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John Kasich's underpants gnomes theory of winning the Republican nomination

Louise Wateridge/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty

The Republican primary is down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz ... oh, yeah, and I guess that other guy is still running too, right?

Indeed, Ohio Gov. John Kasich is still out on the campaign trail, even though all of the following is true:

  • Kasich has managed to win only one of the 40 Republican contests so far, and that was his home state of Ohio.
  • Kasich needs to win 130 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the majority before the convention, which is of course impossible.
  • Kasich is not only far behind Trump but well behind Cruz too — our current delegate count has Trump at 757, Cruz at 546, and Kasich at 144.
  • Not only does Kasich trail Trump and Cruz in delegates — he also still trails Marco Rubio, who suspended his campaign more than a month ago. (Rubio has 172 delegates.)
  • Kasich has not won a single delegate in the past month.
  • And his operation doesn't appear to be raising much money.

Presidential candidates in a situation like this generally tend to quit the race, and there's been a great deal of puzzlement about why Kasich hasn't done so. Some analysts even think that by staying in the race, he's effectively helping Trump win, to the great annoyance of some GOP elites.

On the surface, Kasich's explanation for why he's staying in is simple. "At the end of the day," Kasich said Monday, "I think the Republican Party wants to pick somebody who actually can win in the fall." And he thinks that despite his record of losses and paltry delegate haul, the party will for some reason turn to him, the last establishment-friendly candidate standing, at a contested convention.

But this raises two questions. First, does Kasich's theory that he can win at a convention make any sense? And second, by staying in the race is he indeed helping hand the nomination to Trump?

Kasich's chances at the convention do not seem good at all

Comedy Central

If you don't drill too far down into the details, the theory that Republican delegates could turn to Kasich at a contested convention might appear to make sense.

After all, many Republican elites do truly despise both Trump and Cruz and would prefer practically anyone else viable. Polling currently indicates that Kasich would perform quite well in the general election. He's the popular governor of a swing state, Ohio. And unlike other stop-Trump/stop-Cruz white knights, Kasich actually bothered to run for president (a prerequisite for Paul Ryan's support, at least).

But the closer you look, the more outlandish this scenario seems.

  • In practice, the Ohio governor is so far down in the delegate count and has done so poorly in non-Ohio contests that it would seem absurd for the party to nominate him over the much more successful Trump and Cruz.
  • Trump and Cruz may be loathed by some elements of the party, but Kasich is loathed by many conservatives for his fight to expand Medicaid in Ohio. So it's not as if he's a popular choice the party could unite around.
  • If the nomination voting continues for multiple ballots, the question of just who those delegates are could be crucial. Yet it's Cruz, not Kasich, who's reportedly been dominating the delegate selection process, and who will likely have far more of his allies going to Cleveland ready to back him on future ballots.

Indeed, Kasich's actual plan seems to fit perfectly into the classic South Park "underpants gnome" framework, in which step 1 is "lose every primary and caucus except Ohio," step 2 is "???" and step 3 is "party turns to Kasich at a contested convention." He really does not seem to have even the slightest plan to get from step 1 to step 3.

Because his plan seems so implausible, there's been some chatter that Kasich might have other plans in mind — perhaps, some have suggested, he's hoping to help Trump at the convention somehow, in hopes of ending up vice president. (Kasich has repeatedly denied this.) Others just think he's incredibly stubborn (which is definitely true) or even delusional.

But maybe Kasich understands full well that his chances of winning the nomination at the convention are small, but isn't convinced they're zero. If so, why not stay in?

It's not clear whether Kasich's continued presence in the race helps Trump or hurts him

RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty

The problem with that logic, of course, that by staying in, Kasich might in fact be helping Trump win (if we assume that Kasich prefers Cruz to Trump, which I'm not sure is so clear).

Yet there is a genuine disagreement about whether Kasich's continued presence in the race is more likely to help Trump or to hurt him.

RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende made the "help Trump" case last month, writing that the "primary outcome is in Kasich's hands." His basic argument is that the more candidates are in the race, the easier it is for Trump to pick up lots of delegates with just plurality rather than majority victories.

That's both due to Republican delegate allocation rules — which, in many contests, hand all the delegates in states and congressional districts to whoever comes in in first place — and due to the basic assumption that Cruz would have a better shot at winning in a head-to-head race with Trump.

There's a counterargument, though, that Kasich can actually hurt Trump by depriving him of some delegates in a region where Cruz is weak — the Northeast.

Even though Kasich appears unlikely to win any more Northeastern states, he could win certain congressional districts. His presence could also make a difference in contests that have "winner-take-all triggers" — awarding all delegates in a state or district only to a candidate who tops 50 percent of the vote — by holding Trump under that 50 percent threshold.

That could matter, because Trump needs all the delegates he can get — especially from the Northeast — if he hopes to lock down a majority before the convention. We'll get a clue about how much Kasich's presence will tip the scales in New York's primary today. If Kasich does deprive Trump of a bunch of delegates, he could suddenly become a lot more popular among #NeverTrump forces.


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