WASHINGTON — While most of the GOP presidential candidates were pulling out all the stops to appeal to South Carolina Republicans, John Kasich could be found stumping in Michigan earlier this week, part of a strategy that essentially leapfrogs the conservative South.
The Ohio governor has used momentum from his second-place finish in New Hampshire to propel his campaign into more moderate Midwest states later on the primary calendar.
Although he has a handful of rallies and town halls scheduled this week in South Carolina, political observers don’t believe he’s primed to do well in the state’s Republican contest Saturday. He’s polling at fifth place in the state, according to Real Clear Politics’ polling average. And most of the states that vote in the next wave of primaries on March 1 are conservative Southern states.
“They’re not states that are well-suited for his candidacy,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Kaisch hasn’t focused on South Carolina to the extent that the other four major candidates have.”
Although he’s spending a few days in the Palmetto State leading up to the primary, by the day of the election he’ll have moved on to campaigning in Massachusetts. Massachusetts and another moderate New England neighbor, Vermont, also have primaries on March 1.
Deeper on the calendar, Kasich is looking closer to his home state of Ohio. He spent the first part of the week in Michigan, whose March 8 primary has 59 Republican delegates to award.
“They are our sister state to the north,” said campaign spokesman Chris Schrimpf. “We think we will do well there and that it will be the launching pad into the March 15 winner-take-all primaries.”
Specifically, Schrimpf said, Kasich is looking to Ohio, which is winner-take-all, and Missouri which is winner-take-all if a candidate secures above 50 percent of the vote. Illinois is also a big prize on March 15, although it allots delegates through a hybrid model that is only partly winner-take-all. Florida, the largest winner-take-all state in the Republican primary contest, also votes March 15.
“Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri — all of those Midwestern states — it’s like home field for us,” Schrimpf said.
The neighbor-state advantage could work in Kasich’s favor, just as it did for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire on the Democrat side, said Michael Traugott, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. Sanders, a US senator from Vermont, beat former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the national front-runner, by more than 20 points in the New Hampshire primary last week.
But it could also hurt the governor if he does poorly in Michigan. Given the focus his campaign has placed on the state, if Kasich does badly there it would reflect poorly on his electability, Kondik said, but it seems to be a risk worth taking, considering his low standing in national polls.
“There are more moderate Republicans in Michigan compared to the rest of the country,” Traugott said.
Kasich held three town halls in the state on Monday and another on Tuesday, which Schrimpf said all drew crowds of hundreds of attendees.
Kasich’s campaign says it hasn’t given up on the South. Schrimpf cited several Southern states where key politicians have endorsed Kasich. A super PAC supporting Kasich is even sponsoring an ad in South Carolina featuring praise for Kasich’s defense record from former US House speaker Newt Gingrich, who won the state in 2012.
But with his fund-raising at a fraction of what his rivals have amassed (Jeb Bush and outside groups supporting him reported $155 million raised at by the end of January, compared with Kasich and his outside group’s $23 million, according to an analysis by The New York Times), Kasich still needs to carefully select which states to prioritize.