Kasich: I'm very seriously considering running for president -- if only to send a message

The message sent will be “Remember why you dislike John Kasich?”

This tweet made me laugh:

It’s true, Kasich is doomed in a primary.

But what if he’s not thinking about a primary?

The Ohio governor, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2016, raised the possibility that President Trump and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are nominated by their respective parties in 2020.

Kasich said that would leave an “ocean of people” in the middle.

“Is there a legitimate opportunity for a third party, bipartisan kind of ticket to be able to score a victory or to have a profound impact on the future of American politics? … We don’t know at this point,” he said.

I’ve assumed all along that he’d be better off running as an independent for just that reason. He’s a dead duck in a primary against Trump whereas in the general election, if Democrats nominate a leftist, he could be the not-too-hot-not-too-cold centrist option.

But after the midterms I’m starting to rethink. Obviously Kasich isn’t going to win the presidency either way, but if the goal is to send a “message” by disrupting the political system, the third-party run is the way to go, right? Eh, maybe not. The hard reality is that centrist voters will vote strategically no matter how unhappy they are with their choices from the major parties. If a Trump/Clinton election couldn’t produce an independent candidate capable of winning 25 percent of the vote, nothing will. Center-leftists who think Warren is too far left will grit their teeth and vote for her anyway in the name of stopping Trump, center-rightists who think Trump is too … Trump will grit their teeth and vote for him anyway in the name of stopping Warren. When in doubt, remember the importance of Supreme Court vacancies. We’ve seen this movie before. Kasich will end up with five percent of the vote.

Run in a primary against an incumbent president, though, and the pressure to vote strategically goes away. Trump will be renominated and everyone knows it going in. Center-rightists who dislike him are thus free to “send a message” by voting for whoever’s in the Not Trump role, be it Kasich or anyone else. And there are a lot of center-rightists out there who are unhappy with POTUS. That’s where the midterms come in. Democrats beat Republicans by 12 among indies this month and, according to one Democratic analysis, picked up 24 points(!) on the GOP from 2016 among white college-educated women. An interesting result:

Brian Schaffner, a professor of political science at Tufts University, analyzed pre-midterm surveys collected by liberal analytics firm Data For Progress and found a clear trend: The more voters showed concern about “hostile sexism” in their questions, the more likely they were to vote for Democratic House candidates. This relationship held even while controlling for other factors like partisanship and ideology.

While that might sound intuitive, surveys in 2016 found that attitudes toward sexism only affected respondents’ choice for president, not their vote for Congress. The shift in 2018 suggests Trump’s brand has started to drag down the party as a whole.

“I do think this is a major reason why college-educated white women swung more Democratic in this election,” Schaffner said in an email. “That group tends to register the lowest levels of sexism of any other group and since sexism was a predictor of the House vote in this election, it seems to be something that has pushed them away from voting for Republican House candidates.”

A million and one pieces have been written in the past two and a half weeks about Republicans losing ground in the suburbs, with the GOP increasingly dependent on Trump’s core white rural and working-class base. If all Kasich wants to do is send a “message” en route to a sure defeat, he’s better off primarying Trump and trying to coax those suburbanites into turning out to show the party’s leadership that they’re unhappy and that their votes can’t be taken for granted. If Kasich could pull, say, a third of the vote in major primary states, the media — and the White House — would take notice. And it would make Kasich’s endorsement in the general election potentially important. If he backed the Democrat, what effect might that have on his primary voters?

Two problems, though. One: How angry at Trump would a suburban voter need to be to trudge down to the polls in a primary whose outcome is a foregone conclusion? Protest votes are a tough sell in any election, particularly when the economy is cruising. Two: How bored would Kasich need to be to undertake an expensive primary challenge whose goal from day one would be to lose every state by smallish landslide margins instead of large ones? If he’s going to go to all this trouble, he might as well run as an independent and indulge the illusion that a third-party candidate can make a dent in an era defined by venomous negative partisanship between Democrats and Republicans.