Conservative leaders are plotting to lose the 2016 general election.
That, of course, isn’t how they’ve framed the effort. “A secretive group of Republican operatives and conservative leaders convened Thursday morning for more than three hours to discuss ways to unite the right against Donald Trump,” reports Robert Costa for the Washington Post, “with a presentation about the feasibility of mounting a third-party challenge as well as extensive deliberations about whether a coalition of anti-Trump forces could prevent the billionaire mogul from securing the party’s presidential nomination at the convention in Cleveland.”
Costa describes a conversation focused on boosting Sen. Ted Cruz, the most viable anti-Trump Republican left in the primary, and brainstorming candidates for a late-entry contender to the presidential race. But this is just a long way of saying that conservatives—or at least, an elite group of them—are preparing to sacrifice the election to save their movement. That’s because the practical consequences of forming a “true conservative” third party would be to split the GOP vote and preclude either Trump or a conservative alternative from winning 270 Electoral College votes. They would be handing the White House to Hillary Clinton.
For the right, it’s hard to overstate the damage that comes with losing the White House for another four years. Not only would President Clinton preserve (and possibly strengthen) the Obama legacy, but she’d also entrench liberal policymaking in the executive branch and further reshape the federal judiciary with four years of nominations. Likewise, she stands a strong chance of replacing several justices on the Supreme Court, potentially transforming American jurisprudence and putting conservatives on the defensive for the long term. And when a Republican presidency eventually comes, whether in 2020 or 2024, conservatives will have fewer people with executive-branch experience—a real bottleneck for first-term presidents.
Conservatives might deal themselves a generational setback by forfeiting the election to stop Trump. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the sacrifice.
First, a step back. Presidential elections aren’t just close because of a polarized electorate; they’re also close because both sides are almost evenly matched. Both parties raise massive sums of money and build campaigns of comparable size and complexity; they field candidates of similar skill and competence, and they saturate airwaves in almost equal measure. As such, presidential elections turn less on campaigns or candidates than they do on “fundamental” factors such as economic growth, presidential approval, war, and scandal.
But when one side is demonstrably weaker than the other, the board shifts. In that environment, big wins are suddenly possible. And that’s what we’re looking at with Trump.
Yes, Trump is winning the Republican primary. But outside his constituency, millions of people—including many Republicans—dislike and even despise him. There’s an obvious rejoinder here: What about Hillary Clinton? And it’s true that Clinton is unpopular; her 12.5 percent net unfavorable puts her among the most unpopular presidential candidates of the past 25 years. But Trump is less popular by an enormous margin, with a net unfavorable of 28.5 percent, the highest recorded in recent memory.
At minimum Trump will enter a general election with a party that isn’t united behind him. This would be catastrophic in an environment where winning requires a full-court press. A nominee without complete party support is a nominee who can’t rely on a full bench of surrogates, can’t utilize party organizations in key states and counties, can’t tap into critical fundraising networks, and can’t fully defend himself from attacks. Trump will face fierce blows from the Democratic Party, and as he withers under the strain, millions of Republicans will watch without pity. If he dies, they’ll say, he dies.
A third-party conservative candidate makes matters even worse. Presidential elections are winner-takes-all—if conservatives split the Republican Party vote, then Hillary Clinton doesn’t need a majority to win states such as North Carolina, or even Indiana, Georgia, Arizona, and Missouri—states where the 2012 margin between Republicans and Democrats was at or fewer than 10 points. On Nov. 9, the electoral map might be a deep shade of blue.
But there’s a difference between the two scenarios. Under the first, demoralized, anti-Trump Republicans stay home. They don’t vote for president, and they also don’t vote for down-ballot races. Not only do Republicans lose the presidency, but they also lose the Senate, and—if Trump falls below 45 percent of the two-party vote—they put their hold on the House of Representatives at risk, too. A conservative third party doesn’t eliminate that risk—some Republicans might still stay home—but it reduces it. It becomes a rallying point for anti-Trump conservatives, who can register a presidential vote against the real estate mogul without backing Clinton, and they can support Senate, House, and other down-ballot candidates.
Where the alternative is tying party fortunes to Trump and watching them crash on the rocks of his candidacy, splitting the Republican presidential vote might be the only way to save a Republican majority in Congress and save conservatism as a movement.
The only flaw in this plan is it doesn’t account for the Democratic Party. Against Trump, Democrats will be unified. They’ll have a sitting president and a former one on the trail, stumping for their nominee, in addition to a whole suite of high-profile Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. They’ll have anti-Trump enthusiasm and a billion-dollar (or more) campaign, designed to tie Trump to the Republican Party and vice versa. Congressional candidates will try to escape their nominee, but Democrats will work hard to keep them in place, lashed to the racist demagogue that captured the party nomination. “Donald Trump is a very unconventional candidate, to be sure,” said chief Clinton strategist Joel Benenson in an interview with Greg Sargent of the Washington Post. “But when you come down to the big issues that we’re debating, every one of these Republicans is aligned with the most extreme policies of the Republican Party economically.”
As much as conservative Republicans want to believe they can separate themselves from Trump, they can’t. They’re trapped with him, and right now, there’s no way out.