We already know that a significant sector of the Republican Party is shaking in its boots at the prospect of Donald Trump actually winning the presidential nomination. But in some GOP circles, that fear has turned to outright panic. How do we know? A significant number of GOP insiders are seriously considering whether to throw their support to a third party candidate if Trump somehow goes the distance in the primary.
Politico’s Jeff Greenfield spoke with a number of Republicans, both moderate and conservative, who are none too pleased at the prospect of Trump holding on to win the nomination. Based on those conversations, Greenfield thinks that if Trump becomes the GOP standard-bearer, it would result in a split “as deep and indivisible” as has ever been seen in a major American political party. The most strident criticism of Trump, believe it or not, doesn’t come from liberal blogs or the mainstream editorial pages. It comes from more conservative outlets like National Review and The Weekly Standard. Besides his “deviations from the conservative canon,” they’re also concerned about his temperament.
These factors have Greenfield convinced that “the odds on massive defections are very high” if Trump wins the nomination. While some will just stay home and not do any work on behalf of a Trump campaign, others are prepared to take a much more extreme step. Dan Schnur, a former Republican campaign strategist who is now an independent and the head of USC’s Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics, has had a number of conversations with longtime colleagues about Trump. His assessment? If Trump gets the nomination, “a more traditional Republican candidate” will mount a third party bid.
Schnur thinks that a number of prominent Republicans won’t “simply forfeit their party” to Trump, and would feel compelled to throw their weight behind a third party candidate to save the GOP brand. He’s not the only one. Rob Stutzman, one of the architects of the 2003 effort to recall Gray Davis, thinks that many Republican voters would want another option on the ballot “out of conscience,” since Trump would be “devastating” to GOP chances up and down the ballot. Stutzman also thinks that a third party candidate would give some of the GOP’s most vulnerable Senators “a chance to run with someone else” while still running against the Democrats, and could actually nose out Trump in some states. Stu Stevens, a leading strategist for the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign, believes that “a very strong third party effort” would ensue if Trump wins the nomination.
You don’t need a degree in political science to know that a split in the conservative vote would all but assure that the Democrats would simply need to show up and not make any major mistakes to win in 2016. That being said, I’m finding it very hard to rejoice at this prospect. Schnur, Stutzman, Stevens, and others talking up a third party challenger either don’t know or don’t understand that Trump isn’t really the problem. He’s a symptom of a larger problem.
As we all know, a certain element of the GOP believes that compromise is anathema, and that a Democrat in the White House is never legitimate. This element also seems to think that if you even try to be civil, you’re a RINO. Rather than try to rein this in, the GOP seems to have encouraged it, all in the name of getting elected. Trump’s candidacy is the ultimate example of this mentality–he’s giving people stirred up by this nonsense what they want.
In the process, the GOP has come dangerously close to becoming a far-right party–a trend that should concern Democrats and liberals as well. Whenever one of the major parties in a two-party system is a far-left or far-right party, that’s not good for democracy in the long run. If Schnur, Stutzman, Stevens, and their colleagues want to put their money where their mouths are, they won’t back a third party candidate. Instead, they’ll join hands with those on our side of the fence and start restoring some measure of civility to our political culture. It’s the only way to prevent another Trump from coming down the pike later on.