Now that Donald Trump has clinched the magic number of 1237 delegates, America’s Republican establishment is gradually coming around to idea that Trump is going to be its standard-bearer in November’s presidential election, and that there’s very little it can do about it.
Few party leaders have any enthusiasm for Trump, but if the alternatives are splitting their party or siding with their hereditary enemy, the Democrats, then Trump it is. They will march more or less loyally behind him and hope for the best.
For a time there, it seemed there might be a serious effort to get an independent conservative of some sort onto the ballot. Mitt Romney, Republican candidate in 2012, was actively promoting the idea, while others were touting Romney himself for the job. But those efforts have come to nothing.
There may still be an independent conservative option in some states, and the Libertarian Party candidate (to be selected this weekend, but expected to be former New Mexico governor and 2012 nominee Gary Johnson) will be on the ballot nationwide. But senior Republicans have given up on the idea of open insurrection against their nominee.
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As Ross Douthat said last week, “asking a prominent politician to start a foredoomed bid to save the Republican Party’s honor when the party itself doesn’t seem to be asking for a savior — well, that’s a hard sell, and it’s not particularly surprising that nobody is answering the call.”
One of the things that stopped the insurrection was uncertainty about just what it was supposed to achieve. One aim was simply to allow prominent Republicans to keep their consciences clean. Another was to try to boost overall conservative turnout, in the hope of helping Republican candidates in state and congressional races.
But some clearly indulged a hope that it could do more than that. American voters, remember, don’t vote directly for president. Technically speaking, all they are voting for are slates of “electors”: the candidate who comes first in each state wins all of that state’s electors (except in Maine and Nebraska, which allocate them by district), and the electors then choose the president.
If no candidate has a majority in the Electoral College, then the choice devolves on the House of Representatives, which has to pick from the top three candidates. “NeverTrump” supporters imagined an independent candidate preventing either Trump or Hillary Clinton winning a majority in the Electoral College, so the Republican majority in the House could then award the presidency to the anti-Trump conservative.
That, however, was never going to work. An independent candidate could certainly deny Trump a majority, but there was no plausible route by which they could deny it to Clinton. As Jon Chait pointed out when the idea was first floated: “The third-party candidate could push any number of states to Clinton, depending on how well they perform, but they’re not going to take any states away, which is the element required to make the plan work.”
For Republicans who actually care about their country, making a Clinton victory more certain is a feature of the plan, not a bug. But it won’t create a deadlock in the Electoral College, where the election is technically decided.
For political junkies, this is a rather sad conclusion. No presidential election has gone to the House of Representatives since 1824, when John Quincy Adams was chosen despite having lost the popular vote. Is there any way such a thing could happen again?
It’s certainly not likely, but it’s possible. Here are two scenarios that could produce a deadlock in the Electoral College:
Contrary to most expectations, Trump gets a swing in his favor, holding onto the Republican base from 2012 and also taking blue-collar votes away from the Democrats. That enables him to pick up, let’s say, six extra states: Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Those 64 electoral votes would give the Republicans the narrowest possible majority in the Electoral College, 270 to 268. (David Leip’s presidential atlas is probably the best place to play with this and other scenarios.)
But imagine that one (or more, but one is enough) of those 270 Republican electors casts his or her ballot not for Trump but for another Republican — Romney perhaps, or Ted Cruz, or Paul Ryan. Then there would be no majority, and the House of Representatives would have to decide among the three candidates. How many Republicans would dare to defy their voters and vote against Trump?
This time, imagine that Trump is just as much an electoral turn-off as most pundits expect and runs well behind the Democrats in the battleground states. But the Democratic vote is split, because Bernie Sanders (or someone very like him) runs as an independent, taking maybe 5% to 10% of the national vote — most of it from Clinton.
Sanders would only win one state — his own, Vermont, with three electoral votes — but he would hand Trump, let’s say, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, plus one electoral vote in Maine. So even if Clinton picked up Georgia and North Carolina, she would still have only 266 votes in the Electoral College to Trump’s 269. Again, the House of Representatives would have to choose.
I freely admit that neither scenario is at all likely. But they’re not impossible: and they’re certainly more possible than the magical option where splitting the Republican vote takes states away from the Democrats.