I mention this for two reasons. One: If Trump blows the doors off in South Carolina tomorrow night, with Cruz a very distant second and Rubio a disappointing third, he’ll be something like an 85 percent favorite for the nomination next week. Which means you’ll be seeing a noticeable uptick in talking-head chatter on cable news about the possibility of a conservative running as an independent. Might as well start thinking about it now.
Two: Jim Geraghty wrote a piece today suggesting that Romney would be the ideal guy to do this, and after years of trolling everyone about a new Romney 2016 campaign, I’ve come to treat any suggestion online of him running for president again as tacitly aimed at me. Very well, Geraghty! Let’s consider it.
Say one of Trump’s Republican rivals decided to run despite being barred from Texas and South Dakota, and managed to make to beat the odds and make it onto the ballot everywhere else. He’d still have to win a three-way matchup with Trump and either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, in which it’s conceivable that no candidate would claim enough electoral votes to take the White House.
In such a scenario, the race would be decided in the House of Representatives, where each state delegation gets one vote and the majority choice wins. Right now, Republicans control 34 state delegations, Democrats control 14, and two are split evenly. The question is whether Republicans in the House vote would vote for Trump, the party’s official nominee, over an independent conservative candidate.
It would depend almost entirely on who that candidate was. It seems unlikely that one of Trump’s vanquished rivals could mount a credible bid without the possibility of winning Texas. The ideal figure would be someone who didn’t run this year. Someone who has high name recognition and could unite anti-Trump Republicans. Someone with considerable financial resources, and ideally, a national network of longtime allies, friends, and supporters.
Hmmm. There aren’t a lot of individuals who fit that bill, are there?
That last line is followed by a photo of you-know-who. Here’s the threshold question about a conservative third-party: Would the goal be to simply stop Trump by throwing the election to Hillary, or would the goal to be to win? If the goal is to stop Trump, I think you could conceivably recruit a bunch of people to be the party’s figurehead. It wouldn’t much matter who it is. Even someone like Huntsman could conceivably get 10 percent from the segment of the right that’s implacably opposed to Trump and wants to show his supporters that they can’t completely remake the GOP’s agenda and expect to win. Sinking Trump would prove that some sort of accommodation needs to be made with what’s left of the conservative movement, which is ironic given that the top complaint of Trump fans is that the current GOP establishment seems uninterested in making any accommodations with them. It’s an open question to me, though, whether a third-party with a figurehead nominee could damage Trump so badly that it would guarantee victory for Hillary. There may not even be 10 percent on the right willing to break ranks; the thought of enabling another Democratic victory is too painful. Trump, as terrible as he is, should at least be an improvement on immigration and might feel obliged to let conservatives lead on social issues so as not to alienate too much of the right. A nominee like Huntsman, whom many righties disdain, would also cost the third-party some otherwise gettable votes. It’s possible that Trump beats Hillary narrowly by winning over centrist Democrats even with a Huntsman-led party pulling, say, seven percent of the vote.
That’s where Romney comes in. Like Geraghty says, he’s a big enough name with a big enough network that he really could put a dent in Trump’s numbers. But Romney’s not going to subject himself to another agonizing presidential run, replete with nasty daily insults by Trump, for a “prize” as small as wrecking the GOP’s chances against the Clintons. Romney will run only if he thinks he has a chance to win. Geraghty’s right that winning in this case wouldn’t mean getting to 270 electoral votes but simply holding Hillary and Trump under 270 in order to shift the result to the GOP-controlled House of Representatives — which happens to now be led by his old running mate. I can imagine Romney polling initially in the high teens, as plenty of conservatives like him and deemed him worthy of their votes before. He’s a household name thanks to the last election so he wouldn’t need to scramble as Huntsman would to introduce himself to voters. He also doesn’t project the beta-male vibe as much as Jeb Bush does so it’d be harder for Trump to bully him. He’s easily the most credible possibility out there to make a serious run for the presidency in a three-way race.
But let’s ask some questions. One: How does Romney hold Hillary under 270 EVs? The reason Mike Bloomberg’s thinking of running is because he’d aim at the center and could pull votes from both sides. If he eked out a win in enough states to give him, say, 75 electoral votes, he might conceivably hold Hillary and Trump each under 270. Hard to see how he’d bypass Trump in the House’s vote for president, but there’s at least a chance. In which states, by contrast, would Romney outpoll Trump and Hillary? Take Texas, for instance. Hillary’s going to pull 40 percent of the vote there. Romney splitting the remaining 60 percent with Trump could very possibly turn Texas blue, which would end the election in one fell swoop. This is Romney’s core problem: By running to the right, the votes he’s able to cannibalize belong entirely to Trump, not to both candidates. The best he could hope for is that Republican voters would quickly desert Trump in droves once he was in the race, pushing Romney up into second place. Once that happened, Romney supporters would begin to pressure holdouts in the GOP to ditch Trump and unite behind Romney as the right’s strongest option to stop Hillary. But that would quickly hit a wall — Trump’s core supporters, who compose something like 15-20 percent of the total electorate, I’d guess, are famously committed to him and naturally would deeply resent any effort to abandon him after he’d won the nomination fair and square. And if anyone’s going to earn their consideration as a third-party candidate, it sure as heck isn’t going to be Mitt Romney. Romney’s the anti-Trump, the white-collar, establishment, country-club Republican who represents everything Trumpism claims to loathe. It’d be like ditching Al Czervik for Judge Smails.
Which brings us to question two: Even if, implausibly, Romney held Hillary and Trump below 270 EVs and moved the election to the House, what then? Is there any scenario where Romney finishes third in electoral votes, which seems the likeliest outcome given that Trump would have the backing of a major party, and the House decides to bypass Trump and Hillary to make him president? That would be the most bizarre ending to a national campaign defined by populism one could imagine. Trump fans would revolt at the sight of Republican congressmen scorning their guy to vote for a GOP insider turned independent who finished behind Trump. Hillary fans, if she finished first in electoral votes, would revolt at the thought that the person who came closest to winning the election outright — the first woman president! — was being given short shrift and the people’s will ignored. It would be an unholy mess. Romney would need to finish ahead of Trump, if not Hillary, in electoral votes to make him becoming president even remotely politically tolerable for the House GOP. And it’s hard to see that happening when you combine Trump’s core supporters on the right with the swath of Republican voters who might not have a strong preference between him and Romney but would prefer Trump by dint of his winning the nomination and Romney already having “had his chance.” It’s exceedingly hard to see Romney’s path, and that being so, why would Mitt jump in and subject himself to a process he’s clearly never much enjoyed?
So put Romney aside. Is there anyone else who could run as the conservative third-party choice who might win? (If the goal isn’t to win but just to blow up Trump, you could probably do that by nominating Dick Cheney for your third party.) You’d need someone with high name recognition who could, like Bloomberg, pull votes from Democrats and Republicans, as that stands a better chance of holding both major-party nominees under 270 rather than just one. I honestly can’t think of anyone. The best I can do is Condi Rice, who’d have a distinct adult-in-the-room vibe versus Trump and would make for an interesting contrast with Hillary as the potential first black woman president with even more diplomatic experience than Hillary has. But Rice has stayed far away from electoral politics despite many overtures for her to run somewhere. The Bush network could bankroll her, but that would carry plenty of baggage in a general election. Democrats would shun her, I’d guess, given her record as a Bush advisor on Iraq. Some conservatives might balk too since she’s pro-choice. She’d be an interesting candidate but not a successful one, I think. So what’s left of this idea? Who’s going to seriously challenge Trump and Hillary as an independent from the right?