As Vermont Goes, So Goes Kasich?

John Kasich took his long-shot campaign north to Vermont today in anticipation of this state’s Super Tuesday primary tomorrow, and your intrepid blogger battled moderate temperatures and fields of solar panels to give you this report:

We arrived at the Castleton University Campus Center about 15 minutes prior to Kasich’s scheduled 11:30 a.m. talk and already the crowd had spilled out of the auditorium and into the adjoining lobby area. By now we are veterans of these crowds, and we knew enough to push people out of the way until we got a proper vantage point from our usual slot near the media, who were lined up in the back of the room. All three of Vermont’s major television networks were covering the events.

This was easily the largest audience we’ve seen in the four Kasich Town Halls we’ve attended. Although I wasn’t able to do a good hand count, I’m estimating that there were between 750-1,000 people in the auditorium, including a couple rows of people on the stage behind him. Demographically, the crowd had a good mix of college students and older individuals. From the start, they seemed favorably disposed toward him, applauding as he walked on stage and generally seeming to react positively to his message.

For his part, it is clear what Kasich’s strategy is in coming to Vermont again (he was here on the day of the South Carolina Republican primary as well.) Kasich is trying to distinguish himself as the “grown up” in an increasingly infantile Republican race, and he trying to peel off moderates and independents to supplement his narrow support among the Republican base. To this end, he’s hoping to do well in Vermont and Massachusetts tomorrow, so that he’s at least in the conversation as the race moves to the Midwest with primaries in Michigan on March 8 and in his home state of Ohio on March 15. Michigan is a winner-take-most delegates state with 55 delegates up for grabs, and Ohio is winner-take-all with 66 delegates to be awarded. Currently, he trails in the polls in every state tomorrow, and it is unclear how much support, and money, he will retain if he is shut out. So he is banking on a victory in Vermont. There has not been much polling of the Republican race here, but a recent VPR/Castleton poll has him tied for third with Cruz with about 10%, trailing both Rubio (17%) and Trump (32%). My sense, however, is that both Rubio and Cruz have likely dropped off since that poll was taken.  In any case, I think Kasich senses that Vermont is his best chance to claim a victory tomorrow.

Toward that end he retained his sunny optimism and trademark humorous asides that have characterized his demeanor in recent campaign events, refusing to criticize any of his opponents, although he clearly took a swipe at their policies, particularly on immigration, where he described promises to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, including breaking up families, as simply unrealistic. But in this particular speech he also made a concerted effort to emphasize his support for women’s rights, both in the context of defeating ISIS (“they treat women as property – did you know that?”) and in emphasizing job and educational opportunities for women. He also made a point of introducing his wife and his two daughters to the crowd, which I had not seen him do before.  Again, I wonder what his polling data is telling him regarding his support among women here, and in the race more generally.

After announcing that he intends to remain “the adult in the race”, Kasich launched into his familiar story about how he talked his way into a 25-minute one-on-one meeting with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office as an 18-year old. He also paid homage to Bernie Sanders, noting that they had worked together in the Senate. When the crowd booed Bernie’s name, Kasich shushed them, saying he wanted to adopt one of Bernie’s policies of giving things away for free: “How about Ben and Jerry’s ice cream free for a year?” (Throughout the speech, Kasich sprinkled in local references, noting, for instance, the abundance of solar panels through the state despite his never seeing any sun during his visits here.)

He then recited the usual biographical details, noting his maternal grandmother was an immigrant, at which point he took the opportunity to assail his opponents’ more draconian immigration policies. “There was a time when we invited people here….it made us a healthier nation.” He talked about his father working in the coal mines, and getting cheated by his employer, and his mother as a radio “pioneer” – she would yell at the radio while listening to programs he said, to much laughter. After acknowledging that Vermont is a “pretty secular” state, he discussed his spiritual beliefs, and the importance of having a purpose in life. He would return to this theme later when addressing why people become addicted to drugs, or join ISIS – “they are searching for something.” He then noted that although the presidency is an important job, it is “not going to help address the issues facing Castleton.” Instead, he emphasized the need to act locally by strengthening communities and education opportunities.  These are familiar themes for Kasich, ones I have seen him address in previous campaign stops, but he seemed a bit more relaxed, and also more energized, this time around, perhaps sensing that he was speaking, for the most part, to a receptive audience.

“Life is but a breathe,” Kasich said near the end of his speech, “you are here and then gone.” He noted, to much laughter, that when he his eulogy is read, he hopes that 80% of it is true. He concluded by noting that “if you liked what you heard here today, please vote for me tomorrow. If you didn’t like it, please don’t tell anyone!”  Again the crowd laughed.

