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John Kasich’s rhetoric versus his record in Ohio

Kasich takes his campaign to South Carolina. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Since coming in a surprisingly strong second in the New Hampshire Republican primary last week, Ohio Governor John Kasich has been on a roll. His campaign has reported “gangbusters” fundraising and Kasich’s national poll numbers posted a sizable bounce.

More Republican voters are giving the Ohio governor a second look, and some appear to like what they see. But does reality match Kasich’s rhetoric?

As a political scientist from Ohio, I’d like to offer some perspective on Kasich’s self-described strengths – his role in balancing the state budget and improving the Ohio economy, his moderate policy outlook and his record of electoral victories in the most purple of America’s swing states.

John Kasich makes his pitch.

In my view, Kasich’s campaign is significantly overselling the governor’s record, claiming credit for successes at least partially beyond the governor’s control while downplaying a number of significant policy failures and disappointments.

Balancing the budget and creating jobs

When Kasich was sworn in as Ohio’s governor in 2011, the state’s public and private sectors were both a mess. Kasich inherited a huge budget deficit, and the unemployment rate was near a historic high. Today, the state’s budget is balanced and unemployment, at 4.7 percent, is the lowest it’s been in more than a decade.

To be sure, Kasich made job creation a top priority in his years in office. Under his watch, the state privatized its economic development agency, offered private companies significant tax incentives to create (or relocate) jobs in Ohio, and reduced its income tax rates substantially.

But is it fair for Kasich to take credit for Ohio’s economic recovery?

Unemployment in California and Ohio. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Graph created by author)

To answer this question, it is useful to compare Ohio with California, another state that experienced significant pain during the Great Recession and where a new governor also took office in January 2011. Compared to Ohio, however, California has pursued very different policies. Under Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, California increased its income taxes and eliminated several economic development programs.

Since January 2011, interestingly, California’s economy has outperformed Ohio’s. Unemployment has fallen by 6.2 percent in California compared to 4.5 percent in Ohio, and the number of people with jobs has increased 11 percent compared to 4 percent in Ohio.

The main lesson from this comparison is that state economic fortunes are, to a large extent, tethered to the national economy. National recessions batter state economies. National recoveries, like the one that has benefited both Ohio and California over the past half-decade, help them. This occurs largely regardless of what policies are adopted at the state level. At minimum, it should make clear that Kasich cannot credibly claim that his policies alone are responsible for Ohio’s improving economy. Like Brown, Kasich was just lucky enough to be in the right office at the right time.

A predictable cycle

The robust national economy also helps explain Ohio’s (and California’s) much-improved state finances over the past five years.

As I’ve written elsewhere, state government budgets are locked into a permanent cycle of feast and famine. State governments get much of their revenue from income and sales taxes, and these revenues boom predictably when the economy is strong.

Yet, a large fraction of state expenditures go to pay for welfare services such as Medicaid. This year in Ohio, Medicaid will make up over 50 percent of Ohio’s operating budget. Enrollment in social welfare programs tends to shrink when the economy is doing well – for example, people tend to enroll in private health insurance when they have jobs. As a result, states frequently post large surpluses during good economic times, as their revenues go up even as expenditures on many programs shrink. The flip side is that during recessions, revenues fall even as demand for government programs goes up, creating massive cyclical deficits. The national economic recovery, in other words, has greatly helped Kasich balance the state budget.

Mr. Moderate?

Kasich is often described as one of the most moderate presidential contenders in his party – a Republican who works with the other side to achieve bipartisan policy victories. To a certain extent, these accolades are deserved, although they exaggerate the the governor’s record of legislative success.

More than other Republican candidates, the governor has taken controversial positions on a number of public policies that remain deeply unpopular within his party. For example, Kasich supported legislative reforms to fix Ohio’s underperforming charter schools, has been an outspoken advocate of the Common Core education standards and aggressively defends his decision to expand Medicaid in Ohio under the Affordable Care Act.

Despite their unpopularity among the grassroots, however, many of these issues have enjoyed strong support from other Republican elites, who deserve some of the credit (or blame depending on your perspective) for these achievements. Ohio’s Medicaid extension offers a useful example.

When Kasich announced that Ohio would participate in the expansion, the decision attracted a great deal of (often behind-the-scenes) support from other top Republican officials and major campaign contributors. Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce endorsed the move. Just days before a pivotal state commission was set to consider the proposal, the Republican speaker of Ohio’s House of Representatives reshuffled several appointments on the commission to ensure that Kasich would get the sufficient number of “yes” votes.

For issues lacking similar support among his party’s leaders, the governor has had much less luck – even though Republicans have enjoyed huge supermajorities in Ohio’s state legislature during his entire tenure. Last spring, for example, the legislature rejected the governor’s proposal to increase cigarette and fracking taxes to pay for an income tax cut. They also voted down a Kasich-backed overhaul of Ohio education funding that sought to redirect state aid to poor school districts.

In many cases, when the governor and the legislature have agreed, they have adopted policies that put them well to the right of the average Ohio (and national) voter.

Since Kasich took office, for example, the state has adopted many new abortion regulations that have reduced the number of abortion providers in the state by more than half. These regulations have had their intended effect of limiting access, reducing the number of abortions to historic lows.

One of Kasich’s first policy priorities upon taking office in 2011 – an overhaul of Ohio’s public sector union laws – proved so unpopular among not only Democrats but also many Republicans that many observers at the time predicted he would be a one-term governor. Fortunately, an improving economy and embarrassingly scandal-prone opponent proved these predictions wrong, helping Kasich win reelection by a large margin.

Electability in a purple state

Kasich’s self-proclaimed electability is perhaps his biggest trump card. But on this score, the evidence is again not particularly favorable.

Comparing Ohio’s electorate in 2012 and 2014. Catalist (Graph created by author)

It is true that Kasich has won two gubernatorial elections in Ohio, a state that voted for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. But Kasich’s name did not appear on the ballot in those years. Instead, the governor’s two elections came during the midterms, when turnout was substantially lower and the partisan composition of the voters was much different. Detailed voter data on Ohio voters from a big national vendor show that conservatives made up a minority of Ohio voters in 2012 when Obama carried the state but a sizable majority two years later when Kasich was reelected.

The voters who turn out in Ohio this year are much more likely to resemble the electorate in 2008 and 2012 than 2010 and 2014. That may explain why poll numbers have shown Kasich trailing Hillary Clinton in his home state until fairly recently.

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