Prodded enough, Ohio Gov. John Kasich offers a passionate defense of his decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, a policy verboten among many of the Republican state executive’s fellow conservatives.

But Kasich is up for re-election next year in a perennial swing state and the latest poll might help explain the governor's reason for bucking those in his party who oppose this policy. A Quinnipiac University poll showed Kasich leading a relatively unknown potential Democratic challenger 44 percent to 37 percent. But 51 percent of voters approve of the Medicaid expansion, and that happens to virtually match Kasich's 52 percent job approval.

“I always try to put myself in the shoes of somebody else, to say, how would I feel if I didn’t have health insurance. Are you kidding me? So, for me it was an easy decision,” Kasich told reporters while attending a gathering of GOP governors in Arizona. “Can I judge why other people don’t want to do it? I don’t think that’s fair. But for me, it is the right thing to do and it’s going to save lives; it’s going to help people, and you tell me what’s more important than that.”

No Republican governor has voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature health reform law. But they have split over whether to embrace certain Obamacare initiatives, like expanding Medicaid or building their own online insurance exchanges.

Though a Medicaid expansion in Ohio may have been a smart political move for Kasich, the debate has implications for the GOP beyond 2014. In 2016, it's possible that a politically charged issue like Obamacare could divide Republican governors running for the White House by pitting those who supported the expansion against those who did not.

But what about the general election? Could a policy that might have broad support in a battleground like Ohio sway voters’ choice for president the way the auto industry bailout did for Obama in 2012?

Obama supported the bailout and, because it was seen as saving Ohio jobs, that likely helped him prevail over Republican nominee Mitt Romney despite polls that suggested Obama was vulnerable. Romney was hamstrung in dealing with the bailout because a year earlier he said the best way to save the auto industry was to force manufacturers into managed bankruptcy.

Could the Medicaid expansion present the same kind of political dilemma for a Republican nominee who opposed expansion?

Unlikely, according to one Republican with Ohio ties who closely tracked the 2012 campaign for the Buckeye State’s 18 electoral votes. “I’d hesitate to call it a 'front-of-mind issue’ right now in Ohio,” this individual said.

“The way Kasich handled Medicaid expansion takes it off table in [the] general election this time around, which means it’s less potent in 2016,” the Republican insider added. “The attacks on Romney in Ohio regarding the auto industry was a strike about jobs — and even more potent than that: It was a way to further define Romney as separate and lacking understanding of the lives of every-day Ohioans. It fit right in with Bain Capital and just cut him with white working-class voters.”

Despite their narrow approval of the Medicaid expansion, Ohio voters are down on the health care law overall, according to the Quinnipiac survey. The poll showed that only 35 percent of Ohioans support the law, described in the question as “the health care law passed by Barack Obama and Congress in 2010.” Some 59 percent oppose it. That compares closely to the president’s 34 percent job approval rating in Ohio.

Additionally, 45 percent of Ohioans said the law would make health care worse for them and their family one year from now. Only 16 percent said the reform legislation would improve the quality of their care. Quinnipiac surveyed 1,361 registered Ohio voters from Nov. 19 – 24. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.