Kasich took about a half-dozen questions, ranging from how to deal with climate change – “Some of it is man-made but I don’t know how much”, ISIS – “We need to destroy them”, the Russians and Putin –  “I will support the Ukrainians”, and making college more affordable (the latter question came from a 12-year old girl.) Kasich emphasized the role of community colleges and the need to hold down costs by cutting out non-academic expenses. Except for the very first audience question – “Can you get me Donald Trump’s autograph?” – the questioners seemed generally interested in Kasich’s responses. Perhaps the most interesting exchange took place when a man read a very lengthy and somewhat convoluted statement regarding a possible connection between spending for a U.S. State Department government program and shadowy groups that traffic in child pornography. Rather than respond in detail, Kasich asked the man to give him the sheet of statistics he was holding, and promised to follow up on the issue.

As I noted above, Kasich seemed more energized, and at the same time more relaxed, than in his previous campaign events. When I saw him in South Carolina a couple weeks ago, perhaps because he was cognizant that he was not going to do well there, he seemed more subdued. Vermont is an important state for him – if he can’t do well here tomorrow it is hard to make the case for why he should go on. (Some might argue it is already hard to make that case!) After getting an initial burst of publicity, and fund-raising, off of his second place finish in New Hampshire, he needs to show that he is still viable. His hope, of course, is that either Cruz or Rubio will drop out after tomorrow, and that he will then be positioned as the primary alternative to Trump, who he thinks he can beat in a one-on-one contest. Even if they don’t, he needs to beat them somewhere to remain credible. Vermont and Massachusetts probably offer this best hope to do so tomorrow. Win or lose, however, Kasich is publicly claiming he is in the race for the long haul. As he prepared to leave the auditorium today, he quoted Arnold (The Terminator) Schwarzenegger, promising “I’ll be back!” We’ll see if he has the opportunity to keep that promise.

For those of you in Vermont, I’ll be on WCAX (Channel 3) later today (at 5:30) on the :30 to preview tomorrow’s Super Tuesday events.

Bernie Sanders’ Very Very Bad Week

When the polls close shortly in South Carolina at 7 p.m. eastern time, and the race is called for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders won’t be around to offer her congratulations. Instead, he’s likely to be in the air, flying from Texas to Minnesota in preparation for Super Tuesday. Sanders’ surrogates, meanwhile, have been downplaying expectations in South Carolina for some time now, as the aggregate polls show him trailing her by some 20%.  In my limited time crossing the state last week, I saw very little on-air presence for Sanders, although that might have reflected the timing more than a week before the Democratic primary. In my admittedly non-scientific samples of residents in the Myrtle Beach area, there didn’t seem to be that much buzz for the Vermont Senator and he had very disappointing crowds even at colleges where he normally packs an audience. At this point, Sanders is hoping to keep the margin in single digits, thus claiming a moral victory.

None of this is surprising, of course. For months we have been talking about Sanders’ inability to draw support from African-Americans. In 2008 they comprised 55% of the voters in the S.C. Democratic primary. Early exit polls, which of course must be adjusted in light of final turnout numbers, indicate that the proportion of African-American voters might be even higher today.  Last week in Nevada entrance polls suggest Clinton won more than 70% of the African-American caucus goers. I see no reason why Sanders will do any better among this group today. The early exit polls have more bad news for Sanders, with only 19% supporting a change to more liberal policies, while 70% advocate a continuation of President Obama’s policies. Of course, Clinton has all but wrapped herself in the mantle of Obama’s presidency, much to Sanders’ growing frustration. (Again, these numbers are likely to be adjusted somewhat after the polls close.)

But Bernie’s problems don’t end in South Carolina. On March 1, Super Tuesday, Democrats will hold 12 nominating contests that collectively will award more than 1,000 pledged delegates. Many of those states have substantial African-American populations. In 2004, African-Americans were 47% of the Democratic primary vote in Georgia, 33% in Virginia, 23% in Tennessee and 21% in Texas. In 2008, the numbers for those states were 51%, 30%, 29% and 19%, respectively. If you throw in Alabama, which had 51% African-American turnout in the 2008 Democratic primary, and Arkansas at 16% (I don’t have exit poll data for those states in 2004), it becomes clear that Sanders’ faces an uphill climb to win votes next Tuesday among some voters. Collectively, these states award almost 600 delegates alone. Sanders will have to try to make up for that with strong showings in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, and in more liberal states like Massachusetts and, of course, Vermont. He will also try to over-perform expectations in Oklahoma.  Collectively, however, these states only award a bit less than 300 delegates. Based on current polling, it would not be a surprise if Bernie only wins in his home state next Tuesday. In short, this could very well be the worst day he will have in this campaign – even worse than today.  (That assumes that the current South Carolina polling is accurate!  We should know in 10 minutes or so.)

The reality, then, is that Bernie is likely to come out of Super Tuesday trailing substantially in the delegate count – and this doesn’t include Clinton’s significant super delegate advantage. It’s not immediately clear how he can make that deficit up. And if he trails in the pledged delegates, there’s really very little incentive for super delegates to break his way, as I suggested in this previous post

Today is shaping up to be a very very bad day for Bernie Sanders. But next Tuesday might be even worse.