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New Hampshire primary results: John Kasich takes 2nd

Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Paul Marotta/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has finished second in New Hampshire, ABC is reporting. With 23 percent of the votes counted, he has 15 percent of the vote, putting him behind Donald Trump with 34 percent.

On paper, Kasich seems like a strong presidential candidate. He is the Republican governor of one of the nation's most important swing states, and he's really popular there. He also has experience in Congress and the private sector, making him one of the most well-rounded candidates in the race.

Yet until now, he hasn't been considered a top-tier contender. He finished eighth in last week's Iowa caucuses, with less than 2 percent of the vote, and has barely been a blip in national polls.

But New Hampshire has an open primary system that allows independents to vote in the Republican race — and as a result, the state has a history of nominating relatively moderate Republicans. New Hampshire backed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, helping both men recover from losses in Iowa to capture the Republican nomination.

Now New Hampshire voters have given Kasich a chance to break into the top tier of the Republican race. The result gives Kasich a shot at supplanting Marco Rubio as the emerging favorite of mainstream Republicans who loathe Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Kasich's big challenge will be figuring out how to maintain his New Hampshire momentum as the race moves into more conservative states like South Carolina, where his centrist message may not be as welcome.

Kasich has campaigned as a compassionate conservative

John Kasich Campaigns In New Hampshire One Day Before Primary Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

Kasich is often described as a moderate — a label Kasich himself rejects. But that says as much about the Republican Party's shift to the right as it does about Kasich's own policy positions.

As Vox's Andrew Prokop has written, Kasich was the Paul Ryan of the 1990s, pushing for budget cuts during the Clinton years. He helped broker the 1997 balanced budget agreement that produced a brief budget surplus at the turn of the century.

And Kasich portrays himself as an orthodox conservative on other issues. Like most other Republican candidates, he is pro-life, favors school vouchers, and defends the Second Amendment. During his time as governor he's kept his pledge not to raise taxes, though anti-tax activists say he could have gone further in cutting them.

Yet Kasich has differed sharply with other members of his party on some issues. The most significant is probably his decision to have Ohio participate in Obamacare's Medicaid expansion. A number of other Republican-controlled states have refused to participate, despite the fact that the federal government would pick up the majority of the costs.

Kasich not only came out in favor of accepting the money, he also launched an aggressive lobbying campaign to convince Republican legislators to go along with his plan. And while he could have sold the move as a simple act of pragmatism (for instance, arguing that if the federal government offers you a lot of free money, you might as well take it), he chose instead to cast the decision in stark moral terms.

"When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small," Kasich said to a Republican legislator in 2013. "But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer."

That, of course, doesn't sit well with conservative stalwarts, who worry that this same argument could inspire Kasich to expand social spending in the White House. But it's an appealing sales pitch for primary voters in New Hampshire.

Kasich has taken other positions that run counter to current conservative thinking. In an era when many Republicans are moving right on immigration, Kasich has said he's more sympathetic to a "pathway to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants than he was a few years ago. And while Kasich opposed same-sex marriage prior to last year's Supreme Court ruling legalizing it, he now argues that it's time to "move on." Again, this is music to the ears of many moderate voters in New Hampshire.

It's going to be a struggle for Kasich to compete in later states

The big question coming out of New Hampshire is whether anyone can emerge as the leading alternative to Donald Trump. Right now, anti-Trump forces are split several ways, with John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush all capturing a share of the non-Trump vote. The longer that situation continues, the better Trump's chances of coasting to victory with 30 to 40 percent of the vote in later states.

Kasich's second-place finish gives him greater visibility and a chance to become the anti-Trump standard-bearer. Over the next few weeks, he's going to try to attract support from voters who supported Bush, Rubio, Christie, and other mainstream candidates.

But it won't be an easy sell for Kasich. His impressive New Hampshire result reflects months of on-the-ground campaigning in a small state. That's not a model he can replicate in later states.

It takes a national organization to run a national campaign, and building a national organization takes money. Until now, Kasich hasn't had it — he has raised just $7.6 million in 2015, compared with $30 million for Marco Rubio and $47 million for Ted Cruz. That means that Kasich will be at a disadvantage in the South Carolina primary, the Nevada caucus, and later races, where his opponents will have more money for television ads and a more extensive get-out-the-vote operation.

Is Kasich the Jon Huntsman of 2016?

2015 Concordia Summit - Day 2
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

A big worry for Kasich is that he could become another Jon Huntsman, the charismatic Utah governor whose 2012 campaign never gained traction. Huntsman's willingness to defy conservative orthodoxy made him popular with the media and allowed him to take third place in New Hampshire with 16 percent of the vote — about the same percentage of the vote Kasich got today.

Huntsman dropped out of the race shortly after his third-place finish in New Hampshire. That was partly because he was likely to do worse in later, more conservative states such as South Carolina. But it was also because the race's frontrunner at that point was moderate Mitt Romney, and there wasn't much room for an even more moderate candidate.

This year, of course, is different. The frontrunners so far have been Ted Cruz, an orthodox conservative, and Donald Trump, who has made hostility toward Mexicans, Muslims, women, and others a centerpiece of his campaign. So there might be room for a centrist alternative to the race's very conservative frontrunners.

Still, national polling does not provide much evidence that voters are ready for Kasich. The RealClearPolitics poll average gives him just 4 percent of the vote, putting him in sixth place. While his strong New Hampshire finish will doubtless boost his poll numbers somewhat, it's going to be hard for him to reach the top tier in future contests.