John Kasich has fewer delegates than Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race a month ago. He hasn't won any state besides his own, and has placed third or worse 26 times. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have labeled him a spoiler and have called on him to quit.
Yet the Ohio governor steadfastly insists he is the most electable candidate and has a legitimate shot to win the nomination—though not by amassing the requisite number of delegates ahead of July's convention, which is mathematically impossible even if he captured every single vote in the remaining Republican contests.
Kasich's long shot plan can work only if Trump fails to amass the 1,237 delegates needed to win the first ballot at the Republican convention in Cleveland, which is a possibility, and then if hundreds of Trump's delegates refuse to back Cruz—who has more than three times the delegates Kasich has earned so far—in successive ballots.
In short, Kasich wins only if he's the last candidate remaining on the convention floor after delegates reject Trump, Cruz, and anyone else who might emerge from outside the race.
“It's pure fantasy,” said Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “There isn't a path.”
Undeterred, Kasich is campaigning hard in New York ahead of Tuesday's primary, seeking additional delegates heading into Cleveland, where he thinks a majority of Republicans will decide that only he can defeat expected Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and unite the party.
“I've got to have your vote and support,” Kasich told a crowd at a town hall meeting on Friday in upstate Watertown. “Every delegate that I win provides more momentum for me to be able to go to the convention and win.”
His campaign points to polls consistently showing Kasich defeating Clinton in hypothetical general-election match-ups. That includes a survey by Morning Consult released last week indicating that Trump and Cruz would lose easily to Clinton with just 210 and 206 electoral college votes, respectively, while Kasich would win with 304 electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to take the White House.
Critically, the survey forecast that Kasich would win his home state, often termed the most pivotal of battleground states, in the general election. Ohio has voted for the winner of the past 13 presidential elections.
The electability argument, however, has so far failed to convince many establishment Republicans who are not crazy about either Trump or Cruz. The reason? They don't think Kasich has enough popular support, especially within the conservative base of the party. As Cook put it, “John Kasich would have been perfectly positioned for a Republican Party of 20 or 30 years ago.”
Charlie Black, a longtime Republican strategist advising Kasich who worked on Ronald Reagan's delegate-wrangling operation at the contested Republican convention in 1976, said Kasich doesn't necessarily need that popular support, or even to win another state primary, to be the nominee.
“A lot of primary voters don’t care about electability, but delegates will,” Black said.
Kasich's strategy rests on laying the groundwork for winning a contested convention by getting loyal delegates selected in the various state meetings and winning them over. To that end, his campaign has 32 paid staff members dedicated to the delegate process working in 10 states on any given day, said Andrew Boucher, the former national political director for Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign who is helping to lead Kasich’s delegate effort.
That means five or six conference calls a day among the team, and moving staff to wherever delegates are being selected at state party meetings in a given week. New Day for America, the super-PAC supporting Kasich, also is executing a delegate strategy to help the governor in an open convention, said spokeswoman Connie Wehrkamp.
“We want every single delegate to have John Kasich as someone they could vote for,” Boucher said.
Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, another Kasich adviser, acknowledged that Cruz has a superior delegate operation and that he could win on a second or third ballot at the convention. But Boucher said Kasich is ahead of Trump, who recently named 1976 convention veteran Paul Manafort to lead his convention operation. The billionaire is already complaining about a “rigged” process, mostly blaming the Cruz campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Cruz's advantage was on display last weekend in Colorado, where the Texas senator swept all 34 of the state’s delegates. Cruz had slate cards of his preferred delegates displayed on cards, orange T-shirts, and on Twitter.
Still, Kasich's team had success in Michigan getting friendly delegates on convention committees, Boucher said. That's critical because the committees will determine how voting in Cleveland takes place, including whether to change a rule requiring a candidate to have won at least eight states that currently would make Kasich ineligible.
A majority of the delegates elected in Indiana also are either publicly or privately committed to backing Kasich once the first ballot, when they will be pledged to whoever wins their district in the state's primary on May 3, has passed, Kasich spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach said.
At the same time, even some of Kasich's supporters, such as former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, acknowledge that the Ohio governor needs to perform better in upcoming contests.
“He has to demonstrate an expanding base of support,” said Ridge, estimating that adding 100 to 150 delegates before the convention could prove that Kasich is able to win over rank-and-file Republicans.
In New York, Kasich currently trails Trump by 29 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. But Kasich is hoping to do well enough in some of the state’s 27 congressional districts to pick up delegates and bolster his argument.
Kasich spoke at the Great Neck Synagogue on Long Island on Saturday and ate at an Upper East Side diner, seeking support in congressional districts that have few Republicans but will be allocated the same number of delegates—three—as other, more heavily Republican districts.
When he spoke in Watertown on Friday, Kasich became the first Republican presidential candidate to visit Jefferson County in the northern part of the state since Teddy Roosevelt, said county chairman Don Coon. Unfortunately for the Ohio governor, Trump was the second when he visited there on Saturday.
After New York, the campaign moves a week later to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Delaware, northeast states where Kasich has said the electorate is far more favorable for him than Cruz. Still, Kasich has previously has talked about the election calendar moving to his “home turf,” only to place third in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Robin Grovesteen, a Kasich supporter from Chaumont, New York, said she is holding out hope that the Ohio governor can still be the Republican nominee. But she doesn't know how he can break through now, she said.
“He's painted as an impossible candidate,” Grovesteen, 59, the assistant to the town supervisor in Lyme, said before Kasich's town hall in Watertown. “Many people are ego driven, and they don't want to be with the loser, so if they're told that he's going to lose, well, they aren't going to get on that train.”
John Weaver, Kasich's chief strategist, rejects any such talk and points out that pundits and naysayers have been wrong about Kasich throughout his campaign. He compared a contested convention to the Super Bowl going into overtime, when no one cares what happened in the first quarter.
“We're going to enter overtime, and when you do, you get an opportunity to win,” he said. “That's how we're approaching it.”
While Kasich hasn't displayed the flash or anger of other candidates, which the governor often says on the campaign trail is why he hasn't gotten as much attention, he can also benefit by being “under the radar,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. He borrowed a phrase often attributed to former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes to make his point.
“He's the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running back, not the long-ball quarterback,” Castellanos said. “At the end of the game, who knows, that could be who wins.”
—With assistance from Jennifer Oldham in Denver.