May 7, 2016
We’re now a few days into the reality of Nominee Trump. Hillary Clinton was Ready on Day One. Her campaign began releasing anti-Trump ads before John Kasich exited the race. Many Republicans were caught off guard. Denial is a powerful thing. Until Ted Cruz took the hint after his Indiana defeat, many were still hoping for a contested convention.
With Trump taking the nomination, it’s time to re-evaluate what #NeverTrump means. Was it anybody but Trump for the nomination, or a pledge not to vote for him in November? Some establishment figures and voters were up for doing anything possible to deny him the nomination, but weren’t planning on voting for Hillary or abstaining.
Contested convention, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, mystery candidate, whatever, was fine, but if Trump managed to win anyway, they would begrudgingly vote for him or weakly endorse him. Then there’s #NEVERTRUMP. Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and the voters who are currently not planning to vote for him, even if Hillary is the alternative.
A few, like Mark Salter, John McCain’s alter ego and lead strategist in 2008, have said they will actually vote for her. Most are indicating they will just pass, or attempt to locate a plausible conservative to run as a third option. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is a reasonable proxy for this group.
He’s updated us on his thoughts about a third option and met with Romney on Friday to explore a Mitt redux. Kristol (whom I’ve always liked and still do) is wishcasting. He, and others in his camp (comprised of many others I like) have two vocal thoughts and one quiet one.
Kristol says a conservative third party ticket could actually win. He points out ballot access is not the problem most of us think it is. Only Texas and North Carolina require qualification before June. Even if the candidate isn’t on the ballot in those two key states, write-ins are legal. He notes Lisa Murkowski won her Senate seat in Alaska that way as recently as 2010.
I’m inclined to agree you could get a candidate on the ballot in most states. Having Trump lock up the nomination now instead of between June 7 and the convention makes all the difference on this measure. Choosing someone who did not participate in the nomination contest solves the problem of asking voters to pick someone they already rejected once and gets around “sore loser” rules in several states, which prohibit a candidate who loses a primary/caucus from going on the general election ballot under a different banner.
Let’s say Senator Sasse decides to play. Nikki Haley won’t. She’s already tepidly endorsed Trump, and has shown little willingness to engage this round, beyond a timely endorsement of Marco Rubio before the South Carolina primary. Still very popular with Palmetto State voters, she either doesn’t want to run for president or thinks 2020 is her time.
Could Sasse win a three-way contest? Absolutely not. At least not in 2016. He’s a conservative, not a moderate. For movement conservatives, he’s great. The voters who picked Cruz will like Sasse. They agree on most policy positions, and Sasse doesn’t arrive with Ted’s baggage. People like him. He presents well.
It’s another take on the Rubio model. Sasse doesn’t have the ethnic outreach, and is all of 16 months into his Senate career, but he’s a bright 44-year-old conservative who has shown distinctly more courage than Marco or Ted, having made it very clear he would not support Trump several months ago, and is sticking to it now that the nomination is decided.
Among #NeverTrump conservatives, he combines much of what they liked about Cruz and Rubio. We don’t know how many extra Latino Democrat and Independent votes they would garner that Sasse wouldn’t. Polling seemed to indicate neither candidate was resonating with Hispanics who wouldn’t otherwise at least consider a Republican, but we won’t know until the GOP actually nominates either of them.
Last July, when a Trump third party run was considered more likely than Republicans actually nominating him, most observers, including people like Kristol (not sure if he himself said this) thought the only thing a Trump run would do is help Hillary defeat the Republican.
They were picturing a Rubio/Clinton/Trump race. If Sasse is the current stand in for Rubio, and is equal or inferior to Marco with Hispanics, how would he win a race they thought Rubio would lose? Last year, they figured Rubio (or Walker, or Jeb, or whomever) would have the advantage of a major party nomination, with all the organizational and financial might that comes with.
Now as a third party candidate Sasse would win? Really? Sure he has the benefit of being not-Trump, not-Hillary, but Rubio would have had that edge too. With three candidates, a winner needs 35 to 40 percent. We can safely assume there isn’t 35% left for Sasse in any reliably blue state. Hillary would likely triumph there, and as we discovered in the New York and April 26 primaries, many Republicans and Independents prefer Trump’s lack of consistent conservatism.
Southern states have already shown an affinity for Trump. He swept every state (except Texas) in the old Confederacy, plus the slave holding border states of yore (West Virginia didn’t get to weigh in while there were opponents, but Trump was running way ahead.) Several states have an African American population large enough to bring Hillary to the precipice of victory without any additional help.
