There’s chatter among conservative thinkers, who are really annoyed that the Republican primary voters have selected Donald Trump to be their standard bearer in this fall’s election, about running a conservative third-party candidate.
I can sort of understand the why — “Trump doesn’t represent us, he’ll be gone after this cycle and we’ll be back in charge of the Republican party, and we need a strong conservative candidate on the ballot to help the downticket races that Trump would devastate on his own.”
I can even understand the how — a concerted effort, right now, would get the candidate (who hasn’t even been chosen by these conservative thinkers yet!) on the ballot in a number of states. A few would be missed, Texas especially (their third-party filing deadline is Monday or Tuesday of this week, if memory serves), but the candidate could manage to appear on the ballot in many, if not most, states.
What I don’t get is the point of the exercise. A right-wing challenger would take votes away predominantly from Donald Trump, ensuring Clinton’s election. It’s entirely possible that Hillary Clinton would win a number of safely Republican states with a plurality of votes thanks to vote splitting between Trump and his challenger. (Possibly Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Maybe even Mitt Romney.) The idea seems to be to deprive Hillary Clinton of a majority in the Electoral College, sending the election into the House of Representatives. Except that, again, the plan is to run a candidate to Trump’s right, splitting the right-wing vote, which would have little effect on Clinton.
This would be a vast expense — because a presidential election isn’t cheap — on a quixotic and ultimately futile quest.
If, somehow, the presidential election were thrown to the House, I’m skeptical of the short-term survival of the American democracy. There’s little chance that Hillary Clinton would emerge as the victor if the election were thrown to the House, even if she were the nationwide popular vote winner, because the arcane and anti-democratic rules under which the House would vote for president — each state’s delegation gets a single vote, and Republicans hold a majority of seats in the majority of state delegations in the House. (I have rewritten this sentence three times. It is still as cryptic as mud.) Suffice it to say, Clinton would not prevail in the House. If the House were to elect the third-party challenger (let’s say Sasse) as the “true conservative,” even though he had come in third in the nationwide popular vote, there would be serious questions of legitimacy, both at home and abroad. Sasse would have been installed as president in what looked, essentially, like a legal coup. The Bush v. Gore fiasco of 2000 is notable, in retrospect, for how peaceful it was, and that’s due largely to Al Gore’s decision to place the national interest ahead of his own self-interest. The election of President Sasse by the House in 2016, on the other hand, would almost certainly not be without incident due, in no small part, to the increased polarization of the country today. In short, an election thrown to the House, which is the hope of conservative elites today dreading the prospect of Donald Trump, would be dark days for the American experiment.