Ohio Gov. John Kasich won the much-coveted second place slot in New Hampshire’s Republican primary Tuesday, with 16 percent of the vote -- trailing Donald Trump’s winning 35 percent but having a relatively big breakthrough for a candidate who hasn't made much impact so far.
The importance of Kasich's second-place finish owes largely to whom he defeated: Iowa’s first- and third-place finishers Ted Cruz (12 percent) and Marco Rubio (11 percent), as well as Jeb Bush (11), the best-funded GOP candidate. Final pre-election polls showed all four candidates fairly close in support, but a late shift helped Kasich separate himself from the field.
While Trump won most of the subgroups in preliminary exit poll results reported by CNN and other networks, Kasich’s finish above other major contenders was driven by late-deciding voters and concentrated among moderate, upscale, and independent-leaning Republican voters who were turned off by Cruz, Rubio and Trump.
Ideology was one of the biggest cleavages in Kasich’s support. He received 28 percent of self-identified moderates, compared with 14 percent of “somewhat conservative” voters and 7 percent of those identifying as “very conservative.” Moderates made up more than a quarter of the Republican electorate in the state -- down from previous years -- and while Kasich was eclipsed by Trump’s 32-percent support with this group, he beat Bush's 14 percent and Rubio's 8 percent.
He also performed best among voters with more education and higher incomes. More than 1 in 5 (22 percent) of those with post-graduate degrees voted for Kasich, on par with the 23 percent who voted for Trump. Bush (14 percent) and Rubio (13 percent) fell behind Kasich among this group. Among those with incomes of $100,000 or higher, Kasich garnered 19 percent of the vote, more than Rubio (14 percent) and almost twice as what Bush (11 percent) and Cruz (10 percent) brought in.
Kasich finished strong, with support concentrated among voters who waited until the last few days before making their decision. Fully 21 percent of these voters supported Kasich, compared with 12 percent apiece for Bush, Cruz, and Rubio. Among voters who decided earlier, those four candidates garnered between 9 and 12 percent, while Trump dominated with 45 percent support.
Dissatisfaction with Rubio and Cruz was another key factor which appeared to help Kasich. Nearly 6 in 10 Republican primary voters said they would be dissatisfied if Rubio (57 percent) and Cruz (59 percent) won the party’s nomination, and Kasich’s support peaked at over 20 percent among these groups.
Kasich performed even better among the nearly half of Republicans who said they would be dissatisfied with Trump as the nominee, winning 29 percent of their support. While Rubio, Cruz, and Trump all offer very different messages, Kasich succeeded in winning over many of those who rejected each.
Independents -- a larger portion of the voting populace in New Hampshire than other states -- were another group where Kasich outpaced other candidates vying for second place. He brought in 18 percent of the independent vote, compared with 11 percent for Bush and Cruz and 10 percent for Rubio.
The question that remains is whether Kasich can parlay his second-place finish to the next primary contests in Nevada and South Carolina. He won New Hampshire through his relentless retail campaigning over several months, introducing himself to the voters in a way that cannot be replicated in other states.
The uniquely moderate and less-religious makeup of New Hampshire also suggest major challenges for Kasich going forward. The contests in the coming months have historically featured electorates similar to Iowa more than the Granite State, including much higher concentrations of evangelical Christians and strong conservatives with whom Kasich has struggled so far.