John Kasich still wants to be president. And he thinks he’s finally found an audience he can convert to his unusual brand of Republicanism.
If you pay close attention to what the Ohio governor is saying as he weighs another campaign, you’ll hear a politician in the twilight of his career trying to persuade himself and others that he can be the right candidate for a younger, cooler, more ideologically flexible generation.
“It seems as though we’ve all become so cynical now,” he told BuzzFeed News in an interview this week, during another New Hampshire visit that raises speculation that the frequent Donald Trump critic could challenge the sitting president in the 2020 primaries. “Nobody does anything because it might be the right thing to do. If you help a woman get across the street, it must be you want something. That’s a dangerous place to be. The millennials, I don’t believe, are cynical. We are cynical. Grown-ups. Older people. Cynical. Bad.”
Kasich loves the millennials, a term he uses liberally, seemingly to describe anyone under the age of 40. He sees potential voters who are embarrassed by Trump and open to a responsible conservative who’s moved, as Kasich has in recent months, to the left on gun control in response to deadly mass shootings.
Kasich’s new conversation pieces range from HQ, the mobile trivia game, to YouTube celebrity Logan Paul (who entered the wider public consciousness after he filmed a video inside a Japanese "suicide forest"). He also wants you to know he listens to Justin Bieber, dropping the pop star’s name too often (a statehouse press conference, a New York Magazine interview, a ride-along with the Weekly Standard) for it to be a coincidence.
“This social media is really fascinating to me, whether it’s YouTube, whether it’s some sort of YouTube channel, I don’t know,” Kasich said as he promised to step up his Twitter game. “I have a million Twitter followers, which I think is really cool.”
All of this can come off a little forced at times — or like the meme-friendly “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” bit from 30 Rock. When Kasich appeared last September on BuzzFeed News’ AM to DM, he proclaimed he wanted “to know what happens at the water cooler at BuzzFeed. … I want to know what these young people are thinking.”
What younger voters think exactly is a fragile thing. Millennials are fully adults now, in their twenties and thirties, and increasingly alienated from the two major parties, as Kasich says. Millennial women, though, identified as Democratic or leaning Democratic at a staggering 70% in a recent Pew survey. A new (and diverse) voting generation is quickly coming up behind millennials, one that’s driven the recent gun control activism — but that newer generation is complex, too, containing potential voters who greet Bernie Sanders with hosanas, and others who have spent their college years on either side of intense battles over free speech.
So why should they turn to a 65-year-old Republican?
“You know, age is actually a number, and it’s a state of mind,” Kasich said. “Because I happen to like popular music, people think, Well, that’s because of your daughters. That’s not true. The reason why I do certain things is I have a young mind, and my mind is always working and finding new things to talk about and think about and explore, and that’s how you stay young. I admire the young people because I feel they’re idealists, and I’m an idealist.”
That fits within the general framework Kasich has put forth since the rise of Trump, really — that voters will want more civil, moral, sober leadership.
The New Hampshire trip gave Kasich the opportunity to expound on both elements to his message, and do some of the mechanical work that might precede another presidential bid. Kasich huddled at various points with key Republicans in the nation’s first primary state, where his second-place finish in 2016 scored him some attention as a moderate alternative to Trump. He met with Gov. Chris Sununu, the Concord Monitor (which devoted much of its Wednesday front page to Kasich’s visit), and activists who helped him two years ago and could help again if he runs in 2020. Kasich ended the day Tuesday with a “fireside chat” at New England College in Henniker.
All the while, Kasich refused to rule out anything. He could challenge Trump in a primary, but he’s also shown interest in studying the feasibility of running as an independent.
“I kind of think of the political parties today as two great department stores in downtown Manchester,” Kasich told a crowd that trended older than college-age in Henniker. “One’s red and one’s blue, and the customers show up, and neither department store has anything to offer, so guess what happens. The millennials are saying, ‘I don’t like either of those, so you better give me something I like.’ And that creates a dynamism inside of our country that to me is really exciting. So I believe in the Gen X’ers, and I believe in the millennials.”
This is not the first time Kasich has wondered publicly if he can reshape the Republican Party by making it more attractive to young voters. In the late 1990s, when he was trying to build traction for a 2000 presidential campaign, Kasich bragged about listening to Pearl Jam. (Kasich’s pop cultural references even extended to his off-brand, low standing in a field led by a Bush and a Dole. They were Coke and Pepsi; he was Jolt Cola.)
When Kasich tried again in 2016, he pitched himself differently. His attempts to reach young voters were less about connecting with them and more about being the “grown-up” in the race who knew best. He used a running national debt clock as a prop and fretted about leaving a financial mess for future generations.
Kasich’s pre-2020 policy centerpiece is gun control. And he prefers to take you back to the ’90s, when he voted in Congress for an assault weapons ban.
He won the governor’s race in 2010 in spite of the National Rifle Association’s support for the Democratic incumbent. As governor, though, Kasich has had a super-friendly record with the pro-gun lobby — or at least he did until last fall, when the mass shooting in Las Vegas spurred him to ponder changes to the state’s existing gun laws. But that process chugged along quietly until after the school shooting last month in Parkland, Florida.
As students there emerged as nationally recognized champions of reform, Kasich scrubbed pro-gun messaging from his political website and proposed several new policies, including tighter background checks. “Has this stuff that’s been happening all over the country — whether it’s Las Vegas, whether it’s Parkland, has it influenced me? Hell yes, it has,” Kasich said Tuesday.
His critics have accused him of pandering, but Kasich’s allies argue that if the goal of the gun control debate is to change minds, then the governor shouldn’t be demonized for approaching it with an open one. Kasich cites the Parkland students as inspiration.
“These kids — they’re not kids — these young people from Florida are some of the most impressive,” he said. “And I cannot believe these adults who keep trashing them!”
Kasich even pointed to a tough recent interview with Vice News’ Alexandra Jaffe, who pressed him on why his new gun control proposals don’t go further, as a positive. “It was great,” Kasich said. “Did it make me look good? No. But I loved what she was saying. Because that’s what we want now. We want the truth. We want real stuff. That’s why I like these young people.”
Tom Rath, a veteran Republican leader in New Hampshire who backed Kasich in 2016 and traveled with him Tuesday, believes Kasich is genuine in his youth outreach but acknowledges it can be a strategy fraught with awkwardness.
“There’s a group out there that doesn’t have certainty with the politics their parents are leaving them,” Rath said. “The trick Kasich has to figure out is how you talk to that group without pandering to them. Don’t be something you’re not.”
Kasich’s main calling card has been his criticism of Trump. He’s on national TV often because of it, and a CNN crew shadowed him for much of his New Hampshire trip. He said he receives encouragement “from lots of people who have influence, lots of elites” but also hears from plenty of “staunch Republican Trump people” who wish he’d go away.
“So that must tell me I’m doing something right,” he said.
Kasich then paused, pleased with himself: “That’s a good quote.”
But Kasich isn’t ready to go away.
“I think what we’re missing is those people who say, ‘I really don’t care if I’m a Republican or a Democrat. I’m worried about my country, and this is what I am going to do,'” Kasich told his audience at New England College. “But it’s hard. So why do politicians not do it? Because we’re human beings, and we like to be important. … I’ll be the worst, I want to be important, I do, I want to be important — but if everything we do is designed to make us important, then we’ve lost the bigger picture.”
For a moment, Kasich lost himself, deep in existential thought.
“For me, I’m getting older, so pretty soon,” he said, as his words trailed off.
“Well, what I’m saying is, it’s hard to give up the microphone.” ●