Having resoundingly supported Clinton in the primaries, they are very likely to turn out for her again in November. She could win Mississippi without a single white vote. Even if Sasse won most/all of the swing states, a combination of blue states and a few heavily African American Southern ones would get Hillary to 270.
Some have suggested Sasse would just need to win a few key swing states to deny Clinton and Trump 270, pushing the election to the House for the first time since 1876 (or 1824 depending on your definition.) The GOP majority would then presumably choose Sasse over Trump and you’d have an appropriately conservative president.
Let’s assume I’m wrong about Hillary making the numbers work in the South (at least outside of Mississippi, which would definitely happen.) Could Sasse win Florida, Ohio and a few other key states? NO.
Both Hillary and Trump ran well in Ohio and very well in Florida. Remember how Clinton got two thirds of the vote in the Democratic primary and Trump finished 20 points ahead of the sitting senator on the GOP side? There are states a candidate like Sasse could win. Idaho, Utah, Kansas and Alaska, for example.
They voted for Cruz and felt the Bern. Neither Clinton, nor Trump are popular there. Ross Perot beat his national numbers in these states in 1992. Democrats regularly struggle to grab 40% of the vote in a two-way race. Voters actually are conservative. Sasse would win his home state of Nebraska. Maine is a possibility.
That doesn’t get him elected, or stop Hillary. This brings us to the item Kristol and others are more muted about. They would prefer to see Clinton win than Trump. That doesn’t mean they would actually vote for Hillary. I’d imagine they’re physically unable to check that box on the ballot.
If Sasse would accept being a candidate, why not give it a shot? Maybe Hillary’s email trouble worsens, and wavering Trump voters decide to pay attention to the Trump University suit, now being decided post-election. Can’t take advantage without a candidate. Perhaps I’m wrong, and he’d have more of a chance in Florida than I think. Again, it’s only possible to benefit with a dog in the fight.
Even if Sasse is able to unify Cruz and Kasich voters in a way neither of the flawed candidates were, he’d need some disaffected Berners to get to 35-40% in any of the key states. Is a legit movement conservative going to do this? Trump and Hillary would have to grind each other to sawdust, to the point where the type of older suburban female Democrats Hillary has monopolized would abandon her.
Taking a chance on magically connecting those dots is just a nice side benefit. The real purpose is to guarantee a Trump defeat. A loss is a problem, with Democrats likely taking the Senate and making the House frighteningly close. It’s bad news for conservatives hoping for a Supreme Court majority in the next generation.
But a Trump victory is the end of the GOP as a conservative party. Kristol and conservatives like him are conservatives. A populist Republican party is of no value. Many Berners are uncomfortable with the idea of supporting Hillary, but will likely come around. There is increasingly little difference between Bernie’s proposals and Hillary’s new positions.
Sure she’s not ideologically reliable. Yes, his ability to influence her in any way will wane. But at least she verbally moved his way. Trump is determined to tear down much of what folks like Kristol have believed for decades. Primary voters have rejected this form of conservatism, best represented among elected officials by Speaker Ryan.
Absent a far better argument about how conservative policies will help economically wounded middle class Americans, this will continue. They won’t get the chance to address this in 2018 or 2020 if Republicans are the Party of Trump. If they can stop The Donald now, they can reboot for 2018/2020 and attempt to adapt elite conservatism to a large enough voter base to win nominations and elections.
We’ll see over the next 7 to 10 days if anyone is willing to play third party spoiler. Sasse has shown courage in staying resolutely opposed to Trump, but speaking out and running as a third party candidate who will likely ensure a Clinton victory are two different things. There isn’t an endless list of options. If Romney wants to participate, it sends the wrong signal to voters.
His conservative credentials aren’t the same as Sasse’s. He’s an old face. He lost in 2012. It’s a third rich candidate who is much older than most voters. While Sasse would serve as a spoiler with principles, Romney would just look like a spoiler doing the bidding of an establishment that still doesn’t get it. He’s not a good option.
If Kristol and friends are unable to find a willing candidate in the next week or two, we’ll turn our attention to the possible impact of Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson. He won’t pull voters the same way Sasse could, but already has ballot access in at least 30 states and is a receptacle for both #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary votes.
He won’t win any electoral votes (or come particularly close), but he may well impact the election. The fun is just beginning.