As the race tightens, #NeverTrump grasps for relevance

“I think if Hillary opens a big lead, it’s better for Evan,” Kristol said. “They can say, ‘I’m voting my conscience but I’m not electing Trump.’ Evan gets three or 4 or 5 percent in that scenario. If it’s close, some of that goes away.”

Trump’s polling surge has been clarifying, separating anti-Trump voices into two camps. The first camp, exemplified by Cruz, opposed Trump not just as a populist interloper but as a surefire election loser. His recovery presented the chance of stopping Hillary Clinton and filling the empty Supreme Court seat that Republicans have put a wall around until after the election. The second camp, exemplified by McMullin, opposed Trump on moral grounds.

If it’s close, the rationale of #NeverTrump — and all anti-Trump voters — will be challenged. In August, it looked as if Trump’s political style could be discredited by a rout, the way that Barry Goldwater’s defeat discredited opposition to the Civil Rights Act or that George McGovern’s defeat discredited the New Left. McMullin was set to play a role in that, building a “new conservative movement” on the Trump rubble.

In a friendly interview with the Weekly Standard, McMullin strategist Joel Searby said that the tighter polls actually gave McMullin “a real chance to make a significant difference.” But while McMullin gets attention from conservative media, he’s running third among third-party candidates. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian whose social liberalism and unapologetic goofiness sent the #NeverTrump forces scrambling for an alternative, appears on every state ballot and draws real crowds. Just two hours after McMullin’s Austin event ended, Johnson packed hundreds of voters into a rally at a Sixth Street concert venue. Another hundred voters waited in a line around the block, missing the speech but grabbing signs that they pasted around the city’s most famous stretch.