Donald J. Trump is the presumptive Republican Party nominee for the 2016 presidential election. To date, the #NeverTrump movement has failed. Democrats, although not wholly satisfied with their likely nominee, Hillary Clinton, are salivating at their prospects this November.
In the week since Trump effectively secured his pathway to the GOP nomination, conservatives have – rightly – attempted to survey the littered wreckage of this primary cycle and ponder the future. All hope for a conservative victory in 2016 – to speak nothing of the now near-impossibility of a Trump/Republican victory – appears lost. Stoically, committed conservatives have recognized that what matters is the long game. Better to lose another election cycle than forfeit the moral high ground and sunder the movement from its moral underpinnings.
Other conservatives have begun to embrace the illusion of hope offered by a Trump candidacy. They have chosen to announce that they will vote for the New York liberal this fall because, they claim, he is better than Hillary Clinton. Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA) is one of those conservatives.
Republican Party elites have, for the most part, stumbled over themselves in their rush to declare common-cause with a candidate so weighted down by negative baggage their embrace of the man may come back to haunt their careers. As it turns out, spending a career explaining why Republicans should give in to Democrats, and mocking Republicans who stand on principle, is good practice for selling your soul to a morally bankrupt candidate who just so happens to carry an “R” after his name.
To his credit, House Speaker Paul Ryan has, so far, refused to declare his allegiance to Trump.
What the #NeverTrump movement must learn in hindsight is that being opposed to a deeply flawed, morally repugnant, politically disastrous candidate is not enough. In electoral politics one cannot oppose and expect to win. There must be a choice and there must be an alternative. As the anti-Trump movement picked up steam – not coincidentally as more Republicans departed the primary race – it never rallied around one candidate. Sen. Ted Cruz benefited from a united #NeverTrump front in Wisconsin, but notice that even there Gov. Scott Walker (himself a one-time candidate this cycle and not someone who has pledged #NeverTrump) offered an unreserved endorsement, praising the Texan as the candidate who needs to be the next president.
The failure of the #NeverTrump movement to coalesce around one clear, conservative alternative didn’t just doom Ted Cruz, the last man standing in opposition to Trump, it doomed the movement itself as a successful force that could influence the GOP nomination process.
If #NeverTrump is a serious movement, and if it wishes to be a force in the general election, it needs to embrace a conservative candidate. Not only that, but it needs to be part of a coalition of conservatives who pursue an unorthodox path to November. Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, only gets it half-right when he declares, “The best hope for what’s left of a serious conservative movement in America is the election in November of a Democratic president, held in check by a Republican Congress.” True, conservatives shouldn’t own the disaster that is Donald Trump. But conservative still have a long – very long – shot at scoring a win in the presidential election.
Orthodoxy has failed. Unorthodox means are not only what must be used – they are the only option left for those unwilling to cede the election to a liberal Democrat.
Talk of a third-party candidacy by a conservative who can wave the flag of principle and provide a standard around which serious citizens can rally to declare their dissatisfaction with both Trump and Clinton is commendable. But it is not enough.
What is needed is a four-way, or more, race for the presidency by serious contenders.
Both Trump and Clinton are deeply unpopular within certain wings of their respective parties. A mid-April Gallup poll found that Clinton’s favorability rating among Democrats was a paltry 36%, down from a 63% favorability rating last fall. The Huffington Post’s poll tracker for Clinton’s favorability rating gives Clinton an average favorability of 41.8% among voters – not just Democrats. According to that same metric, 54.2% of voters don’t like Clinton.
On the Republican side the news isn’t good for the Grand Old Party’s nominee-in-waiting. Trump has a favorability rating of only 36.5% among voters according to the Huffington Post tracker, and 58.3% of voters view him unfavorably. Among Republican-leaning voters, Gallup finds that Trump is in comparatively better shape with his base than Clinton is with her base. A total of 31% of Republicans disapprove of Trump, while 61% have a favorable view of him.
Clinton leads Trump in 6 of the last 7 major polls reviewed by RealClearPolitics.com, but in only two does she get 50% or more of the vote.
