Why Republicans Shouldn't Fear a Third-Party Trump
Donald Trump keeps warning the Republican National Committee to treat him “fairly” and “with respect” during the primary, or else he might run in the general election as an independent. This is meant to be a threat, but it’s a fairly empty one. Trump is a bigger threat to the party on the inside than on the outside.
Today, Trump looks like a populism-spouting insurgent with the potential to split the party, giving Republicans cause to keep him in the fold. But that’s because for the moment, he’s running in a Republican primary, solely focused on conservative base voters.
Running as an independent, Trump’s calculus changes. He would then want to pick off votes wherever he could find them, regardless of party affiliation or ideological bent. He would look more like the last billionaire populist to pursue the White House: Ross Perot.
Unlike Trump, Perot bypassed the primaries and never had to target his appeals to the far right. Yet similarities already exist between the two.
Both put a premium on rebuilding American infrastructure, an issue with bipartisan appeal but which particularly animates Democrats. Trump’s only video ad – uploaded to YouTube before he officially announced – stresses two issues: infrastructure and immigration, and infrastructure comes first. “The infrastructure of our country is a laughingstock all over the world,” Trump laments. “Our airports, our bridges, our roadways – it’s falling apart."
Perot, while primarily focused on balancing the budget in five years, made sure to include $40 billion in new money for infrastructure, along with $69 billion more for research and development, aid to cities and education. “All of that will stimulate jobs,” said Perot, offering a splash of Keynes with his austerity pitch.
There is also overlap on trade, another issue that transcends party lines. Trump has called the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership a “disaster” because “we don’t have our best and our brightest negotiating for us.” Perot said during the 1992 debates that the pending NAFTA agreement would create a “giant sucking sound going south” and pledged as president to “study that 2,000-page agreement and make sure it's a two-way street.”
Both used their business success to push an anti-Washington message. Trump brags about his wealth and proclaims he is superior to “all-talk, no-action politicians.” Perot batted back questions about his experience by saying, “I don't have any experience in gridlock government.”
Both represent a jumble of ideologies. Perot proposed a 10 percent across-the-board spending cut to most federal programs, including anti-poverty initiatives. But he also backed higher taxes on the wealthy and said, “Trickle down economics didn’t trickle at all, folks.” He opposed letting gays serve in the military but he was pro-choice on abortion. He was known for his efforts on behalf of prisoners of war, but he opposed the first Iraq War.
An exploration of Trump’s previous political beliefs or myriad party affiliations and alliances over the years will make your head spin: He’s endorsed a massive surtax on the rich, but now wants the top income tax rate cut in half. He’s praised single-payer health care but attacks Obamacare. He was a Republican, then an independent, then a Democrat, then a Republican. In the middle of that faith journey he ran for president on the Reform Party ticket. Also, like Perot, he opposed the second Iraq War.
Considering how fluid Trump’s positions have been, as well as Trump’s allergy to apologies, it’s not hard to imagine him reworking his platform to meet the needs of a third-party bid, then daring you to call him out on it.
But if Trump is the less folksy, more blustery, 21st century version of Perot, does that mean a third-party bid would hurt the Republican nominee, or be a non-factor?
Debate continues to rage whether Perot cost George H.W. Bush his re-election or if the sour economy would have handed it to Bill Clinton anyway. There are two schools of thought.
One is quantitative, recently reiterated by MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki. The 1992 exit poll asked Perot voters who was their “second choice.” They split evenly between Clinton and Bush, 38 percent for each. (State exit polls indicate that Perot may have tipped the tight races in Georgia, New Hampshire and Ohio to Clinton, not enough to change the Electoral College outcome.) Kornacki also notes that spring polls showed Perot “splitting the anti-Bush vote and cutting deeply into what should have been Clinton’s base.” When Perot was out of the picture in the summer, Clinton was beating Bush handily in two-way trial heats.
The counter-argument is qualitative: Perot saved the bulk of his animus for Bush and his record, softening him up for Clinton.
History professor Julian Zelizer just recapped that case for CNN: “Perot's onslaught against Bush … damaged the image the entire American electorate had of his job as president, all of which benefited Bill Clinton …” During the Democratic convention in July, Perot said he was dropping out in part because “the Democratic Party has revitalized itself.” The move helped give Clinton a record “convention bounce” of 16 points in the Gallup poll and a lead he never relinquished.
There’s merit in both cases, but the fact remains that Perot didn’t only take votes from Bush. I can personally attest to this as a Democratic Paul Tsongas supporter-turned Perot voter in 1992. There were Democrats back then who thought Tsongas’ anti-“Santa Claus” platform was honest and responsible and Clinton’s middle-class tax cut was reckless pandering. Perot lined up with Tsongas on balancing the budget, and his views on abortion and Iraq made it easier for Clinton skeptics to break ranks.
To the extent that Perot did undermine Bush, it was directly related to Bush’s position as the incumbent president. A political outsider running against Washington is going to train fire on its central occupant. For 2016, that person is named Obama, not Bush. There’s no reason for an independent Trump to take a harsher line on Jeb Bush than Hillary Clinton.
But why should Republicans be sanguine about a third-party Trump bid when you look at the latest Reuters poll? This decade’s billionaire populist is taking 23 percent in a hypothetical three-way race against this decade’s Bush and Clinton. Trump’s presence drove Jeb’s numbers from an RCP average of 43 percent in head-to-head matchups with Clinton down to 23 percent as well.
However, Republican should note that Trump does not leave Hillary unscathed. She drops from 46 percent to 37 percent. True, Jeb is the bigger loser, for now. But we’re only testing the effect of the Republican primary version of Trump. And even that version lops nearly 10 points off of the Democrat. The independent general election model would attract a different mix of voters.
Furthermore, we can’t assume Trump would match Perot’s 19 percent of the popular vote. Perot managed to regain much of the support he lost after he bizarrely dropped out with charming debate performances and uber-wonkish infomercials. He earned respectful treatment in the media. He looked like a plausible candidate and not a wasted vote.
Nothing in Trump’s background suggests he is capable of exuding the same seriousness. He’s more likely to fade in the stretch.
Is there a chance that an independent Trump takes more from the Republican nominee than the Democrat, and in large enough numbers to change the outcome? Sure, there’s a chance, but it’s far from a certainty.
Meanwhile, what damage is Trump doing to the party now? Republicans had hopes that a primary field starring Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would present a new face to the Latino community, and help boost their share of Latino vote to where it was when George W. Bush became the only Republican nominee to win the popular vote since 1988.
Trump’s antics have overshadowed the field and killed that dream. A recent Univision poll finds only 16 percent of Latinos identify as Republican, even though 32 percent consider themselves conservative – similar to the electorate as a whole. Latinos aren’t turning from the GOP because they’re so liberal, but because of immigration rhetoric like Trump’s.
Republican leaders need to decide what’s worse: the damage Trump is doing to the party now, or the theoretical damage Trump might do – but probably won’t – in November. If they believe they need more Latino votes to be competitive nationally again, the answer is clear.