Donald Trump Tests Ohio's Loyalty to John Kasich

The governor has a 62 percent approval rating and the support of the Republican Party establishment in the state. What could go wrong?

John Kasich is a popular governor running for president in his home state, where voters know him best and the full weight of the state's Republican Party stands behind him. In a normal year, that might be enough to ensure a victory in Ohio's Republican primary, but thanks to Donald Trump, 2016 is anything but normal. 

The outcome in Ohio, one of five states voting on Tuesday, is a test of whether Kasich's ability to mobilize his supporters can offset the real estate mogul's appeal to white working-class voters and others who may have backed the governor in the past but want an outsider as their next president.

“It's not going to be the standard operating procedure that we've seen for so many years from both Republicans and Democrats,” said Steve Rentschler, 60, of Cincinnati, a Republican who supported Kasich for governor but is a delegate for Trump this year. “Kasich still has a lot of the insider.”

Republican presidential candidate John Kasich greets supporters on March 13, 2016, in Strongsville, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate John Kasich greets supporters on March 13, 2016, in Strongsville, Ohio.
Photographer: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Kasich, who'll be joined on the campaign trail in his home state on Monday by 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, has said he'll quit the race if he doesn’t win Ohio. If he prevails, and takes Ohio's 66 delegates, it will be more difficult for Trump to amass the needed delegates and would create what the governor envisions as a “whole new ballgame.” He said it may ultimately propel him to the nomination at a contested party convention in Cleveland in July, as long as voters want what he's offering to bring to the U.S.

“He's got a lot of energy and enthusiasm right now from Republicans who are looking for somebody who actually has a record of accomplishment,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Kasich supporter, told reporters after an event on March 11 in suburban Cleveland. “Maybe Ohio voters are a little more focused on that than some other voters.”

Kasich, 63, a two-term governor and 18-year congressman, has tried to sell himself as an experienced manager who could work with Democrats and fix the nation's most intractable problems. After languishing in national polls for months, he had hoped that a second-place finish to Trump in the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary would provide the national attention and fundraising to propel him toward the nomination.

But even though Kasich has outlasted eight other current or former Republican governors who ran this year, he's only finished second two other times, while Trump has already prevailed in 15 states. The primaries on Tuesday in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri mark a new phase in the race, when some of the states turn to a winner-take-all allocation of delegates. 

Republican establishment leaders, led by Romney and others, are urging voters to back Kasich, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, or Texas Senator Ted Cruz to deny Trump the needed number of delegates before the convention on grounds that his boorish behavior and ill-defined policies make him unfit to be president. On Friday, Rubio even asked his Ohio supporters to back Kasich because “he has a better chance of stopping Donald Trump in Ohio than I do.”

Kasich is a distant fourth in delegates with 63, according to an Associated Press tally. A win in Ohio would put him only 34 short of Rubio's delegates as of Sunday. There are 292 other delegates at stake in the four other states on Tuesday.

Polling in Ohio has been mixed, with Kasich holding a 2 percentage point advantage over Trump and Cruz and Rubio further behind, according to a RealClearPolitics average of surveys in the state as of Sunday. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist survey released on Sunday showed Kasich up by 6 percentage points. 

Kasich is campaigning throughout Ohio in the final days leading up to Tuesday's vote, while Trump held rallies this weekend in suburban Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Dayton. Late on Sunday Trump switched a planned election-eve event at his south Florida luxury golf resort to Youngstown, a former steel-making hub whose economy was scarred by plant closures in the 1970s. 

On Friday, the Ohio governor spoke at Fuyao Glass America, a hulking former General Motors plant in suburban Dayton that closed in 2008. The Chinese automotive glass manufacturer reopened the facility in 2015 and has hired 1,400 workers with the help of Kasich's administration and his private economic-development entity.

“I need your vote, and I think for all of the work that we've been doing, if you feel as though the state is doing better, and if you want to share it with the rest of country, I'm asking you to give me the help on Tuesday,” Kasich said told the crowd.

