“But, so far, the hugs aren’t translating into support in the polls,” a skeptical Columbus Dispatch noted in January before Kasich’s strong showing in New Hampshire. “In fact, current numbers indicate that Kasich doesn’t have much of a chance of winning. His net favorability in some surveys is dropping. Still, he seems determined to leave his mark on this weird presidential campaign, and to do it his way — for better or worse.”
Dissecting the hug as a cynical electioneering move is easy — and the Ohio governor’s embraces can look a bit stage-managed. But faced with a skinny kid dealing with the aftermath of suicide and divorce, as Kasich was while campaigning in South Carolina on Wednesday ahead of that state’s Republican primary, leaves an opening for something not always welcome in a hard-fought campaign: a human response.
When bespectacled Brett Duncan Smith, barely out of his teens, stood to speak at a town hall event at Clemson University in South Carolina, he looked too thin and a bit worked-over in tan vest with a Kasich sticker on one side and a University of Georgia Super G on the other. And when he got the mic, he dove right into the deep end.
“Over a year ago, a man who was like my second dad, he killed himself,” Smith said, breaking up. “And then a few months later, my parents got a divorce, and then a few months later, my dad lost his job. I was in a really dark place for a long time, I was pretty depressed. I found hope in the Lord and in my friends and now I’ve found it in my presidential candidate that I support. And I would really appreciate one of those hugs you’ve been talking about.”
For Kasich, the hug didn’t look like an obligation — it looked like a privilege. The candidate’s words of encouragement, almost-but-not-quite picked up by the microphone he held as he embraced Smith, were muffled. But the message was clear from the back-pats: Smith mattered.
And Smith, reached by email and phone at the end of a long day during which he’d driven 90 minutes from the University of Georgia to South Carolina and back to see Kasich, said the hug meant a lot.
“I’ve watched Gov. Kasich this entire campaign and he is always talking about slowing down and how we as human beings need to celebrate people’s victories and be there for them when they’re down,” Smith, a senior who studies political science, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “His story about his parent’s dying in a car crash” — a familiar tale on the stump — “and how after that tragic event he found hope, optimism, and the Lord and I just felt something similar and relatable (in its own unique way) that really touched me and I wanted him to know that his positive message isn’t falling on deaf ears.”
For Smith, no other candidate will do.
“I’m all in for Kasich,” Smith said. “At one point I may have considered Jeb or Rubio as close seconds, but I don’t think Rubio is ready and I don’t think the electorate is longing for another Bush.”
Smith also offered more details of the events of 2014, his very bad year.
“It started when my best friend’s dad took his life,” he said. “And he took his life a few days after my family and I had just spent an entire week on vacation with him and his family. We were a real close bunch. … He was depressed, and like a lot of people suffering with depression it wasn’t something that was shown on the surface.”
But this was just the beginning of a dark time.
“And then a few months after his death my parents divorced, and then a short time after that my dad lost his job, and it just felt like one bad thing on top of another,” he wrote. He found he was scared even to ask about the reasons behind his parents’ split: “With that I didn’t ask too many questions. I didn’t want to know because I didn’t want to think different of either one. Ignorance is bliss sometimes.”
College can be quite the cure for a family crisis — friends, fellowship, working hard and playing hard. But for Smith, the University of Georgia wasn’t like that. At least not that year. His mind took him to bad places, and it took him there alone.
“It didn’t help that was living by myself at UGA either,” he wrote. “I was in a dorm and I didn’t have a roommate so I really had a lot of time alone with just me and my thoughts, and they weren’t the happiest of thoughts. Luckily I found hope and happiness and eventually, as Gov. Kasich likes to say in his speeches, the light overcame the dark.”
It’s not clear what comes next for Smith. He was contemplating law school, but decided against it. Come summer, he’ll be living with his mother in Franklin, Ga., looking for a calling — or just a job. He’s thinking about journalism, or maybe working with a campaign. Though he didn’t get a chance to have a long chat with Kasich after the event, the candidate did have time for a photo, and said he wanted to get Smith’s contact info.
“Hopefully I will get to meet him again when he stops in my state and we can chat without all the cameras and people, and hopefully no tears this time,” Smith wrote.
He also thinks his favorite governor may soon be president.
“I do,” he said. “It won’t be easy, but I think the more voters see of Gov. Kasich and the more they see of the other candidates, especially as the scrutiny increases, I really think Kasich will stand out and that as a uniter the voters will be receptive to his message.” He added: “I would just encourage people to look past big rhetoric and look at records and to look at character and electability. If they look for those things in a candidate, then they’ll end up in Kasich’s corner where I am.”
And the hug may have made this all the more clear.
“In every sense, a Kasich event is the emotional opposite of a Trump rally,” Charles P. Pierce of Esquire wrote. “It is warm where Trump’s are hot. It is open where Trump’s are closed. But the fellow-feeling in the halls are no less real for all their differences. People engage themselves with the candidate, albeit in different ways. This is what brought Brett Smith up from Georgia. In both cases, people care about the candidates as much as they care about the campaign. There is something happening with the Kasich campaign, and the only question is whether or not it’s happening too late.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Brett Duncan Smith was wearing a vest with a Green Bay Packers logo on it. It was a University of Georgia Super G.