transforms into the “Hero of the Beach,” or in this case, the hero of the GOP.
But it’s also tough to explain. Most of these head-to-head polls that favor Kasich are conducted nationally, leaving little nuance to explore beyond the top-line results. You can’t pick out the battleground states. You can’t predict electoral totals.
New data could clear some of that up. A study released today by polling and media firm Morning Consult used more than 44,000 responses to model Kasich’s performance against Clinton in every state, showing where the Ohio governor performed best or fell short. Combined with similar analyses pitting Clinton against Cruz and Trump—though Sanders was left out—the report paints a compelling picture. Kasich appears to be the only Republican left on the field who could win the general election, and he’d prevail by courting Midwest states no other Republican can touch.
From the report:
We find that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency with 328 electoral votes to Donald Trump’s 210 if the election were held today. In a prospective match up with Ted Cruz, Clinton would receive 332 electoral votes and the Texas Senator would receive 206 electoral votes. On the other hand, if the election were held today, John Kasich would receive 304 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 234, largely due to strong performances in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. Many caveats in this analysis are in store due to the length of time between now and November, the high proportion of adults who are undecided and close margins in key states such as Florida, but the results suggest the 2016 presidential election map will look similar to the 2012 map if Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are their parties’ respective nominees.
That last line should haunt the GOP, which reworked its own primary rules to avoid a repeat of Mitt Romney’s defeat to Barack Obama in 2012. If Trump wins, the report says he’d lose every state Romney lost, save for a victory in Maine. (Cruz actually does worse—he doesn’t even win Maine.)
This is welcome news for Kasich, who stands to win considerably more states than Romney did, according to the report. Though several traditional battlegrounds like Florida, Nevada, and Pennsylvania were too close to call, the fact that these contests are within Kasich’s striking distance is telling, especially when Trump and Cruz fall short. Critically, Kasich cleans the floor with Clinton in Ohio, where the report projects he’d win by 15 percentage points.
“He’s viewed much more favorably than Clinton, than Trump, than Cruz,” said Kyle Dropp, Morning Consult’s cofounder and one of the authors of the report. “And his unfavorable numbers are lower than those three by a significant margin … He’s the only candidate of those four that has a positive ratio.”
Head-to-head polls conducted this far from Election Day have a bad habit of being wrong. Morning Consult acknowledges this, though the study’s authors note that some polling, particularly regarding Trump, has been far more stable than usual. But they’re less interested in their simulated “election results” than the trend they indicate: The GOP’s best candidate may be the man currently in last place.
The Kasich pitch, then, is this: While Trump can deliver the base and Cruz can count on evangelicals, only the governor from Ohio can kick the conservative movement out of its tail-eating and bring new states to the table, re-centering the party with a moderate message that will play as well in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as it will in Mobile, Alabama. And if the Republican nomination race does end in a contested convention, the governor’s respectable favorability numbers and the time he has spent campaigning could make him a more attractive pick than Trump, Cruz, or a “white-knight” candidate like House Speaker Paul Ryan (who really—for real—isn’t interested anyway).
The only problem? The impenetrable and perplexing surface tension of this primary race. To Kasich, the view of the future is as clear as water—a convention that crowns Trump, an embarrassment of a general election, and Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office on Inauguration Day—but he keeps bouncing against this campaign without breaking through. This report, like many other polls, says Kasich could make a difference for the Republican Party. But he may never have the chance to prove it.