I know what you’re thinking but no, the exception wasn’t Ronald Reagan. That’s actually a silly guess given the circumstances of his 1980 bid. He was old for the day, was facing an incumbent president (albeit a weak incumbent), had moderates in his own party convinced he was a dangerously hawkish ideologue, and most importantly had John Anderson gearing up for a major independent run. As it turns out, Reagan had the weakest party unity numbers to this point in the campaign, not the strongest. The strongest belonged to — ta da — Trump nemesis Mitt Romney, who capitalized on a weak field four years ago to consolidate Republican support early.
But I digress. Here’s a terrific little table from Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight showing just how thin the #NeverTrump ranks are:
#NeverReagan was far more of a thing within the GOP 36 years ago than #NeverTrump is now. To some extent, what you’re seeing in Trump’s support has less to do with Trump, I think, than the hardening of partisanship over the last few decades. In Reagan’s day the parties were more heterodox and therefore it was less unusual for voters to consider crossing the aisle. Clearly that’s changed over time, to the point that no GOP nominee has failed to crack 80 percent in this metric since 1996 — and that was a year that Perot ran (again), providing an added lure for GOP voters who weren’t keen on Dole to defect. I don’t mean to take anything away from Trump in saying that; he’s the first nominee the party’s had since Reagan who doesn’t claim to be a movement conservative, which, one would think, would cause him special problems unifying the GOP. If those problems ever existed, the fact that he’s overcome them so quickly is an achievement. Although how much of an achievement depends, I guess, on how “conservative” you thought Republican voters were before he jumped in. Did he “convert” true-believing conservatives to his nationalist cause, or were they always more nationalist in orientation in years past but accepted conservative nominees because that’s what the party establishment was offering? Or, less plausibly, did he somehow convince conservative voters that he’s a conservative too?
Whatever the explanation, the speed with which he’s unified the party is good news for Trump fans electorally. Although it comes at a price: The more marginal the anti-Trump contingent on the right is, the harder it’ll be to scapegoat them for a Trump defeat this fall. And a Trump defeat will require many, many scapegoats to spare the great man the burden of culpability himself. There’s also a chance, I’d guess, that Trump will have more trouble consolidating the remaining Republican holdouts than previous nominees did. Someone who was lukewarm about McCain at this point in 2008, for instance, may have had remediable reasons for being so. Maybe they’d heard he was a RINO squish but gradually became convinced he’d govern from the right once he put Palin on the ticket. Maybe they didn’t like his personal style but grew to respect him after they read about his war ordeal. If, by contrast, you don’t like Trump, a guy with universal name recognition, chances are you have more fully formed reasons for feeling that way. In fact, I’ve noticed on social media that Trump fans rarely try to sell him to his critics based on his perceived virtues; the argument for him as president has already boiled down to “Hillary is worse!” even though we’re still five months out. It may be, in other words, that although the number of Republican holdouts for Trump is no greater than the number was for previous nominees, the intensity of their opposition is greater. If that’s true then Trump will have more trouble getting that last 10 percent of Republican support he needs than McCain or Romney did. Depending upon how nutty he gets on the stump this fall, he may even lose a few points on the right now and then, however temporarily.
My understanding of what the #NeverTrump folks were trying to achieve with a third party candidacy is as follows: first, to provide a vehicle to express ideological resistance to Donald Trump; second, to provide motivation for depressed conservatives to come out and vote for downticket candidates; third, to have someone waiting in the wings should Trump utterly implode under the sustained attacks of Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in the fall…
[T]he #NeverTrump movements aims are now reduced only to their first point: providing an expression of ideological resistance. That’s a fine and good thing, and worth doing. But it’s not going to change who ends up in the White House in January.
Agreed, although if the goal is to simply signal ideological resistance, I’m not sure why French is needed at this point. You’ve got Johnson if you want to cast a symbolic vote for smaller government; if you can’t abide Johnson because he’s pro-choice or because he and Bernie Sanders agree on, er, 73 percent of the issues, even though he’s little more than a vessel for a protest vote, you can always write someone in. As I said yesterday, the only reason Bill Kristol’s tease about a conservative candidate set to enter the race got so much hype was because people thought it might involve a big name like Romney or Tom Coburn, someone whose campaign would make big news and give soft Trump voters on the right something to think about. French, impressive though he is, is destined to be a rallying point only for conservative periodicals and their niche readership assuming he makes it onto the ballot anywhere. If he does catch on a bit among movement conservatives, he risks pulling enough votes from Johnson to hold him below 15 percent in the polls and deny him a spot at the presidential debates, which would reduce the visibility of a none-of-the-above option aimed at low-information voters. And if, against all odds, he got enough votes to somehow affect a verrrrry close race between Trump and Clinton, Trump fans would blame movement conservatism for Trump’s defeat unto eternity. (They’ll do that too if Johnson affects the outcome, but it’s a more complicated argument since Johnson pulls votes from Hillary too.) Even a stalwart #NeverTrumper like Erick Erickson, who was part of the effort to recruit a conservative independent candidate, is wondering today whether a marginal candidacy like French’s is worth doing given the inevitable stabbed-in-the-back whining it’ll draw from Trumpers in November. I think it’s Johnson or bust.