Didn’t we already settle the lateness-of-hour issue on independent presidential bids with Michael Bloomberg? Yesterday afternoon, Politico reported that a handful of conservative activists plan to meet this week to strategize for the defeat of Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican Party presidential nomination. Failing that, they want to consider offering a “true conservative” candidate in an independent bid:
Three influential leaders of the conservative movement have summoned other top conservatives for a closed-door meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., to talk about how to stop Donald Trump and, should he become the Republican nominee, how to run a third-party “true conservative” challenger in the fall.
The organizers of the meeting include Bill Wichterman, who was President George W. Bush’s liaison to the conservative movement; Bob Fischer, a South Dakota businessman and longtime conservative convener; and Erick Erickson, the outspoken Trump opponent and conservative activist who founded RedState.com.
“Please join other conservative leaders to strategize how to defeat Donald Trump for the Republican nomination,” the three wrote in an invitation obtained by POLITICO that recently went out to conservative leaders, “and if he is the Republican nominee for president, to offer a true conservative candidate in the general election.” …
One person involved in the gathering described it as in the “embryonic” stages.“ It’s not like there’s a royal grand plan that’s going to be unfurled,” this person said. “People aren’t giving up on the Republican Party yet.”
All due respect to those involved — and Erick is a friend — but this kind of planning is taking place far too late, and with far too little in resources. Deadlines for getting on the general-election ballot are already approaching, which is why Bloomberg felt so much time pressure to make a decision on running as an independent. And let’s not forget that Bloomberg had the personal resources to spend on such a campaign, with an estimated net wealth of well over $30 billion. Without a party apparatus to handle hard-money fundraising for GOTV and ground organizing, it would take at least nine figures to get a serious bid off the ground — now, and not April, May, or July after a nominating convention.
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Trump himself about the idea, and he warned that splitting the GOP vote would be the surest ticket to electing President Hillary Clinton:
Fresh off his multi-state win Tuesday night, GOP front-runner Donald Trump today said a contested convention “would be very bad for the [Republican] party.”
“Let me tell you, a third-party guarantees — not 90 percent, or 99 percent — 100 percent that your Democrats will win, probably Hillary,” he told “Good Morning America.”
“I guess it’s Hillary; looks like it if she gets to the starting gate.
“But it guarantees.”
That assumes that a third-party/independent bid even got off the ground. I’m old enough to remember when John Anderson tried to run as an independent against Ronald Reagan, whom Anderson considered too extreme in his conservatism, and some in the GOP expressed outrage that Anderson would split the party and hand the 1980 election to Jimmy Carter. (Some might remember that David Koch — yes, that David Koch — was on the bottom of the Libertarian Party ticket in the same election.) Anderson got 5.7 million votes and zero Electoral College electors, while Reagan won 44 states and a 10-point popular-vote landslide.
H. Ross Perot had a much bigger impact twelve years later, but there were some significant differences. First, Perot used his personal fortune to cobble together the Reform Party and have an organization on the ground. Second, he started earlier, launching the effort in February 1992, in order to scramble for petitions and get on the ballot in all 50 states. Third, Perot had a clear issue that resonated with voters — budget deficits and federal spending — rather than an ideological or personality conflict (although Perot had the latter with the Bushes too). And even then, Perot got only 19% of the popular vote and also failed to carry a single state. The only impact Perot had on the election and governance was to get Bill Clinton elected. The likeliest outcome of this effort would be to get another Clinton elected, assuming it had any impact at all.
That doesn’t mean that there is never a circumstance where a new party for conservatives should be considered. But that should be taken under sober reflection, not in an anxious reaction to losing one primary cycle. It should be undertaken with enough time and resources to give even a faint chance of potential success. And it would need an effort to proselytize for conservative policies and values in communities where conservatives have not spent much time in the past — and where, if such an effort had been made, a third party might not have been necessary in the first place.