The Third-Party Crowd Knows The Scheme Isn't Going To Work, Right?
May 8, 2016

So they're not giving up on this third-party idea:

In spite of his insistence that he will not run, Mitt Romney is being courted this week by a leading conservative commentator to reconsider and jump into the volatile 2016 presidential race as an independent candidate.

William Kristol, the longtime editor of the Weekly Standard magazine and a leading voice on the right, met privately with the 2012 nominee on Thursday afternoon to discuss the possibility of launching an independent bid, potentially with Romney as its standard-bearer.

... knowing Romney’s reluctance, Kristol told Romney that if he remains unwilling to run, many top conservatives would appreciate having the former Massachusetts governor’s support for an independent candidate, should Kristol and other right-leaning figures enlist a willing contender.

Romney has said no. Senator Ben Sasse has said no. General James Mattis has said no. Tom Coburn has said no. That pretty much exhausts the list of reasonably big names being floated for this suicide mission.

And it is a suicide mission. You'd assume that the third-party dreamers understand why it is, but if not, Jonathan Chait offers a quick course in Electoral College 101:

What’s important is that adding a right-wing splinter candidate would not reduce Clinton’s share of the Electoral College at all. It would increase it. Every state gives its electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes.... Crucially, states do not require a candidate to have a majority in order to win the state. And a right-wing independent candidate will draw overwhelmingly from Trump’s support. So an independent would not take any states away from Clinton.

Instead, that candidate would make it possible for Clinton to win a bunch of states without a majority. States where Clinton might otherwise fall a bit short of Trump would become blue states. Suppose in a two-candidate race that, say, Texas would give Trump 53 percent and Clinton 47 percent, giving Trump all 38 electoral votes from Texas. Then Ben Sasse jumps in the race and takes 10 percent of the vote, all of it coming from Trump. Now Texas is 47 percent Clinton, 43 percent Trump, and 10 percent Sasse.

I don't think that would happen in Texas, but it might happen in the states where Barack Obama came closest to beating Mitt Romney in 2012 -- North Carolina, Georgia, and (especially) Arizona (where Trump's presence on the ballot is already likely to increase Hispanic turnout, on Clinton's behalf).

The third-party schemers are assuming that support for Trump is so tenuous among anti-Clinton voters that they'll abandon him for someone whose candidacy looks wobbly from the outset: not on a major-party candidate, , not vetted in the primaries, not particularly well known (unless it's Romney, in which case you're talking about a retread with the stink of failure on him). Why would enough voters in any state chose this person over Trump and Clinton?

I can think of one reason: home-state loyalty -- and that would net the candidate exactly one state's electoral votes. I could imagine Romney winning Utah (the rare red state where Trump is extremely unpopular). That would give him a whopping 6 electoral votes. Ben Sasse might win his home state of Nebraska -- 3 electoral votes. Or maybe they could talk John Kasich into running, and he'd win Ohio -- that would be 18 electoral votes.

Well, right now the Cook Political Report projects that Clinton would get 304 electoral votes -- 34 more than she'd need -- without any of these states. (Cook says Ohio is a tossup in a Clinton-Trump race, and Utah and Nebraska are red states.)

Remember that no third-party candidate has won any state in a presidential election since George Wallace 48 years ago (and even he didn't throw that election into the House). Ralph Nader didn't come close to winning a state in 2000. Ross Perot, despite winning 19% of the vote in 1992 and 8% in 1996, didn't win a state. (He didn't even finish second anywhere, though he came close in Alaska in 1992.) John Anderson won nearly 7% in 1980 and didn't win a state, either.


Does the third-party crowd know this and not care? There are other possible reasons to run an alternate candidate. The schemers seem to want to give Trump skeptics a reason to vote GOP in downballot races (though I'm not sure why that would work if their candidate is on a separate ballot line, at a time when ticket-splitting is rare). Also, they want to make sure that they can keep declaring their version of the Republican "agenda" the real one.

Or are they just trying to delegitimize Hillary Clinton's presidency even before she's elected?

Recall what happened when Bill Clinton won that three-candidate 1992 race with just 43% of the vote. Senator Bob Dole said, "Considering 57% of the voters voted for somebody else, there's no mandate here." Much of the press agreed. In 1996, when Clinton again failed to clear 50% in a three-candidate race, Time said the voters sent him "a message, not a mandate: work with the Republicans." Is that what the third-party schemers want? Hillary Clinton hobbled starting on Election Eve, on the assumption that their candidate will pull at least some voters from her -- not enough to defeat her, but enough to deny her a majority?

That may not be completely crazy Polls show that Clinton would lose to a Republican who was less offputting than Trump or Ted Cruz -- Kasich, for for instance. So the schemers will run a third candidate and then spend four years telling us that Clinton has no right to pursue her agenda, or get her Supreme Court picks approved, because she shouldn't really be the president.

Of course, the right doesn't need a three-way race to send this message. Barack Obama won clear and convincing victories in 2008 and 2012, but conservative commentators told us he had no mandate both times.

But it's easier to sell this message after an election that seems ambiguous. Clinton might win a huge Electoral College victory in a three-person race (her husband won 370 and 379 electoral votes in his two wins), but we'll be told it doesn't count because she finished under 50% in the popular vote. (Yes, this will come from the same people who cheered George W. Bush on when he pursued an unabashed right-wing agenda after losing the popular vote in 2000.)

If that's what's going on, maybe this third-party scheme isn't as cockamamie as it seems -- evil, yes, but not crazy.

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