John Kasich has his work cut out for him. The Ohio governor officially announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday, stressing his considerable experience in government and his history of overcoming long odds in politics with the repeated refrain, “They said it couldn’t be done and we proved them wrong.”
The latter is an idea Kasich will have to hammer home in the next two weeks because while nobody is saying he can’t possibly win the nomination, he’s facing some very long odds. As the 16th Republican to formally enter the race, Kasich is currently near the bottom of the pack in terms of poll numbers.
According to the Huffington Post average of national polls, Kasich’s support is currently at 1.7 percent, placing him 12th in a field of 16 candidates, many of whom have significant national profiles that Kasich, a relative unknown on the national political scene, will struggle to match.
If he expects to be a viable candidate, political analysts say there are some concrete steps he needs to take.
His first priority will almost certainly be to work on raising his support to the point where he breaks into the top 10 GOP candidates, which is the cutoff for participation in the first debate of the primary on August 6 in his home state.
Though the selection process is a little opaque, debate host Fox News has said that only 10 candidates will be allowed to participate and that the field will be chosen based mainly on national polling.
Fox has left itself some wiggle room but it’s hard to see how Kasich makes it unless he sees a substantial rise in his numbers in the next few days.
“He has to get on that debate stage, particularly because it’s in his home state,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “The only way he’s going to ‘prove them wrong’ is to get on that debate stage … There’s no way the news is going to be covering Kasich unless he gets into the top 10.”
O’Connell said that Kasich appears to be gambling on the possibility that his announcement, and the spike in coverage that comes with it, will give him enough of a bump in the polls to break into the top 10, and that once he’s seen as a top tier candidate, he’ll be able to attract both supporters and donors.
It’s a strategy that must have been concocted weeks if not months ago, and which probably looked a little more promising before real estate mogul Donald Trump stormed into the race.
“An announcement bump would be nice,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center on Politics. “The problem for Kasich is that the press is maximally focused on Trump. It’s possible that even on Kasich’s big day he’ll be overwhelmed by Trump.”
(Indeed, on Tuesday afternoon, Trump let loose with a blistering campaign speech in South Carolina in which he insulted multiple Republicans in the primary, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, whom he called an “idiot” before producing Graham’s personal cell phone number and providing it to the crowd.)
Kondik said that while missing the first Republican debate might be a bad thing for Kasich, it’s not necessarily fatal.
“On one hand, missing a debate does damage a candidate’s viability, sending a signal to donors and voters that a person isn’t viable,” he said. “On the other hand, this is a long slog, and if Kasich can get some traction in New Hampshire maybe he has a chance to peak in February, which is better than peaking now.”
It’s that possibility of traction in New Hampshire that gives Kasich his other path to viability.
The Ohio governor also appears to be pinning much of his hope on the Granite state and its first-in-the-nation primary. He has enlisted the help of popular former senator from New Hampshire John Sununu as a close campaign advisor and partner on the trail. He was scheduled to head to the Granite State Tuesday afternoon, where he would hold a town hall meeting in the evening.
A win or even a stronger-than-expected showing in New Hampshire could catapult Kasich into the status of a serious contender.