Could John Kasich's Announcement Timing Carry Him Onto the Debate Stage?

The Ohio governor may be counting on a post-announcement boost to vault him into the Republican presidential debate. Will it be enough?

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Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks at the First in the Nation Republican Leadership Summit April 18, 2015 in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

For John Kasich, launching a bid for the Oval Office boils down to three questions: Can he raise enough money to be competitive? Can he assemble a strong team in New Hampshire, a state he sees as his best path to the nomination? And, entering late into an over-crowded field of Republicans battling for attention, is it possible to stand out?

The governor of Ohio, that almighty swing state, will officially announce his decision on Tuesday at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he is expected to become the 16th Republican to enter the 2016 presidential race. Then, almost immediately, it will be time to answer a related question, one that other campaigns have had months to plan for: Can Kasich's anticipated announcement boost his polls numbers enough to squeeze his way onto the primetime debate stage? Paradoxically, his late entry may be the best way to achieve that goal.

The Republican Party has sanctioned nine debates for its condensed 2016 primary season. The first one, hosted by Fox News and Facebook in Cleveland, will be held on August 6. Only the top 10 candidates, determined by who has the highest averages of the five most recent credible national polls, will get a spot. CNN, which is hosting a second debate in September, will use a similar approach.

Given the fickleness of national polling at this stage in the race, and the number of Republicans consistently clustered below 5 percent, at least half of the GOP contenders are on the debate bubble, fighting for the final two Fox News primetime spots. If held today, it appears that Kasich—a two-term sitting governor and former chairman of the House Budget Committee when he was a nine-term U.S. congressman—would be forced to watch the Fox News/Facebook debate in his home state from the audience. 

Other candidates (and their supporting super-PACs) have already started plotting media strategies to secure those coveted wildcard positions. But Kasich, who hasn’t polled better than 3 percent in a national poll this year, may be best positioned for the final stretch. If the timing of his presidential announcement gives him even a modest bounce in the polls in the coming weeks, as it did for other Republicans this year, Kasich could leapfrog over his fellow candidates and onto the debate stage. Whether intentional or not, there are benefits to being fashionably late to a presidential race.

“It's a very complicated thing, but what's striking is that almost everybody got at least a little discernible rise after the announcement,” says Charles Franklin, director of polling at Marquette University, who has looked at  how campaign announcements have moved national polls. “You get your moment, but it tends to be pretty ephemeral.”

Like other candidates, Kasich and his supporters are doing everything he can to make his moment count. On Tuesday, pro-Kasich group New Day for America will begin airing new television ads in New Hampshire and Boston, according to a person with knowledge of the plans. “John Kasich helped to balance the federal budget, turned around the Ohio economy, and has 18 years' experience on the Armed Services Committee,” the 60-second spot says. “No one else comes close.”

John Kasich new TV Ad

The move is the next phase of a seven-figure media buy that Bloomberg Politics reported earlier this month, replacing another ad featuring Kasich that was already running in the New England area. On Sunday, New Day released a five-minute extended version about the governor’s life and what, his team maintains, makes him unique from anyone else in the race. Chris Schrimpf, a spokesman for New Day, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new ad.

Kasich will reveal his campaign logo on Monday and tape interviews with Fox News' Sean Hannity and ABC's George Stephanopoulos after his announcement on Tuesday, according to a separate person with knowledge of the campaign rollout plan. Kasich will then make three-day swing through New Hampshire, stop in South Carolina and Iowa on Friday, and visit Michigan on Saturday, where he will tape an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press.  

Turning all this activity into polling movement will be the challenge. The size of an announcement bounce—those crucial few weeks after candidates declare their candidacy in front of large crowds, tour early states, and milk all the free media attention they can—can vary dramatically. Those that already have high name recognition typically get more coverage, causing a higher bounce. Lesser-known contenders are lucky to pick up a handful of percentage points—a brief boost in the nation’s collective consciousness—which dissipates almost immediately, if a bounce materializes at all.

