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New Hampshire's big test: Can the establishment strike back?

Modes of political thought

Despite all the talk about this unusual primary season, Ted Cruz won Iowa by playing to the classic political playbook. Now John Kasich is trying to do the same in New Hampshire. 

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Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Gov. John Kasich gets in his car as he leaves the Red Arrow Diner after a campaign stop in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday.

Mary Schwalm/Reuters

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By the conventional rules of the New Hampshire primary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich – the resolutely un-Trump candidate in the 2016 race – is headed for a good day on the first-in-the-nation primary vote Tuesday.

He’s presided over more than 100 town meetings, recruited a deep network of volunteers, and picked up endorsements from nearly all the newspapers that count in the state. In the jargon of political science, he’s aced the “shadow primary” – a broad term for the support of party and other interested elites – which can be bestow an advantage in a presidential race.

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But Campaign 2016 is in many ways chewing up the politics textbooks on how to get ahead in a primary campaign. Instead of bestowing an advantage, the so-called “establishment lane,” said to include the three governors in the race – Governor Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – may, in fact, be a liability in the eyes of many voters.

The top finishers in the Iowa Republican caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and celebrity businessman Donald Trump won on a sharp antiestablishment agenda, appealing to voter anger and a sense of betrayal and criticizing party elites.

Mr. Trump, who settled into double-digit leads in New Hampshire polling within weeks of getting into the race, plays that anger like a drum. He brags that he has no elite endorsements, is self-financing his own campaign, and is beholden to no one. He has also largely bypassed the rituals of the New Hampshire primary – fielding questions in diners, living rooms, town-halls, talks up and down Main Streets – in favor of the 7 p.m. mass rally and a flight back to New York. 

But there is an important asterisk to that narrative – one that could play out in important ways here in New Hampshire Tuesday. In Iowa, Senator Cruz's organization and appeal to Evangelicals – parts of the standard Iowa playbook – played no small part in helping him topple Trump. If Kasich has success by playing to the standard New Hampshire playbook, it will show that for all the political hand-wringing about Trump's unorthodox campaign, the tried-and-true still has a significant role to play.

Tuesday morning, Kasich was ranked by some polls at No. 2. If that holds up through the day, it will be a testament to his enormous efforts in the Granite State. 

While most of the GOP field campaigned in Iowa, Kasich was talking his way up and down the two-lane roads of New Hampshire. Governor Christie, whose schedule was disrupted by a snowstorm back home, logged in almost as many stops (185) as Kasich (186). Trump hit 46.  

On a snowy morning in late December, Kasich hosts a thinly attended town-hall meeting in Nashua, N.H. Facing television ad attacks by groups supporting Mr. Bush and Christie, he says: “I’ve got about 40 days left in this thing, and I’m gonna just have a ball.” 

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Kasich is relentlessly positive. Like the other governors, he talks about his record fixing big problems. For Kasich, this includes balancing the federal budget in the 1990s, as chair of the House Budget Committee, and, as a governor, converting an $8 billion state budget deficit to a $2 billion surplus, while cutting taxes.

But unlike his rivals, he refuses to go into attack mode in his own campaign and publicly calls on the independent super-political action committees supporting him to drop ads that he feels cross that line.

America Leads, a super PAC backing Christie, is running ads in New Hampshire attacking Kasich for being close to the banking industry. Another by the America Future Fund, claims that Kasich, in fact, raised taxes in Ohio – a claim that the Washington Post’s Fact Checker finds to be false. 

Last week, John Weaver, a senior aide to Kasich, called on New Day in America, a super PAC supporting Kasich, to remove an ad attacking Rubio. “Sometimes your friends think they're helping but are not,” he tweeted on Feb. 1. (Candidates cannot collaborate with super PACs.) The ad was pulled.

By Kasich's 100th town-hall meeting in Hollis last Friday, the crowds had swelled and so had his ranking in the polls, which ranges from a solid No. 2 finish, behind Trump, to a four-way tie for second. Kasich reminds the audience that he's not really part of the GOP "establishment." After tough negotiations to produce balanced budgets in the Clinton years, Republicans "spent it all" in the Bush years. 

Political experts say that it's this spirit that may help Kasich distinguish himself from the other governors in the race and escape the downside of an establishment link.

“Kasich is in a position to surprise in new Hampshire,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire who has written two books on the New Hampshire primary. “He has carved out a lane of his own here in New Hampshire, attracting moderate Republicans, centrist independent voters, and a few Democrat-leaning voters who don’t like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.” 

“In the last few days when people are trying to make up their minds, he’s a positive voice,” he adds. “Rubio’s PAC is going after Jeb and Christie, Jeb and Christie are going after Rubio. There is a lot of negativity. When that happens, none of the combatants benefit. It’s usually someone above the fray.”

The question is how much those advantages can overcome the nationalization of presidential elections, which has benefited Trump. As campaigns increasingly play out on Fox News, MSNBC, and Twitter, the local peculiarities of a race can diminish. 

"It could be that we have seen the primary change and evolve in ways that doesn’t involve the tradition visits to the dump, the house party, the town hall meeting," says Wayne Lesperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, N.H. "Looking back to how Howard Dean used the Internet for meetups or fundraising done online, the nationalization of the primary is taking away from that quaint traditional approach."

A weekend poll released on Monday by the American Research Group has Kasich in second place at 17 percent among likely Republican voters in New Hampshire. With a margin of error of 5 percent in this poll, he is in a statistical tie with Sen. Marco Rubio at 14 percent.