Pros & Cons of a Stop-Trump Third Party Bid

Pros & Cons of a Stop-Trump Third Party Bid
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Last week, I pointed out that Republican Party rules require Donald Trump to earn a majority of the delegates to clinch the nomination, period, and that if he cannot do so, he is absolutely not entitled to it.

But what if he does earn a majority of the delegates? Then what?

A number of Republicans, ranging from “establishment” sorts at the Weekly Standard to Tea Partiers like Erick Erickson, have suggested running a third party candidate or independent in the event that Trump is the nominee. There are arguments for doing this, but overall I think this is likely to hurt Republicans in the long run, even if it helps them in the short run.  We can see that by evaluating the various pros and cons.


1. It would avoid a down-ballot collapse. This is the strongest argument made by third party supporters.  It comes in two variants.  The first argues that Trump will lose the general election so badly that he will drag other Republicans down with him.  The second argues that Republican voters will stay home when faced with a Trump candidacy.  I think the second argument is better than the first, but I will address each in order.

The first one revolves around the notion that Trump will lose by a huge margin to Hillary Clinton, and that this will make it impossible for down-ballot Republicans to survive.  This probably would have been true decades ago when presidential coattails were a real factor in races.  

But they are much less of a factor these days.  Since 1964, the following presidential elections have been won by six points or more: 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, and 2008. In the House, the losing party in the presidential election saw, respectively, 13, 34, 16, (Democrats gained two seats in 1988), nine, and 21 seats slip away. In the Senate, Democrats gained two seats in 1972, lost 12 in 1980, gained two in 1984, gained one in 1988, and gained eight in 2008.  Republicans gained two in 1996.

So we have two good examples of solid victories with coattails: 1980 and 2008.  We also have four good examples of solid victories that were not accompanied by coattails: 1972, 1984, 1988 and 1996.

It’s always dangerous to project from six observations, but if you are looking for commonalities, this is a good one: Solid wins for the out-party result in down-ballot gains, while big wins for the in-party result in modest gains, or even strategic voting.

The common rejoinder to this is that ticket splitting is much less common than it was in the past, but this begs the question to a certain degree. Why was ticket splitting common, and would we expect Trump’s election effort to be the same or different? As to the first question, ticket splitting was in its heyday from the 1950s to the ’80s, when Southerners cast their ballots for Republicans at the presidential level but Democrats at the state level; in the Northeast the reverse was often true.

What ticket splitting represented was a divide between the presidential Republicans and Democrats, and the state Republicans and Democrats. Southern Democrats who couldn’t stomach a liberal nominee could still cast their ballots for a conservative Democrat at the state level; the opposite was true in the North.

Ticket splitting dropped off and then disappeared for a variety of reasons, foremost among them the fact that Southern conservative Democrats became Republicans, and vice versa. 

But I think Trump – assuming he divides the GOP – would represent a decent analog to this: Someone that a large number of party regulars couldn’t stomach voting for, but who wouldn’t necessarily make them decide that Kelly Ayotte, for example, is unacceptable.  In fact, part of the reason Republicans performed well in 1996 is that they made an apparently persuasive argument that the country needed a Republican Senate and Congress to provide a check on Bill Clinton.

The second scenario, that there would be a drop-off in turnout that would hurt Republicans up and down the ticket, is a more serious concern for the GOP.  We will have to wait and see.  But once again, when controversial candidates who sparked revolts within parties were nominated in years past, we didn’t see a decrease in turnout.  Instead we saw these voters cast ballots for the opposing presidential candidate, and then vote for the down-ballot candidates of their preferred parties.

2. The moral imperative to stop Trump from winning. This second argument is that Republicans need to mount a third party candidate to give voters who cannot stomach Trump or Clinton another option. Relatedly, they argue, they need to provide a hedge to ensure that Donald Trump cannot win the presidency.

I mostly just want to acknowledge this “pro” for now, and deal with it in the “cons” section.


1. Bad choices for alternatives. Of course, this is one of those theories that immediately runs headlong into reality.  It’s like a microcosm of one of the classic problems with running a third party to capture “the middle”: Which middle are you talking about?

Consider the names that have been bandied about.  Tom Coburn? The former Oklahoma senator retired in part because of his battle with prostate cancer, but more importantly, he is a fairly strident conservative who would have little appeal to establishment sorts turned off by Trump.  Rick Perry?  I can think of three reasons why he wouldn’t be a good . . . okay, you get the joke.  Maybe an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney?  I doubt the Tea Partiers who are repulsed by Trump are going to turn out to vote for Romney.  And so forth.

The problem here is that Trump is in many ways a symptom of the divisions within the Republican Party, and those divisions do not disappear absent Trump.  If there were a larger than life, unifying figure to put in this spot, it might make sense.  If there were such a figure, however, he (or she) would likely be the Republican nominee.

2. Awful long-term consequences

Ever since the 2000 election, attempts by Democratic splinter groups to run third party candidates have been met with this rejoinder: “Let’s not cost Democrats another election like Ralph Nader did.”  Ever since 1992, Republicans have told their potential splinter groups, “Let’s not cost Republicans another election like Ross Perot did.”

The question of whether Perot really cost George H.W Bush re-election is an interesting one – I lean toward “no” given the exit polls, but Everett Carll Ladd’s 1993 piece in PS magazine arguing to the contrary gives me some pause.  Regardless, it has been an effective argument by the establishment to the various wings of the Republican Party: There have been no substantial schismatic candidates since 1992.

All of that would change if, having lost a nomination battle for the first time since 1964, the establishment decides to pick up its toys and go home.  The 2016 election is an important one for both parties, but it is not the last election this country will hold. New elections are just around the corner in 2018, and 2020 will be here before we know it.

Party coalitions are, of necessity in this country, diverse, broad coalitions, with many sub-segments.  If the party leadership itself abandons the coalition, especially in an explicit attempt to deny the Republican nominee a win, it will have lost whatever authority it has remaining to manage the various coalitions.

Moreover, if Trump is to lose, the lesson (assuming there is any) about his popularity would be best learned if he loses straight up. Abandoning the party and running a rear guard action would enable Trump supporters – assuming he loses – to operate under a “stabbed in the back” theory in 2020 and going forward. And they’d be right!

This is the ultimate rejoinder to advocates of “we need someone to save the down-ballot candidates.” Maybe Trump will drag the bottom of the ticket down.  But even if a third party candidate managed to save some House and Senate seats (and there’s no guarantee Trump’s supporters wouldn’t skip the down-ballot races in retaliation for a third party bid), it would come at the cost of the party’s long-term future.

This ultimately gets us a bit ahead of ourselves, as there is no guarantee that Trump is going to be the nominee.  It’s a surprisingly close call as to whether he can pull together the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination. But even if a third party candidate did win, the cost probably wouldn’t be worth any benefits.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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