By Jessica Wehrman, Dayton Daily News (TNS)
WASHINGTON — In a Republican presidential contest where most of the candidates are busy convincing voters of their conservative credentials, Ohio Gov. John Kasich may have a trump card: independents.
Throughout his many trips to New Hampshire, Kasich has banked on a message of moderation, proudly defending his role in expanding Medicaid in his home state and delivering a message that fits more in the political center than his many counterparts.
It’s not a new playbook. Sen. John McCain used it to win New Hampshire in 2000 against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Others — including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, with less successful results — have also done it.
But in a year when establishment Republicans are elbowing each other to be the pragmatic alternative to billionaire Donald Trump, Kasich might get a last-minute advantage.
“Don’t write this guy off,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who said that with five candidates basically splitting the non-Trump vote, everything will matter — particularly independents.
While much of the intra-party fighting is occurring between the other candidates, Kasich has quietly risen to second place in many New Hampshire polls.
And New Hampshire seems tailor-made for him. About 40 percent of the state’s voters are “undeclared,” meaning they can vote in any primary they want. This helped McCain in 2000, when undeclared voters flocked to the GOP primary in the state rather than the slightly more sedate Democratic primary between Bill Bradley and Al Gore.
That same phenomenon could give Kasich an assist next month, though a hot Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders could lure more left-leaning independents to vote there.
Kasich, though, may have the best chance of grabbing undeclared voters who lean Republican. He is the only GOP candidate in the “establishment lane” who does better among independents than Republicans, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Kasich currently has 18 percent support among undeclared voters and 11 percent among registered Republicans, said Murray.
He also polls well among first-time voters in the state, Murray said, which could help him because New Hampshire allows voters to register and vote on the same day.
“One of the reasons they like him is he is not a wedge candidate,” Murray said. “He refuses to be, and that’s what’s attractive to them. They see him as somebody they could continue to support into a general election.”
Independents won’t be much of a factor in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, and Kasich has barely campaigned in that state. But the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire on Feb. 9 could be a different story.
Murray said independent voters in New Hampshire are typically split into two groups — moderates who could vote for either party and anti-establishment voters. Trump owns the anti-establishment vote, Murray said, but the moderates are up for grabs.
“Carving out that small niche among independents may actually be the winning formula,” he said, “while in the past it was only one small component of what you had to do.”
Although Kasich’s Medicaid expansion puts him to the left of many in the GOP field, Duffy said it may not matter to many voters.
“The Medicaid thing is not the kiss of death among a lot of voters who say they hate it but don’t really,” she said.
Were Kasich to perform well in New Hampshire, Duffy said, it would immediately give him a boost him a boost as the campaign moves south, where South Carolina Republicans vote Feb. 20 and 15 states — including Georgia and Virginia — vote on March 1. Ohio’s primary, on March 15, isn’t that far behind.
“Second place in New Hampshire has become kind of a first-class ticket,” said Duffy. “Usually it’s a good ticket out of the state.”
Some believe the very thing that could help Kasich in New Hampshire — his independence — will hurt him in places like South Carolina, where base Republicans traditionally decide elections.
And if he drops in New Hampshire — to fourth or fifth — there may be no bounce and little chance to recover in the conservative South. Kasich has said many times that he will not continue if he doesn’t believe he can win.
But for now, he seems to be riding a bit of a wave.
“No one is saying anything bad about him,” said Barry Bennett, a Republican political consultant and former campaign manager to GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson. “I think he’s going to finish in the top three in New Hampshire if he keeps it up. Which is pretty good.”
©2016 Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks at a campaign town hall meeting in Hooksett, New Hampshire January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder