“Well, I said I’d go all the way, and here I am.”

“Hey, don’t you quit on us, sir, don’t you quit on us, Governor Kasich.”

“Well, if we win on Tuesday I’m going all the way. But I’ve always said, if I lose Ohio, that’s it.”

“You’re the only one making this worth the while.”

“Well, that’s up to you. You gotta get out the vote.”

“We will. Don’t you quit on us.”

“I won’t.”

John Kasich, slender, wizened, a little stooped, halfway through what must be his 200th town hall, has got himself into some sort of affirmation spiral. This may not be the first time this has happened. A white-bearded man in a trucker cap got the first question out and quickly hijacked the show — though not in any way the audience found unwelcome. “You, sir, are the only man telling the truth in this whole rotten thing,” he began. “I am not asking you, I am telling you” — and it went from there.

There were nods of assent, murmurs of yessss as this guy was giving the spiel. Kasich had come in 15 minutes earlier, 20 minutes late, and would be departing in less than half an hour, to another of the half-dozen town halls he was holding today. We were in some sort of old yeasthouse, red brick and roof beams, stuffy and crowded, dust motes swirling in the light through century-old windows. No one really minded.

They were there to be part of it, this campaign, this unlikely crusade that has come out of nowhere and built to something quietly extraordinary. John Kasich, former Ohio governor, former congressman, began his campaign for the Republican nomination last year with little money, no staff apparatus to speak of, and no name recognition outside of his home state. “I began speaking to six people,” he tells reporters — often — of the meetings he started on last year.

They were quiet affairs, with little of the Americanist triumphalism of the other candidates — and little of the apocalyptic rhetoric here. “We got problems,” Kasich tells his audiences, “but underneath the country is sound.” That’s a world away from any of what Cruz, Rubio and Trump are offering, in their different ways, stories of a great country brought low by betrayal (it must be betrayal, because  how else would a great country be brought low?).

The meetings began to grow, by word of mouth, in the small towns and cities of New Hampshire, and so did Kasich’s profile. It was enhanced by Kasich’s performance in early debates, when he chided other candidates for their deriding of Obama as a “divider”, while refusing to display any ability to compromise themselves. That independent streak, a solid record and a plain-speaking manner rocketed him into second-place in New Hampshire before Christmas. But the holiday break took the gloss off, and when it started he had to rebuild the lead again.

Over the course of January he rebuilt that support through four or five meetings a day, everywhere. School halls, restaurants, Elks Lodges, theatres, anywhere they could set one up. They grew again, became a thing, until, on the evening before the primary, Kasich was speaking to a couple of hundred people in the howling snow outside a general store. The people who didn’t get Kasich couldn’t even begin to get him  — he was the guy who had sold out by taking Obamacare money for his state. Those drawn to him became devotees and proselytisers.

The effort got him third place in New Hampshire, pushing Jeb into fourth place and Rubio into fifth, something that harmed Rubio and all but did for Jeb. It set Kasich up to be in for the long haul. “If I don’t do well here, I’m going home,” he had said bluntly, the only candidate who had acknowledged the possibility of defeat, a further example of his status as an actual human being. The New Hampshire result set him up for the national race, sending him to South Carolina, and then on to Massachusetts and a couple of key states for Super Tuesday.

It was at this point that the meetings of this sober professional politician gained a touch of the revival meeting; people telling him that he had revived their sense of meaning in politics, that he gave them faith in their country again, and one extraordinary event in Clemson, South Carolina, where he hugged a volunteer who had got up to tell him how he had lost his parents to cancer, and this campaign had given his life meaning again. From there it just started to grow. Kasich hoped to grab a couple of victories along the way- – Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan — but none of them came good That didn’t matter overmuch. Ohio was and is the goal. A win there gives him the bragging rights to go, and 70-odd delegates to add to the 40 he already has. In a contested convention, that would make him a kingmaker.

