These are dark days for small-government conservatives. With Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) loss in Indiana and subsequent suspension of his campaign, Donald Trump will almost certainly be the Republican nominee. The party of Reagan will be the party Trump. November will bring a choice between Clinton, who is openly hostile to almost everything in which conservatives believe, or Trump, who pays lip service to conservative ideas, but who is, in fact, also hostile to almost everything in which conservatives believe.
What to do?
Talk of a third party candidate immediately devolves into a discussion of the value of a protest vote since the chance of mounting a successful nationwide independent candidacy starting in May of an election year is infinitesimal. A candidate would need to file in Texas by May 9th, with about 80,000 signatures. Indiana, Illinois, New Mexico, and North Carolina all have due dates in June. At this point a third party candidate gaining the White House is impossible.
Or is it? Traditional analysis starts with the notion that the independent candidate must achieve 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. And in a normal year, with normal candidates, this would necessarily be the goal. But 2016 is far from normal and the goals of a third party candidate need to reflect that.
In 2016, the presidency could be won with 86 electoral votes – it just needs to be the right 86 electoral votes. If a third party candidate could win in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, he or she would earn 86 electoral votes. Of course, such a campaign would strive to get on as many state ballots as possible, but resources and campaigning would focus on these eight particular states. The importance of these particular electoral votes is that they were all won by Obama in 2012. If the electoral map breaks in a similar fashion in 2016, without the 86 electoral votes, Clinton will be left with 246 electoral votes and will fall short of the 270-vote majority needed to become president. Even if she were to flip North Carolina, which Republicans won by only 2% in 2012, Clinton would still be 9 votes short of the presidency. Correspondingly, Trump’s electoral votes would be in the low 200’s.
With no candidate reaching the 270-vote majority needed to win the presidency, the election will be thrown into the House of Representatives who, under the Twelfth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, select the President from the top three vote-getters. In such a vote, “the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote.”
Currently, 34 of the House of Representative state delegations have a Republican majority, 13 have a Democratic majority, and 3 have an even split between Republicans and Democrats. With only a majority needed, if 26 of the 34 Republican state delegations vote for the third party candidate, that conservative candidate will become president. Indeed, if only 9 of the Republican state delegations were to vote for the third party candidate, no single candidate would become president and a process of negotiation and multiple ballots would ensue. Since such voting would be occurring after Clinton and Trump have spent literally billions of dollars attacking each other for the preceding six months, selecting the third party candidate may, in actuality, be an easy and popular choice.
Why target these particular 86 electoral votes?
First, each of these states was a relatively close win by Democrats in 2012 with a margin of victory under 10%. The targeted states must be Democratic wins from 2012 in order to reduce the Democratic electoral vote total relative to 2012. Since the state elections were close, it would be easier for the third party candidate to split the vote and achieve a plurality and victory.
Second, these particular states also appear to be dissatisfied with Clinton and/or Trump. For example, In Colorado, Ted Cruz won all of the delegates and Sanders beat Clinton by 24 points. In Iowa, Cruz won the primary and Clinton only won by 4 points. In Michigan and New Hampshire, Sanders beat Clinton while Trump won with only weak pluralities (37% and 35% respectively). In Minnesota and Wisconsin, both Clinton and Trump lost by large numbers. Ohio and Virginia were easy wins for Clinton, but the states themselves were very close wins by Democrats in 2012. Also, Trump’s performances were relatively weak in these states, losing in Ohio and winning with only a 35% plurality in Virginia.
Such a plan would require a conservative candidate of outstanding character to contrast strongly with both Clinton and Trump’s high negative numbers. A strategically chosen Vice Presidential candidate could potentially boost the number of Democratic crossover votes. The shortest deadline for getting on the ballot in the targeted states is Michigan on July 21.
All is not lost for conservatives and others who cringe at the specter of having to choose between Clinton and Trump. The right third party candidate, with a positive message, targeting the right states, could win in November. Perhaps Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), a leader in the #NeverTrump movement, would care to give it a go.