New Hampshire shake-up: Kasich surge could reshape race

Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich. (Ed Crisostomo/The Orange County Register via AP)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – John Kasich staked his presidential ambitions on New Hampshire, and last-minute polling suggests his gamble was well placed.

In two new surveys, Kasich ranks second in the GOP field’s Granite State standings just one day ahead of the nation’s first 2016 primary.

If the Ohio leader can pull out a second place finish, he could potentially strip Sen. Marco Rubio of his insurgent status and herd establishment voters into his growing camp of backers.

Kasich polling bump

Gov. Kasich claimed 14% of likely Republican voters’ support in New Hampshire, according to Monmouth University on Sunday, putting him ahead of major competitors like Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Jeb Bush.

And here’s the kicker: half of Republicans surveyed said they are not completely decided on a candidate yet.

That creates the prospect of a sizable last-minute swing, since undeclared and independent voters can show up to cast votes on primary day without pre-registering with either party.

The second poll getting buzz, released Monday by a pro-Kasich super PAC, also shows the Ohio governor finishing second in New Hampshire.

“Donald Trump holds a wide lead in the survey, receiving 35 percent. He more than doubles runner-up Kasich, who has 15 percent. In third is Jeb Bush, with 13 percent,” reports Politico of the New Day for America findings.

Where does this leave Rubio? In fourth, with 10 points.

The pro-Kasich group says Rubio initially was polling second in its research, but then showed a “dramatic drop” following his widely mocked debate performance on Saturday in which the Florida freshman senator repeated his talking points verbatim several times.

NH momentum shift?

This sort of shake-up in New Hampshire, should it materialize, could reshuffle the deck of top candidates heading into upcoming races.

Once the primary calendar starts chugging along, it can be difficult to fight news cycles and find new constituencies. So early wins come in mighty handy for middle-of-the-pack campaigns.

“Look out for #Kasich to take second,” tweeted Howard Fineman of Huffington Post. In 2016, that’s basically a win for any candidate not named Trump.

Similar tweets and cable chatter popped up on Monday, directing much-desired attention to the Kasich camp just before votes are cast.

This momentum is hard won. Kasich knew Iowa was a non-starter and focused his energies on New Hampshire from the get-go, riding a campaign bus across the famously independent state and focusing his energies on holding town halls.

Adding additional credibility and ground support has been former New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu, who signed on as a Kasich supporter in 2015.

Sununu told the Washington Examiner, “We’re right where we want to be, we’re going to win a lion’s share of those late deciding voters”

Jeb Bush has also devoted significant resources to the nation’s first primary and is seeing his efforts rewarded in climbing polls.

Limiting factors

Trump retains an enormous polling advantage across the board in New Hampshire, averaging more than 30% in most polls. But his opponents are hoping for an Iowa-style upset.

Kasich is not assured second place. In fact, far from it.

Real Clear Politics’ average of New Hampshire polls still lists Kasich in fourth place, trailing Cruz and Rubio. As Iowa demonstrated, the final tally can change quickly, but Kasich still is not a lock for runner-up.

Meanwhile, Nate Silver’s influential FiveThirtyEight blog projects Kasich to finish in third place (14.7%), losing to Rubio (16.9%) and Trump (27.6%).

Independent streak

Independents will be key in New Hampshire. Kasich needs them to break in his favor — something many undecided Iowans did for Marco Rubio last week.

Kasich’s team is banking on his moderate message, vast infrastructure, and establishment appeal going into Tuesday’s primary.

Win or no win, Ohio’s chief executive plans to continue fighting, telling the Wall Street Journal‘s Reid Epstein of his post-NH campaigning plans, “We’re very confident that we’ll be eating gumbo and wearing flip-flops.”

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales

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