Tuesday, March 01, 2016

How a Third Party Candidate Won't Help the GOP

The third-party candidates of 2012-will 2016 fare any better for them?
Every four years, it happens.  Some person in the media or in the political blogosphere starts a conversation over whether or not, since “no one likes the candidates” a third party movement will finally be an option, and it goes nowhere.  We’ve been hearing for months now about someone like Michael Bloomberg, but this isn’t what I’m speaking toward (I still maintain that Bloomberg would be a poor choice for a third party candidate if only because he combines Trump’s erraticism with Clinton’s aloofness-it’s not really the most dynamic of combinations and probably wouldn’t work west of the Hudson).  I’m speaking toward the rumors, first published in Politico, of a group of conservative donors looking into ballot access for an independent run for the presidency and what it would mean for the party.

This is of course incredibly sexy in terms of getting clicks for articles and all that jazz, but I do always raise an eyebrow to such a situation.  Yes, if the Republicans nominate Donald Trump I suspect there will be a lot of voters clinging to some sort of third party option-how can you choose between a man that they detest and a woman they despise (and that doesn’t even take into account the possibility that Bernie Sanders takes the nomination)?  It’s definitely an intriguing place to go for the GOP, but the task of mounting an independent run is enormous (the deadlines for states like North Carolina and Texas are fast approaching).  More to the point, though, is that you would need to run a genuinely credible race to get people to actually go to your side enough to not hand the election to Hillary Clinton.

After all, it seems incredibly unlikely that the conservative movement would be able to pick off too many votes from the Democrats.  You could make the argument that Sanders supporters are up-for-grabs, but that’s a pretty big stretch as anyone selected by the movement would certainly to be Clinton’s right and therefore Sanders supporters will either stay home or vote for Hillary Clinton. 

Knowing this, let’s assume, because it’s probably true, then, that Clinton’s 47% base stands as is nationally, and let’s assume (though it’s likely untrue) that that’s what she gets in November.  While the popular vote isn’t the be-all-end-all of the presidential election (ask any Democrat old enough to remember 2000 that and you’ll get a 20-minute diatribe about the Supreme Court), a winning candidate would need to match or exceed that number in order to be able to win, particularly considering the Democrats have something of an advantage right now in the electoral college.  It’s impossible to imagine that Donald Trump wouldn’t get at least 20-25% of the vote since that would be the group that voted for him in the primaries.  Assuming that’s also what Trump gets in the general election (again, likely untrue and a big addendum), the Republicans would, tops, get a candidate who would be roughly 33% of the vote.  That’s not going to beat Hillary Clinton, it’s not even going to come close.  At best the Republicans would have a repeat of 1992, where George HW Bush went down in flames thanks to a third-party bid by Ross Perot.  In fact, in modern political history the only time a third-party candidate genuinely came close was 1912, when Teddy Roosevelt essentially superseded President Taft in a bid to return to office, and that resulted in Woodrow Wilson winning after decades of near-uninterrupted Republican control of the Oval Office.

The problem here is that even when you have Teddy Roosevelt, a beloved national figure running, you’re splitting the vote.  The problem isn’t just that the math is next to impossible both from a winning perspective or even from the vantage point of getting on the ballot in enough states to be competitive, but it’s also that it’s hard to find a figure like Teddy Roosevelt that could be the standard-bearer for the GOP.  Before you say Marco Rubio, do you think that someone like Rubio, who is struggling against Trump with friendly voters, is going to fare much better in a general election against him?  No, you’d need to go with someone who has immense national stature and would be seen as instantly presidential in a way that Donald Trump simply isn’t.  The GOP doesn’t really have that figure.  Mitt Romney is an option, of course, but he just lost and would be an easy target for both Clinton and Trump.  George HW Bush, John McCain, and Colin Powell are too old.  Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t legally run.  David Petreaus would have been a strong option, but his scandal sank his national prospects.  Joni Ernst, Susana Martinez, and Brian Sandoval aren't famous enough.  About the only person who would have the instant gravitas and would be impossible to dismiss as a legitimate contender would be Paul Ryan, but would he really run against such arduous odds when he knows he’s got his job for a while and is young enough to run in the next couple of decades?  Plus, in order to be viable he’d almost certainly have to pick a moderate Democrat as a running-mate like Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, or Joe Manchin, and would he want to sign up for such a situation?

The point of this, however, may not be that the White House is what they’re after, but instead to avoid a Trump-style bloodbath, or perhaps even worse, a Trump presidency.  I know that they’d never say so publicly, but there are likely longtime leaders in the GOP who would rather stomach four years of another Clinton administration than put up with the erraticism that could be inflicted on their party by a Trump presidency.  Running a third party candidate may not amount to much for the man or woman who takes on that mantle, but if it was a viable enough name, it’d be hard to imagine a way that Trump would win facing such an obstacle.  In this situation, however, there could be a way for blue-state Republicans such as Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk, and Pat Toomey to be able to endorse a conservative without being wrangled in by Trump, and would keep vital mainstream Republicans from simply staying home rather than facing the choice of voting for Clinton or Trump.  As I’m sure many forget but it’s very true-the Senate and the House are also up in November, and the former is very much up for grabs (and Nancy Pelosi is going to be making a big play in the latter if Trump is her opponent).  A Trump candidacy could cost the Republicans seats and one of its legs in Congress (and with that, the Supreme Court).  That’s a risk that conservative donors aren’t willing to take.

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