By David Knox
Now that Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential poll numbers are up — at least in New Hampshire — will the national news media finally take a hard look at his job creation record?
Maybe. But don’t bet the rent money on it. The lure of the horse race is hard to resist. And the poll numbers show Kasich coming up fast on the outside in the final stretch of the Granite State’s Feb. 9 primary contest.
RealClearPolitics’ average of five surveys of likely New Hampshire voters, conducted Jan. 13-25, shows Kasich in third place with 11.5 percent — within two points of Sen. Ted Cruz. One of the polls, American Research Group’s, puts Kasich a solid second with 15 percent — 14 percentage points behind front-runner Donald Trump.
Kasich’s late surge has drawn national attention at the right time — less than three weeks before the election. But his former back-of-the-pack status had a big benefit: Kasich escaped the scrutiny that so often trips up front-runners.
Like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who led in early polling last spring and summer among Republicans in both New Hampshire and Iowa. Two Iowa polls conducted by NBC/Marist and Monmouth University in the week after Walker announced his candidacy July 13 showed him 2 and 9 percentage points, respectively, ahead of Trump, who had entered the race a month earlier.
Walker’s success in the polls drew intense attention to his record, including his job creation claims. And when the first Republican debate, in Cleveland, came in early August, Fox News moderator Chris Wallace was ready with a tough question:
“Governor Walker, when you ran for governor of Wisconsin back in 2010, you promised that you would create 250,000 jobs in your first term, first four years,” Wallace said. “In fact, Wisconsin added barely half that and ranked 35th in the country in job growth.
“Now you’re running for president, and you’re promising an economic plan in which everyone will earn a piece of the American dream. Given your record in Wisconsin, why should voters believe you?”
In his response, Walker noted Wisconsin’s employment rate was down to 4.6 percent and pointed out, “We’ve more than made up for the jobs that were lost during the recession.”
But he couldn’t deny breaking his campaign promise. Nor could he refute the damning statistic Wallace cited — that Wisconsin’s rate of job creation was below the national average.
Unfortunately for Kasich, the same is true of Ohio. The Buckeye State has lagged behind the nation in job growth for most of the nearly five years since he took office in January 2011. Since then, total nonfarm employment in Ohio rose 7.6 percent compared to the national average of better than 9.5 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Kasich was never asked about that during any of the six Republican debates held so far.
Not because the subject of job creation never came up. Kasich made sure it did. In five of the six debates — the exception being the Dec. 15 event in Las Vegas devoted to foreign policy and terrorism — Kasich cited a key talking point of his campaign: that Ohio had gained more than 300,000 jobs during his first term.
Is that a lot of jobs? Or a little? Compared to what? The national audience watching the debates didn’t find out. The moderators never challenged Kasich’s numbers, which were non sequiturs rather than responses to questions in all but one instance.
Donald Trump tried to undermine Kasich’s job claims in the third debate by saying, “John got lucky with a thing called fracking. OK? He hit oil.” But mainstream news media fact-checkers quickly dismissed Trump’s remark as just another of his wild exaggerations and moved on.
So did Kasich. He’s still in the race and done well enough in the national polls to stay on the main debate stage, along with Trump, Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Four didn’t make the cut because of low poll numbers. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was demoted to the preliminary “undercard event” of the fourth debate, on Nov. 10. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul were dropped from the sixth prime-time debate on Jan. 14. (Paul declined to appear in the undercard debate, which some pundits disparage as the “kiddie table.” He was invited back to the main stage for the next debate, in Iowa Thursday, after Trump announced he wouldn’t participate.)
And Walker? The Wisconsin governor was the first to go, shutting down his campaign Sept. 21 after a dismal outing in the second GOP debate, collapsing poll numbers and vanishing financial support.
Kasich deserves credit for making it this far. He avoided the mistake that made Walker an easy mark on the critical issue of job creation. Unlike Walker, Kasich never vowed to create a specific number of jobs so he couldn’t be nailed for breaking a campaign promise.
But Kasich could have been confronted with an awkward fact that Walker didn’t have to face: Ohio has yet to recover all the jobs lost in the Great Recession. Wisconsin reached that goal earlier this year, as Walker noted in response to Wallace’s question.
In the debates and on the campaign trail, Kasich sidesteps that issue by avoiding comparisons to other states, the nation or the recession. In fact, the word “recession” doesn’t appear anywhere on Kasich’s presidential campaign website page devoted to the issue of jobs and the economy.
Kasich uses a different yardstick to measure job recovery than the traditional one the news media used to declare in the spring of 2014 that the nation had recouped all 8.7 million jobs lost during the Great Recession.
Instead of all nonfarm jobs, Kasich only counts those created by private industry and dismisses Ohio’s shrinking public sector — mainly public school employees and other municipal, county and township workers.
Kasich also only considers the 351,000 net private-sector jobs lost during the four-year term of his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. That’s the number of jobs Kasich boasted of recovering in a March video. That’s also the number he cites in the debates and in his campaign.
The traditional way to define a recovery would set the bar higher by counting all 451,100 nonfarm jobs Ohio lost after hitting its pre-recession peak of 5.45 million in March 2006 — 10 months before Strickland took office — during the administration of Republican Gov. Bob Taft.
By that measure, Ohio falls short of a full recovery and is among 15 states that haven’t returned to their pre-recession employment levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report for December.
Kasich’s alternative metric, which he adopted early in Kasich’s administration, has an added benefit. He’s not likely to be tagged a “pants on fire” liar by Politifact’s Truth-o-meter or awarded many Pinocchios icons by the Washington Post fact checkers. That’s because there’s nothing wrong with Kasich’s math. His numbers can be found in official reports and they add up. They’re just different than the ones experts say most accurately reflect the health of the labor market and the economy.
It’s the difference between using a corked baseball bat and moving the ball park’s fence in. Both make it easier to hit a homerun, but only one is considered cheating. The other is considered by many a smart move to help fill the stands with fans.
That’s an example why underestimating Kasich is a mistake. While his chance of winning the GOP nomination for president are slim, he’s got an excellent shot at the vice presidential spot on the ballot despite his protestations that he’s not interested. His media image as the moderate in an overwhelmingly hard-right GOP field would makes Kasich an attractive VP candidate when it’s time to tack to the political center as the campaign heads toward November.
A bigger advantage is Kasich’s record as a winner in a must-win state. He was re-elected in 2014 with a 31-point-margin, taking 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Kasich’s campaign website spells out in clear and forceful language why Ohio is so vital to the GOP’s hopes of regaining the presidency:
“Ohio’s status as the national bellwether is not a reputation, it’s a fact. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning Ohio. Ever. And it’s been more than 50 years since a Democrat won the White House without Ohio. Ohio voters pick our nation’s presidents because, like the nation, Ohioans have a history of rejecting extremism and divisiveness in both parties.”
Whoever wins the Republican nomination will weigh those factors heavily in choosing a running mate.
David Knox is a veteran Ohio newspaper reporter and editor, including more than 20 years at the Akron Beacon Journal — the last 10 as the newspaper’s computer-assisted reporting specialist. He has been a freelance journalist since March, when he retired as managing editor of The (Medina County) Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.