Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol stunned the political world when, after weeks of talk about recruiting a high-profile candidate to run for president with an anti-Trump conservative third party, he confirmed that he has instead focused on the relatively unknown National Review writer David French. French has not yet said whether he will run. But if he does, or if someone else takes on the anti-Trump mantle, the new party will operate on a set of wishful-thinking scenarios in which victory depends on one improbable event after another. Here are five such scenarios:
The Win Outright Scenario
Kristol has always insisted that a third party candidacy would not be a frivolous effort, and that the purpose of a run would be to win. For months, he has been arguing, mostly in tweets, that a third party candidate would have a path to victory. “An independent could actually win a three-way race,” he tweeted on May 20. On May 22, linking to an ABC News poll showing Hillary Clinton at 37 percent, with Donald Trump at 35 percent and Mitt Romney at 22 percent in a three-way race, Kristol added: “If Romney (or Sasse) ran, would get in debates, would have real (outside) path to win.”
Finally, on May 22, Kristol saw a blueprint for victory in thoroughbred horse racing, tweeting: “Preakness: Exaggerator comes from behind, passes the two front-runners and wins in upset. Metaphor for 2016!”
Bottom of Form
But the fact is there is no chance in this race for a third party candidate to reach the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House. It’s a commonplace that the states that have voted Democratic in the last six presidential elections total 242 electoral votes ??? just 28 short of a Democratic victory. Republicans have more than 100 electoral votes in states that have voted for the GOP in the last six elections. At this point in the race, it is simply not possible that Romney, who won 206 electoral votes as the Republican candidate in 2012, or Ben Sasse, who has never run for national office, or David French, who has never run for any office, would win 270 votes. It just won’t happen.
Third party advocates concede there was never a chance. “The way this would happen would never be to win 270,” one such advocate said in a conversation Tuesday. “That was never a plausible scenario.” Which leads to…
The House of Representatives Scenario
Knowing they would never hit the winning number, the third party planners instead hoped to create a situation in which neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidate would reach 270, which would send the election to the House of Representatives.
To call such an outcome implausible would be generous. To keep both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump below 270, a third party candidate would have to win at least a few electoral votes, which means he would have to win a state. That is hard to do. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and zero electoral votes, because he did not win a single state.
So what state or states would David French win? “What about Utah?” answers the third party advocate. “We know how Mormons look at Trump.” Which leads to the Utah sub-scenario.
#NeverTrumpers were heartened by a poll in March, just before the Utah Republican primary, showing the state would go Democratic if Trump were the GOP nominee. (The news helped propel Ted Cruz to a landslide primary win.) The idea was that if a state as reliably Republican as Utah would vote for a Democrat over Trump, then Trump would lead the party to an unprecedented disaster in November.
So here’s the idea: Start with the 2012 electoral map, in which Obama won 332 electoral votes and Romney 206. Assume that Trump wins every state Romney won. Then assume Trump wins Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. That would put him at 273 ??? victory ??? and Clinton at 265. But then take away Utah, with its six electoral votes, and give it to David French. That leaves Trump at 267 and Clinton at 265, both below the magic 270, and French at 6. The election would then go to the House of Representatives.
It’s far-fetched, to say the least ??? no Republican has won Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania since George H.W. Bush drafted on Ronald Reagan’s popularity in 1988. But even if Trump pulls it off, and also wins every other state Romney took in 2012, what are the chances a relatively obscure magazine writer could accomplish what Perot could not ??? winning a state? Not very high.
Still, Utah seems the best chance. And given the troubles the third party will have getting on some state ballots ??? the deadline has long passed in the nation’s second-largest state, Texas ??? it might make more sense for French to get on the ballot in Utah and run there, and only there, in the hope that a) he wins, and b) all the other planets align.
But then, even if all that happened and the election went to the House of Representatives, there are more insurmountable problems. The Constitution specifies that the vote be taken by state, with each state given one vote for president. So a state with a Democratic majority in its House delegation would cast one vote for Clinton. And a state with a Republican majority would cast one vote for … who?
The Constitution says the House must vote for one of the top three candidates in number of electoral votes. According to the Twelfth Amendment, “If no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as president, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the president.”
That means no Paul Ryan or other outsider scenario. And it means the president would be Clinton, Trump or French. Assuming the House is still in Republican hands ??? remember, this would be next January, when the House that is elected this November takes office ??? does anyone believe that Republican politicians, acting in concert within their state delegations, would select the candidate with six electoral votes over the candidate with 267?
The Help Hillary Scenario
So the third party candidate cannot win 270 votes to win outright and cannot win in the House of Representatives. Another scenario, one some of its proponents cannot publicly embrace, calls for the third party candidate to draw just a point or two from Trump in a few closely-contested states. “If David French takes two percent in North Carolina, two percent in Florida ??? game over for Trump,” an anti-Trump strategist not actively involved in the third party effort said Wednesday.
Of course, that would lead not to a French victory but to a Clinton victory. And some third party advocates, like Kristol, have strongly denied any intention to play the spoiler in the race. But the fact is, the scenario in which a third party draws just a percentage point or two in a state, ultimately benefiting Clinton, is far more plausible than any other scenario. It’s the wish some #NeverTrumpers cannot publicly express.
The This-Is-A-Crazy-Year Scenario
Ask a third party booster how even some of the extremely unlikely things listed above might happen, and they will answer that this has been a campaign season like no other, and there may be more surprises to come. They note, correctly, that the conventional wisdom did not foresee the rise of Trump, and it might well miss signs of some similarly earthshaking event to come. They still believe Trump might self-destruct at some point. They know that Hillary Clinton is unpopular. They wonder whether there will be a third party on the Left in addition to a third party on the Right. There are just so many unpredictable factors, they say, that it would be prudent to have a conservative alternative in place, the third party, in case something totally unforeseen happens.
David French himself seemed to subscribe to that line of thought when he tweeted Wednesday: “All the normal political rules apply. The conventional wisdom has been right. An underdog can’t win. Right?”
The Moral Choice Scenario
Some third party advocates are realistic about their chances of prevailing. They support the third party option not because they have a happy-face scenario of incredible, wonderful things happening out of the blue, but because of this simple thing they know about themselves: They can’t vote for Trump, and they can’t vote for Clinton, and they can’t not vote. They believe theirs is a moral decision, and they need a candidate to support.
They also seek to hold the high ground after what they believe will be a disastrous election. “If Trump wins, anyone who supports him now will be humiliated,” said the anti-Trump strategist. “If he loses, those who have gone along with him will be shamed by it.”
To support their path, third party supporters point to polling showing many Americans want another choice for president. But the group of third party organizers itself is tiny. “It is small and very loosely organized, closer to five people than 500,” one person close to some of the key players noted recently. “And I don’t know if all five are on the same page.”
“It’s a fool’s errand of people who are trying to promote themselves,” a well-connected Washington Republican said last week, before French’s name became public. “There’s no candidate, no path to victory, and all it’s doing is making it more difficult for Trump to unite the party. And it gives Hillary a path to the White House.”
“This is a suicide mission,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said in May. “It is not right.”
It’s still not clear whether the third party run will actually happen. Kristol has been in Israel since announcing over the Memorial Day weekend that “there will be an independent candidate ??? an impressive one, with a strong team and a real chance.” On Wednesday, Kristol obliquely acknowledged the implausibility of his plan when he tweeted, “Here is Israel, reading about possible @DavidAFrench candidacy, thought of Herzl: Im tirtzu, ein zo agada. If you will it, it is no dream.”