A Bloomberg Politics analysis of the kinds of national polls Fox News and CNN will use shows that Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the first Republican to jump into the race this year, got an 8 percentage point bump after declaring his candidacy on March 23. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson saw a 6-point bounce in his national polling after joining the race. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum temporarily climbed 5 percentage points. Florida Senator Marco Rubio jumped 10 points. Already, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has seen about a 7-point hike in national polls since he made his official campaign announcement announced last week—an impressive feat considering he was fighting for attention with news of a nuclear deal with Iran and oxygen-sucking antics of Donald Trump, who has been dominating political news cycles for weeks.

Before Trump announced, he was polling nationally around 2 percent. Now Trump leads the Republican field with 18 percent in the most recent Fox News poll. The only other candidate who has come close to seeing that kind of double-digit spike was former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who jumped 13 points after his mid-June campaign announcement.

Any of these would be more than enough for Kasich, whose bounce could peak around the same time as the August 4 polling deadline for the Fox debate. As it currently stands, he would need about a three-point increase to beat candidates like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or former Texas Governor Rick Perry, two Republicans who currently appear likely to make it into the first debate based on Fox's criteria. Others in close range are Santorum, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and former New York Governor George Pataki.

Not every candidate has been fortunate enough to see a statistically significant announcement bounce. While Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s numbers have been constantly strong (he is at no risk of losing a debate spot), he received only a 2-percentage-point increase after his April entry. Perry, Graham, Fiorina, and Pataki all saw between 1 and 2 percentage point bumps. Jindal and Christie got none at all.

“Outside of the most intensely active voters, these are fairly distant figures still,” said Franklin. “For an awful lot of the electorate at this point, these are names and events that are basically encountered by accident when you're watching the news. You have to break through into consciousness.”

Being left out of the debates may not be a deathblow to a fledgling campaign. Fox is televising a candidate forum earlier in the day for non-top-10 candidates. And C-SPAN is partnering with the New Hampshire Union Leader to host a separate, unofficial forum in New Hampshire on August 3 that Kasich will attend. But exposure to a broad Fox primetime audience this early in the race, and the chance to go head-to-head with 2016 front-runners, could conceivably influence which candidates overcome political inertia in this congested field of GOP candidates and which ones drift off into oblivion. 

Kasich's team said his announcement timing had nothing to do with the Fox debate. “He’s not even a candidate yet,” says Schrimpf. New Day has been focused on meeting several fundraising and staffing goals in recent weeks.

The group revealed last week that it raised $11.5 million in two months. Kasich has also made headlines by hiring campaign veterans like Fred Davis as a media strategist, Linda DiVall as a pollster, and John Weaver as a chief strategist. Former New Hampshire Senator John Sununu is helping Kasich build a Granite State operation. “We’re not putting the cart before the horse,” added Schrimpf. “We’re focused on the announcement.”

Making his rollout more difficult in the coming weeks, Kasich may be competing with the noise of Trump's ongoing (and escalating) brawl with the Republican Party. He will also be competing for news coverage with other low-polling Republicans trying to get noticed around the country. 

Opportunity Freedom, a super-PAC supporting Perry, will spend $1 million on national ads in the coming weeks, according to spokesman Jordan Russell. Aiding the re-introduction of Perry after his troubled 2012 nomination bid, the ads will run primarily on Fox News, conservative radio, and online, Russell said. The explicit goal: ensuring that when the first GOP debate starts, Perry is standing behind on of the podiums.

“This is about moving the needle and making sure that Governor Perry has a place on the stage to make his case to the public,” said Russell, who added that the group was spending money that normally would have been saved for early primary contests. “These are the new rules that have been set up by Fox that we have to play by. To get on that stage, that’s great opportunity, a free opportunity, to get in front of a large audience.” 

—Mark Halperin and Emily Bowman contributed to this report.  

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