Trump called Kasich “weak” while campaigning in Ohio, and criticized his support for trade agreements. A Trump television ad focused on Kasich's stint as an investment banker at the failed Lehman Brothers, called him an “absentee governor” and said, “We don't need him in Ohio, and we certainly don't need him in Washington.”

“Kasich is a baby,” Trump said during a rally on Saturday in Dayton. “He can’t be president.”

George Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor, two-term Ohio governor, and 12-year U.S. senator, said Kasich's path to victory in Ohio is turning out people who support him and think he's best qualified for president, as well as an “anybody but Trump” contingent. 

“What's happening now is that the veil is coming off of who he is and what he believes,” Voinovich said of Trump in a telephone interview. “More and more people are realizing that he's a phony, he's a con artist.”

Aiding Kasich is the fact that the Ohio Republican Party, which endorsed Kasich and broke a 64-year-old policy of neutrality in presidential primaries, is working for the governor and pushing early absentee voting on his behalf.

“We have the apparatus to turn out the vote,” said Matt Borges, chairman of the state party. “It's already been working for weeks, even months, to deliver this victory for John Kasich.”

Bill Gibson, 62, an investment adviser from suburban Columbus, volunteered to make calls for Kasich at Borges' urging after a rally with former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in Columbus on March 6. The real estate mogul has passionate supporters who will vote, and Kasich backers must be motivated to turn out in a primary, he said.

“While John would have a natural advantage, you would think, it's a primary, and people are just now understanding the importance of the primary because the Trump machine keeps rolling up victories,” Gibson said.

On Saturday, Kasich got a boost from another Ohio politician, former House Speaker John Boehner, who made headlines by announcing he had cast an early vote for the governor. 

Kasich is also trying to benefit by contrasting Trump's campaign, which devolved into violence at a rally in Chicago on March 11, with what he's calling a positive campaign that eschews political attacks. He gets standing ovations at his events with comments such as, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”

One factor that could hurt Kasich and help Trump is the ability the New Yorker has shown in other states to attract Democrats and first-time voters to Republican primaries. Ohio voters can select either party's ballot, and their choice determines their affiliation.

In Cuyahoga County, the state's most-populous and a Democratic stronghold, about 16 percent of the more than 33,000 people who had requested a Republican absentee ballot as of Wednesday were current or former Democrats, and 27 percent were unaffiliated voters, according to the county Board of Elections. Officials in Youngstown and Mahoning County, near where Trump scheduled his last-minute rally on Monday night, report a similar trend.

The Ohio governor, who won 86 of 88 counties in his 2014 re-election against a weak Democratic opponent, remains popular. A Quinnipiac University poll in October showed Kasich with a job-approval rating of 62 percent, his highest ever. Even 42 percent of state Democrats said they supported his performance.

A Bloomberg News analysis in July of 11 indicators of state economic performance during the time that the governors running for president were in office showed that Ohio under Kasich had the third highest median ranking in the indicators, behind former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who left office in 2007, and former Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose three terms ended in early 2015. 

Kasich can boast that he turned an inherited a budget deficit approaching $8 billion and a rainy-day fund of just 89 cents into a $2 billion surplus, even as state Democrats complain that the governor balanced the budget by cutting funding for local governments and schools, and takes credit for a state already rebounding from recession when he took office in 2011.

“I gave Governor Kasich a recovering economy,” former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland, defeated by Kasich in 2010, told reporters on Sunday in Columbus.

While Kasich often cites the more than 400,000 private-sector jobs added in the state under his watch, that doesn't include the loss of 21,100 government jobs. In fact, counting all non-farm jobs, Ohio's workforce increase of 7.6 percent during Kasich's tenure ranks 24th among the 50 U.S. states, federal data show.

The potent combination of voters unhappy with dysfunction in Washington and economic conditions that have hurt the working class has created an anti-establishment mood fueling Trump's appeal, said John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

“You’ve got a group of folks who, either from their own experience or thinking back to their parents and their grandparents, feel really left behind,” Green said.

—With assistance from Margaret Newkirk and Kevin Cirilli.

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