Maybe I’m overselling it a tiny bit in the headline. Watch the clip below, from 3:05 to 5:00, and tell me what he’s saying. When he’s asked who he’d vote for in a Trump/Hillary election, he emphasizes that he’s a Republican but he won’t give a straight answer about supporting Trump. He wants to see if Trump, as nominee, blossoms into a “problem-solver” during the general election campaign, in which case then, it seems, he’ll support him. But what if Trump doesn’t become that guy? Huntsman says no when asked about an independent run but then adds, “I’m not ready for a third-party run until we have a complete collapse of the Republican Party that I can still believe in.” Er, isn’t that exactly how Trump’s critics on the right describe the prospect of him as nominee? If he goes on being his Trumpy self rather than the imaginary Serious Trump that Huntsman suggests he might become, would Huntsman get in then? He’s right that a third-party run would be a “suicide mission,” but some segment of the GOP base would be up for that rather than see Trump win. Who’s going to be their figurehead?
Jeff Greenfield imagined exactly this sort of scenario, in which Trump wins the nomination and then the Republican establishment goes third-party against him, this weekend:
Dan Schnur spent a lifetime in the vineyards of the Republican Party, working in the Reagan and Bush presidential campaigns and serving as communications director for the California Republican Party. He’s now an independent and heads the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. He argues “a Trump nomination would virtually guarantee a third-party campaign from a more traditional Republican candidate.”
Why a Republican? The short answer is to save the party over the long term. “It’s impossible to conceive that Republican leaders would simply forfeit their party to him,” he says. “Even without the formal party apparatus, they’d need to fly their flag behind an alternative, if only to keep the GOP brand somewhat viable for the future. Otherwise, it would be toxic for a long, long time.”…
“I think a third candidate would be very likely on many state ballots,” he says. “First of all, I think most GOP voters would want an alternative to vote for out of conscience. But Trump would also be devastating to the party and other GOP candidates. A solid conservative third candidate would give options to senators like Ayotte, Johnson and [Mark] Kirk to run with someone else and still be opposed to Hillary. In fact, I think it’s plausible such a candidate could beat Trump in many states.”
But the “GOP brand” would belong to Trump once he’s the nominee. The breakaway segment of establishmentarians and anti-Trump conservatives would need to organize under a different banner. How does that solve the problem of preventing Trump from tainting the Republican label? And, assuming the right’s vote is split and Trump loses, what would be left of America’s right wing in the aftermath? Trump fans and party loyalists would be seething at the breakaway group for sabotaging his chances and helping Hillary. The breakaway group would be seething at Trump for “forcing” them to take a draconian step that launched a civil war on the right. How do you put that coalition back together by 2020? Is there any candidate out there who could reunite Trumpists with establishmentarians under the GOP umbrella or would 2017 be spent with the two factions at war to see who becomes America’s “true” right-wing party in the next election? You might have “Republicans,” a.k.a. Trumpists and other populists, proposing their own slate of grassroots right-wing candidates for Congress while GOP incumbents in the House and Senate switch their affiliation to the “Freedom Party” or whatever the establishmentarians would be calling themselves at that point. All of this would need to be straightened out by 2018 or else you’ll risk another right-wing split in congressional elections, which could mean a Democratic revival at a moment when Hillary’s already president.
If anti-Trumpers are considering a third party to block Trump in case he wins the nomination, you should start hearing rumbles about that soon. There’s no time to waste in qualifying for the national ballot next fall. What they’d want to do, I assume, is have some operatives quietly take legal steps to start their own little fledgling party now, get their ducks in a row for ballot access the way the Libertarian and Green Parties normally do, and then hold that party in reserve so there’s a vehicle waiting for Huntsman or Romney or whoever to become the nominee in case Trump wins the GOP primaries. I don’t think they’re going to do all of that, though, partly because the PR of setting up a third party to stop Trump would be devastating and partly because, as I say, a nuclear war with the pro-Trump wing in the general election would leave no survivors. Their best play if Trump becomes the nominee is to formally support him but in practice totally ignore him, leaving him to run his own race, and to focus entirely on GOP Senate incumbents. Have all the “reasonable” elder statesmen in the party like Romney and McCain — maybe even George W. Bush on certain specific issues — barnstorm the country for Republican Senate candidates and have them disagree as necessary whenever Trump says something that might cost the GOP votes down ballot. The more you can quarantine Trump by showcasing other well-known Republicans opposing him on various policies then in theory the less voters will punish other Republicans for things they don’t like about Trump. And of course, to the extent that Trump is winning over swing voters on things like trade policy, Senate candidates could coopt his message and try to piggyback on it.
And if you’re a Cruz or Rubio fan who’s laughing at the idea of having to game out the prospect of a Trump nomination, you might want to read this.
It’s a variation of what pollsters call the “mode effect,” in which people give different answers depending on how they’re polled. People have written about this in relation to Trump. But an explanation hasn’t come easily. The most common theory: A sizable percentage of poll respondents, though willing to punch a phone key to say they support Trump, are still too embarrassed to actually tell another human being.
Last week, research firm Morning Consult put this hypothesis to the test. Recruiting 2,397 registered Republicans and Republican-leaning voters online, the company split the sample into thirds—sending one group to answer election questions on a web site, another to an automated interactive voice response phone line, and the rest to a call center staffed by live interviewers…
The findings, released today: The Trump mode effect is definitely real. Just over 38 percent of people who answered via a web form said they supported Trump, compared to 32 percent of their peers who spoke to a call-center employee, a 6 percentage point gap. But that gap, among college-educated respondents, widened to 9 percentage points.
I wrote about that possibility two weeks ago, now here’s actual evidence to back it up. Data nerds tend to discount online polls, where Trump has excelled, as less reliable than polls conducted by live phone interviews, where his numbers have been less impressive. There may, though, be a “reverse Bradley effect” at work in Trump’s case, where some people who secretly support him feel embarrassed telling a live interviewer that because of all the media heat he’s taken for his immigration plan and Muslim travel ban. In that case, the online polls with gaudy numbers for Trump are actually more accurate than the phone polls because they’re picking up the “secret Trumpers” who are more willing to be honest in an anonymous format like that. That doesn’t mean Trump’s going to win — there’s still the small matter of actually getting those people to vote, which is becoming a problem for him in Iowa — but if you’re wondering if his support can really be as high as it seems in some of these polls, here’s evidence to believe that it can.