The primaries have only just begun, and already it's been a long, strange trip of a GOP presidential race. Voters are being asked to choose between overheated gibberish merchant Donald Trump, unlikable evangelist Ted Cruz, talking point robot Marco Rubio, and sleepy free associator Ben Carson. It's admittedly hard to look away from those headline-grabbing potential leaders of the free world, but then you glance at the New Hampshire polls and find an unfamiliar name: John Kasich. Ohio Governor John Kasich! How'd he get there? Why aren't we talking about him?
And who are all these people fired up for a Kasich presidency?
A day before the primary Trump is still leading in the polls here in New Hampshire with about 30 percent support, and Rubio is behind him with around 15 percent. But though Kasich's national numbers are pretty bad, he's beating Cruz in most New Hampshire state polls, and he is ahead of Rubio in a couple of them. John Kasich! In the tiny town of Dixville Notch, where voters cast ballots at midnight, he beat out Trump by one vote, four to three. John Kasich!
Kasich has bet his entire campaign on New Hampshire, doing over 100 town halls across the state and presumably hoping his brand of more pragmatic, optimistic conservatism (as opposed to the apocalyptic Trumpian and Cruzian varieties) catches on with both GOP supporters and all those unaffiliated voters who might wander into the Republican primary. All that bile and infighting on display at Saturday's debate shows his theoretical appeal: He's the grown-up in the room full of children talking about carpet-bombing, the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.
For the past few days I've been searching to find real, flesh-and-blood Kasich lovers. Which wasn't so easy at first, as it turned out. When I arrived outside the debate venue in Manchester on Saturday, I was told "all the Kasich people already left," which may have had something to do with the performance artist and perennial presidential candidate Vermin Supreme chasing Kasich supporters away.
But on Sunday afternoon, the sunny skies and rising interest in Kasich brought out plenty of media and voters to a town hall at Nashua Community College. There, I spoke to Aaron Sarette, a professional chef and Kasich fan from Manchester, who came out to confirm what he already liked about the potential president.
"I liked what he said about putting parties aside," he said. "I think some people are getting turned off from Trump. He dances around topics, attacks the audience. I like that [Kasich] is very calm, doesn't seem to get rattled."
Kasich's affable demeanor—he's a bit like a lovable but cantankerous college professor—is a selling point, and his positivism in a race full of fear-mongering is often included in the reasons local and national papers have endorsed him (the New York Times, Boston Globe, Concord Monitor, etc.). But other than endorsements from media outlets that Republican primary voters may not like or trust, Kasich hasn't gotten much ink.
Bobby Orr (no, not that Bobby Orr), a Kasich supporter from North Carolina and a co-chair of his campaign, told me that's always going to work against him.
"I think you're looking at media-driven events where controversial and inflammatory remarks drive ratings and sell papers, being the more substantive reasoned voice [the media has] ignored him to an extent," he said. "The only people who have voted was in Iowa, so when the broader population gets to know him and the positive things he says, it will resonate as the field gets smaller."
To ensure that he's still around when that field shrinks, Kasich has been pounding the New Hampshire pavement with a respectable ground game; many of the supporters at his events this weekend were transplants and Ohio natives who came out to knock on doors, make calls, and push the governor's old-school message. "I finally figured it out in New Hampshire," Kasich told the crowds. "We've got to slow down."
Todd Haywood, a Republican Kasich supporter from Concord, said that sort of talk is a big part of his appeal. "What I like is he's positive. And he basically is moderate enough to recognize the people in the shadows. That needs to happen."
"I've been impressed with him since beginning," said Michael Morrissey, a moderate Republican and registered independent CPA from Nashua. "The rhetoric from everyone else, especially you-know-who, is really frightening. [Kasich] has a more balanced approach to work. [He's not] a total Tea Partier and [doesn't want to] put up a brick wall. Overall he's fighting the charisma the other ones have, but he's best choice of them all."
Kasich is not a brand like Trump, and he hasn't gotten hyped like fellow establishment candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have, but in New Hampshire, at least he's benefiting from his relative moderate status.
Taylor, a 31-year-old Army veteran, Republican, and VA employee, said he made up his mind after the debates on Saturday. "I like what he said [about] families and illegal immigrants: 'You gonna pull them out and leave [their kids behind]?' That's what gets me, a practical approach to politics," he told me. "He's not flashy or just saying things to energize people, and he doesn't make outrageous claims. He's been good about supporting a lot of his ideas with details."
By Monday, there was talk of a "Kasich surge"; the Searles School and Chapel in Windham was packed with supporters and media for his latest town hall. Bob Schaub, a 25-year resident of the area and lifelong Republican, braved the white-out conditions of the fresh snow in order to see his man from the stands.
"I solidified about a month ago [on Kasich]," he said. "What did it for me was looking at the whole group. We can't have another Obama, and I see Rubio or Cruz as on their way. Cruz can't agree with anyone, and Rubio doesn't have enough experience." Governor Bush is a fine man, he said, but doesn't have the mustard in a "critical time in the country."
Compared to the other candidates, Schaub said, Kasich looks positively adult. "This kind of mudslinging back and forth, I don't even know what to consider Mr. Trump. Not a fan from the beginning. What does he stand for? What will he do? He's a mean-spirited, venal, self-centered, rich guy."
And forget about Chris Christie. "If [Christie] doesn't agree with you he'll just bulldoze right over you," he said. "I work in biotech in Boston and deal with a lot of smart Harvard people, and sometimes they can be a bit of a pain. And I see that in Senator Cruz, the 'I'm the smartest guy in the room and nobody else can tell me what to do.'"
Schaub even admits liking it when Kasich gets exasperated with his fellow candidates. "I understand he can be a little cranky, but he's cranky with a purpose."
I saw that crankiness surface Sunday afternoon in Concord when Sarah Warecki, a 30-year-old independent, stood up to ask what Kasich would do about including Planned Parenthood's non-abortion medical services for women in any healthcare overhauls. She prefaced the question stating she's legitimately shopping for a candidate to support and was leaning toward Kasich provided he could answer her query. When he danced around the answer in a transparent attempt not to alienate core conservatives in the room, she pressed and accused him of dodging the question. "Oh right I'm avoiding the question, that's what I'm doing," Kasich snapped back.
"I liked a lot of the things he was saying and I was ready to jump on the Kasich train if he had a good answer for me," Warecki told me afterward. "I wanted to hear something reasonable. He said, 'We're going to fund it' but that's not going to solve the issue. The fact is there aren't physical places for [women] to go [for healthcare]... And when he says if there was a financially sound budget that everyone could agree to, and it had Planned Parenthood in it, he would veto it! First of all, he's lying. And don't lie to my face, because I'm not going to vote for you if you lie to my face."
That's the trick of New Hampshire: Independent voters like Warecki are informed, hate being pandered to, and comfortable enough with national politicians not to take any of their shit. Kasich's intense tour of the state has earned him more support here than anywhere else, but there are limits to his appeal, surge or no surge. When I asked Warecki if her exchange swayed her for or against Kasich, she smiled and shrugged.
"Go Hillary," she said.