After an impressive second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich came in fifth in South Carolina – effectively tied with Jeb Bush, whose poor showing ended his own campaign. That will trigger talk about whether Kasich should continue his bid for the presidency, whether he can pick up Bush supporters, etc. -- chatter that hides from view something that Kasich knows all too well: he isn’t running for president; he is running for vice-president.
And by running in these primaries Kasich has made himself the GOP’s most obvious and most perfect choice for a vice presidential nominee. If Trump heads the ticket, Kasich brings serious foreign affairs, Washington and executive government experience, not to mention a sensible, moderate voice. And he helps galvanize Ohio’s critical swing vote -- ask any pundit or politically mindful Ohioan: you have to go back to 1960 to find someone elected president who did not carry the great state of Ohio.
So if Kasich is such an obvious choice, why not just wait in the governor’s mansion in Columbus sitting by the phone? Kasich’s problem is that Ohio’s junior senator, Republican Rob PortmanRob PortmanMcConnell: ‘Ticket-splitting’ will preserve GOP Senate majority The Trail 2016: Biting the hand that feeds him Portman focuses on heroin fight in new ads MORE, would offer pretty much the same attractive package to anyone who holds the GOP nomination this summer. (Portman has a tough re-election in front of him and might welcome the chance to jump to the GOP ticket instead.) And that adds a new layer of calculus.
When it comes time for a major party to pick the vice presidential running mate, the campaign team of a presidential nominee has a simple choice before it gets to considerations of constituencies and electoral votes: choose someone who has already run for the presidency OR someone who has not.
Choosing a “fresh” face has its virtues, but it is simply impossible for a presidential campaign – in the crush of midsummer -- to fully vet each person on even a “short list.” We all know the results. Long before John McCainJohn McCainGOP senators split over Cruz's aid on campaign trail Why a power grid attack is a nightmare scenario Senate fight brews over Afghan visas MORE’s disastrous choice of the train wreck named Sarah Palin, there was Vice President Spiro Agnew – eventually convicted of bribery from his days as a Maryland politician – and Walter Mondale’s 1984 choice of Geraldine Ferraro with all the subsequent, damaging questions about her husband’s business activities. We might even wonder if George W. Bush would have picked Dick Cheney if a presidential campaign had brought Cheney’s Darth Vader tendencies into the daylight.
In contrast, choosing someone who has already run a credible campaign for the presidency means the press will already have done much of the vetting. Ronald Reagan (1980), Bob Dole (1996), John KerryJohn KerryClinton allies see big boost from Brown endorsement Budowsky: The campaign from hell Lew, Kerry heading to Asia for high-level meetings MORE (2004), and Barack ObamaBarack ObamaMcConnell: ‘Ticket-splitting’ will preserve GOP Senate majority Morris: Trump's key to victory: Men The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (2008) all safely chose running mates from among those who had challenged them in the primaries. In 1992, Bill ClintonBill ClintonClinton allies see big boost from Brown endorsement Aide: Clinton wasn't close to IT expert who managed server The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE safely chose Al GoreAl GoreClinton allies see big boost from Brown endorsement An all-female ticket? Not in 2016 Green Party could be election spoiler MORE – who had run for president in 1988 (and won a handful of Dem primaries). Even if the press has not done the full vetting that they should have, the familiar face of someone who has been seriously on the campaign trail makes reporters less prone to new deep dive investigations.
So John Kasich has been wisely running for the GOP’s vice presidential nomination these last few months. Watching the sudden uptick in analysis and investigation into Ben Carson when Carson rose in the polls a few months ago, you can understand how important it was for Kasich to do well in New Hampshire. He needs to do well enough in the primaries that the eventual GOP nominee will see Kasich as a good campaigner, not just the ticket to Ohio’s 18 electoral votes. Kasich’s performance on the campaign trail –policy-oriented, positive, and capable of emotional connection with supporters – has shown that. But just as importantly, Kasich needs to do well enough that the press will treat him as someone they and the American people already “know.”
New Hampshire helped Kasich to become that completely familiar face; even if Kasich takes a drubbing in the SEC primaries – as looks likely -- he needs to hold on for the March 8 primaries in Ohio and Michigan to maintain that familiarity. If you’re a person who cares that at least someone on the GOP ticket knows how to govern – and that should be pretty much all of us – that’s the best result coming out of the primaries so far.
Hughes is a professor of Law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles; has served in the Clinton and Obama administrations; and has worked on political campaigns, including on Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaign. He grew up on a farm in Ohio.