The strategic imperative is hidden behind an “aw shucks” persona, which taps into a more restrained version of the anti-political plain citizen figure. ‘Democrats keep telling me I’m their favourite Republican’ Kasich says. And: “I don’t even know if I’m meant to be president,” says the man who has been a politician, in one way or another, since the 1970s. The rallies have gotten larger, including a few extravaganzas appearing with old friend Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he’s still doing these smaller meetings. Truth is, if you work one state over and over and over, you will eventually run out of people to talk to. Kasich has come as close any anyone has to bucking that trend.

So the question that occurs to you when you’re watching Kasich is: is this guy for real? Or is it all an elaborate performance? The question tends to occur to journalists because Kasich gives them their “conversion moment”: that sought-after event whereby a jaded scribe hears something, looks up and is converted. There’s a scene like it in Primary Colours, another in The West Wing, all of which go back to All The King’s Men, the classic novel detailing the seduction and fall of someone wanting to believe that they’d found the real thing, the politician they could believe in. That it’s a stock moment doesn’t detract from the power of it, and I got it at that meeting, watching Kasich handle a couple of friendly questioners he disagreed with by firmly disputing them.

“You can’t afford college? How much are you paying? Where are you going” [answer] “Well, why are you paying that much? Why are you going there? I mean, there’s a lot of better options. You can do a two-year degree instead of a three-year degree. You can go to community college, they’re great. People have got to be a little smarter about college…”

“You know, there’s always possibilities. That’s what I don’t agree with with this stuff about how we’re ruined. We’ve go our problems, but we’re doing all right. We’ve got to open up opportunity, look after the least among us, and move on.”

“You’re a very honest man,” said a woman, during a lull after that.

“Ma’am, I’m a flawed man…”

There was more of that, a lot more. Kasich’s pitch was against apocalypticism, but also in favour of a certain type of self-reliance. In a race that consists of Trump telling everyone how great it’s all going to be, Cruz saying that the end is nigh, and Rubio talking about America as the greatest country in history. It’s an effect, of course, because it’s the moment you’re always looking for in these events — something that lives up to the sort of thing they’re meant to be, a genuine and unmediated appeal to the people, and a chance for them to exercise their own judgement.

It is a performance, but it is also for real, and each is the means of the other. Those Democrats who feel an affinity with Kasich are fooled by the man’s manner into disregarding his record as someone who, by Australians standards, is at the very right end of the mainstream spectrum: Kasich was a key architect of Newt Gingrich’s 1990s “contract with America”, which devastated the lives of the poor and low-income; his fervent anti-abortion stance is moderate only by American religious right standards. Though he is now a genuine anti-war candidate, he was hawkish for years. How has he gained an image as the outsider, the challenger to the power structure? By staying where he is, while his party drifts towards psychosis.

The truth is, that in his mild-mannered way, Kasich taps into the same myth as purveyed by Trump, Rubio and all the others — that America’s problems are not that of a once-dominant country now challenged by rising powers and dealing with contradictions accumulated over decades, but of a departure from the ordained being of America, which can be cured by a return to first principles. Kasich presents the problems as incidental rather than structural, and consequently presents the solutions as almost instantaneous: “If I’m president, better go and out and buy a seat belt, because the first 100 days are going to be incredible.”

That is an empty promise. Things a governor can do at a state level, a president can’t do at the federal level. Even the most “honest” man can’t tell Americans the real truth: the years of global dominance is over. In education, health, infrastructure, it would take eight or 16 years of concerted effort to get back to the middle, let alone to the top again. “If I’m your president then by the end of the second term, things will be somewhat less worse than they are now, and we will be back on the road to average achievement!” said no candidate ever, and Kasich isn’t going to be the first.

Indeed in two days’ time, John Kasich may disappear altogether from history. And Donald Trump — having won Florida also, which does not seem to be in doubt — will be the all-but-unstoppable nominee. Then, as several have remarked, it is quite possible that the Republican Party will effectively be split in two. And if Kasich wins, Trump is most likely denied the numbers he needs to avoid a contested convention. Should that happen, the party may be able to reconstruct itself, find a new politics. Ohio is their Thermopylae. Thus, on Kasich’s shoulders, stooped, as he’s hustled out of the hall, rests the fate of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan. Hustled out, to the next meeting, as people crowd around, just to pat him on the shoulder, on the back, and say, “Don’t you quit on us!”

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey