CONCORD, N.H. — When Fox News called John Kasich’s second-place finish in New Hampshire at 9 p.m. on Tuesday night, a fairly sedate cheer went up from the crowd gathered at the primary night party in a Marriott conference room here. People dressed in outdoor vests milled around drinking white wine and occasionally engaging in an “O-H-I-O” chant, but mostly politely biding time until their man from Westerville, Ohio, showed up.
Donald Trump’s night was big (he won the state with 35 percent of the vote), but former New Hampshire Sen. John Sununu wasn’t wrong when he introduced Kasich — who finally took the stage at around 10 p.m. — as “the story coming out of New Hampshire.”
More pointedly, the story is that Kasich, flat-voweled and a little crusty, is the anti-Trump.
And not just because of the positive campaign narrative his team has been pushing, though that’s part of it: “Maybe, just maybe, we’re turning the page on a dark part of American politics,” Kasich said in his primary night speech, touting his 16 percent support in New Hampshire. “Because tonight, the light overcame the dark.”
No, it’s also that the exit-poll numbers showed the Ohio governor finding his support in very different voter groups from the Manhattan businessman. The proof is in the numbers pudding — or the day-old King Cake, if we’re going with a seasonal metaphor.
According to an ABC News exit poll analysis, Kasich did best with those voters who wanted an experienced candidate: 45 percent of the New Hampshire electorate was looking for this rather than an outsider, and Kasich won 28 percent of them, while Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio got 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Trump handily won the full half of the electorate who said they wanted a political outsider, getting 57 percent of this vote, followed far behind by Ted Cruz, who took 12 percent.
Kasich’s support was grounded in well-educated voters; he got 22 percent of those with postgraduate degrees, but just 9 percent of those voters with only a high school education. Trump, meanwhile, saw his greatest backing from the less-educated, winning 45 percent of those with just a high school education.
And on an issue that represents a deepening existential question for the Republican Party and its vision for the country — a bigger tent or one more tightly zipped against the winds of change — Kasich and Trump supporters hold opposing views: Just a third of Republican voters said they oppose Trump’s call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States, but Kasich won this group with 27 percent support.
So, what’s going on here? Why did Kasich emerge as New Hampshire’s Trump-protest candidate rather than Bush, Rubio or Chris Christie? He’s more David-facing-off-against-Goliath than Republican Party elites would probably like to see at this point, but with Rubio’s poor performance in the debate preceding the primary — he finished in fifth place with nearly 11 percent — there was one fewer obvious establishment option for voters to choose. Bush spent quite a bit of cash in New Hampshire — estimates put his spending at around $16 million for the campaign and its supporting PACs — but never quite gained a critical level of interest in the state. And while Christie had his moment, he had dropped precipitously in the polls by primary day. As Kasich’s national political director, Jeff Polesovsky, said of the campaign’s slow and steady door-knocking, data-gathering ground game, “We worked it ’til the point that he was in people’s heads.”
With the ascendance of Trump, the Republican Party is facing a simmering anger in its electorate, and as it turns out, Kasich is connecting fairly well with those who aren’t full-on raging but are more civilly disagreeing with the state of the nation. (That’s the New England way — lots of stiff upper lips here covered in clam chowder.) Nearly half of New Hampshire GOP voters said they were dissatisfied rather than angry with the way the government was working, and while Trump won 30 percent of merely dissatisfied voters, Kasich came in next, at 21 percent.
This might have something to do with his debate showings, which have been peppery affairs. “I was a little like, ‘John! You’ll get your turn, don’t be screaming like that!,’” Susan Sokul of Concord said as she waited for Kasich to arrive at the primary night party. She was confident that his showing in New Hampshire would mobilize support nationally.
What remains to be seen is whether the Ohio governor can translate the success he had in New Hampshire — which has among the most moderate, Kasich-friendly electorates in the country — to other states, and whether he can make the same connections he made in New Hampshire town halls with other states’ voters. Kasich was effective in these settings, if a bit rambling. “We all need to slow down and listen to somebody else,” he had said to a Hollis crowd late last week, to heartfelt applause.
Kasich has been playing at folk philosopher for quite some time now, it’s just that last night was when people around the country started to tune in. On stage, in front of the adoring crowd at the primary night party, he seemed almost bashful in his moment of victory.
“There’s so much that’s going to happen,” he said, closing out his remarks to the on-site faithful and the late night news-watching public. “If you don’t have a seat belt, go get one.”