So what’s the playbook for conservatives this year? 1824. In the presidential election of 1824 the two major candidates were Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. Two other serious candidates with regional appeal joined them: William Crawford and Henry Clay. In an ironic twist, all four were members of the same political party, the Democratic-Republican Party.
None of the four received the necessary electoral college votes to win the presidency. That’s when the 12th Amendment provision that the election be thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives kicked in. In the House, the states, voting as entire Congressional delegations, pick a winner from the top 3 electoral college vote recipients. Henry Clay of Kentucky, who happened to also be the Speaker of the House, was eliminated from the race because he garnered fewer electoral votes (37) than the other three candidates.
All that is needed to win the Congressional vote is a simple majority of states. Members of Congress do not vote for individual presidential candidates, they join with their colleagues from the state they represent to determine (by a majority vote of the state delegation) who will receive the state’s lone vote.
In 1824, John Quincy Adams emerged as the winner.
This year, a candidate must secure 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. If no candidate reaches 270 electors the election goes to the U.S. House where the magic number becomes 26 states (simple majority of 50 state delegations total). This means that while the District of Columbia gets 3 electoral college votes, because it has no voting delegation in Congress it wouldn’t play a role in the outcome of the presidential race.
Throwing the presidential election to the U.S. House is the only chance conservatives have of securing a real victory – not just a moral victory of protest – in 2016. Just like in 1824, the effort will require fielding several candidates, not just a single standard bearer who waves the third-party banner of protest.
Previous elections demonstrate that third-party candidates, even when they perform strongly, give the election to the party opposite from the one that “birthed” the third-party. In 1912, former two-term President Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Progressive/Bull Moose ticket against Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican William Taft. Roosevelt trounced Taft, carrying 6 states and 88 electoral votes compared to Taft’s 2 states and 8 electoral votes. But beating them both was Wilson, who with only 41.8% of the popular vote swept 40 states and 435 electoral votes.
During the dark days of racial tension that plagued the 1968 presidential election, Republican incumbent Richard Nixon overwhelmingly crushed his two major opponents, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and pro-segregation American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. Wallace did manage to carry 5 states and 46 electoral votes and while his cause was morally repugnant, his election outcome offers insight into what it takes to actually win states apart from a major party ticket.
The strongest third-party performance since 1912 was Ross Perot’s 1992 bid, which cost President George H.W. Bush his re-election and installed Bill Clinton in the White House. Clinton received only a plurality of the popular vote but dominated in the electoral college. Perot did not win a single state.
So what does all this mean?
First, it is possible for long-shot presidential candidates to win states if they focus on issues that are deeply important to those states or to the surrounding region. Second, a generic third-party effort never succeeds at winning enough votes to secure the presidency outright. The former is reason enough to field viable, favored-son type candidates in multiple states or regions to draw electoral votes away from the two major party candidates. The second demonstrates why a more sophisticated effort than a simple nation-wide protest campaign is necessary.
Over at The New York Times a helpful info-graphic of the vote margins of various major party candidates shows the geographic breakdowns evident in both the Democratic primary and the Republican primary this cycle. Clinton primarily does well in the South and with urban Democrats. Bernie Sanders does well with rural Democrats and Democrats in the Northeast, upper-Midwest, Great Plains and Northwest. On the Republican side, Ted Cruz dominated in Republican strongholds like Texas and Utah and rural areas outside the South. Trump dominated the Northeast and South up into some areas of the so-called “Rust Belt.” Rubio came close to winning in Virginia and other areas with suburban voters.
If conservatives opposed to Trump were to field a candidate who spent his or her time focusing on peeling away the electoral votes of places like Texas, Utah, and Oklahoma from the Trump column, and simultaneous supported an “inspiring” leftist like Bernie Sanders, who energizes much of the Democratic base unhappy with Clinton, in states where neither Trump nor another conservative stands a chance of winning, the race could end up in the House of Representatives.
Yes, the stars would have to align perfectly for this to happen. Yes, it first requires keeping both Clinton and Trump from reaching 270 electoral votes (something that can only be achieved by fielding a liberal and conservative candidate) and yes it can only be done if the “protest” candidates focus on regions and specific states. It would also require that the conservative candidate at minimum come in third in the electoral college vote. But this is the year of the unorthodox.