Just when it seemed as if every possible Republican was already in the primary contest for the 2016 party nomination, the field is getting even bigger.
This week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich will announce his candidacy. He is a pretty serious contestant. Unlike some of the others in the GOP cast of characters, his resume is impressive and he can boast of a record that seems rather formidable on paper.
Kasich has extensive experience in many levels of government as well as the private sector (though this will be a controversial part of his record, given that he worked for Lehman Brothers before its collapse).
Kasich has long-standing ties to the conservative movement that produced the historic Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. He is a budget hawk who has taken on the unions that so many in the GOP dislike.
Yet, as the governor of one of the most important swing states in the nation, Kasich has displayed a streak of pragmatism on issues such as the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which can appeal to independents who are seeking someone who can move Washington beyond the partisan gridlock.
He has offered tough responses to conservatives who have criticized his work for the poor, grounding his decisions in his devotion to religion. The governor has an affable and straightforward personality, saying what he thinks, which can be appealing in an age of scripted politics. He is the kind of “blue collar” Republican who could avoid the “one percenter” attacks that dragged down Mitt Romney in 2012.
Nor does Gov. Kasich face the kind of scandals, at least thus far, that have bogged down candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
But Kasich enters the race with a number of pretty big obstacles working against him. The most important is money. One of the big reasons that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is so difficult to knock down is the extensive network of campaign donors that he and his family have nurtured over the years.
A few days ago, the media reported that Bush and his Super PAC had raised a stunning $114 million, more than all the other Republican candidates put together. Like it or not, money matters when it comes to campaigns.
While individual Super PACs do have the ability to propel lesser voices into the media spotlight, the fact is that to win the nomination, vast amounts of money will be necessary for the kind of advertising blitz that it takes to blanket major primary states, especially when primaries are bundled together.
While Kasich will be able to raise some serious money and make a run for it in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will need to make some dramatic gains if he wants to catch up to Bush and some of the other candidates, such as Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, in the money competition.
Bush has done very well in rounding up support from party leaders who by all indications are still tilting his way. Last month, Bush announced the names of an impressive roster of Republican leaders in Iowa who pledged their support.
Appealing and talented candidates have often suffered in the presidential nomination process. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who many people thought had all the right stuff, did horribly in 2012 as he faced the formidable campaign infrastructure of Mitt Romney.
The number of candidates who are in play poses a big problem for Kasich and all the other second- and third-tier candidates — regardless of their skill. The large number of people the media has to cover diminishes the air time for any individual candidate.
The complexity of the pragmatic agenda Kasich seeks to pursue might quickly be lost in the sound bites that now last for a few seconds.
In the immediate future, he might not even be able to participate in the Republican debates. The large number of candidates who are running has resulted in the decision to limit the spots in the debate to those candidates who are ahead in the national polls. This will squeeze lesser known candidates, and those who have entered late, such as Gov. Kasich.
The reality is that someone like real estate mogul Donald Trump, willing to say or do almost anything to get on the air, has a better chance of participating in the debate even if he is far less impressive as a presidential candidate than Kasich.
Kasich’s virtue, his unwillingness to bend to the expedient political incentives, will be a liability in the primary process. He will be tempted to abandon the political style he has practiced in recent years.
As we have seen, many of the candidates, including the so-called moderates, are already playing to the primary voters who tend to lean to the right of the political spectrum. In early April, Jeb Bush praised Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s controversial religious freedom bill, though he backed off after being criticized.
Gov. Scott Walker shifted to the right on immigration and gay marriage. If Kasich sticks to his guns and refuses to play their game, he will certainly run into problems in states like South Carolina, where primary voters have little appetite for the center. In a less crowded field, this might be fine. But given all the other challenges he faces, this will create difficulties.
It is true that, as Jeff Greenfield argued in Politico, there have been a number of cases in primaries, such as Reagan’s challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976 or Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, and more recently Howard Dean’s strong showing in 2004 or Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum’s showing early in 2012, to remind us that primaries can be open-ended. Yet in all of those instances the “mainstream” candidate ultimately did win.
The irony is that Kasich might be one of the strongest candidates that the Republicans have on the ticket. But this primary season will leave little oxygen for him to move his way up to the top. It’s probably time for both parties to start thinking through the fundamentals of their primary process to make sure that the strongest candidates are able to get the kind of hearing that they deserve from primary voters.