Let me preface this by saying I will never vote for Donald Trump. Nor would I support Hillary Clinton. Seeking to tease out the moral Gordian Knot this binary presents is not something I’m interested in, particularly when it seems unlikely to be terribly close. If Virginia is on a knife edge come November perhaps I’ll have to revisit. In the meantime my chief imperative is to save as many seats as possible down ballot.
This presents two questions that are in many ways intertwined. First, what do conscientious voters do (conservative or otherwise) if they can’t bring themselves to choose between the odious major-party options? And second, what is the best way to prevent catastrophic congressional losses?
Clearly, squaring this circle requires some third-party effort. The idea has been kicked around across the spectrum, beginning with Mike Bloomberg’s early entreaties, but recent chatter has been focused on a center-right alternative. Now that legendary Marine Corps general Jim Mattis has declined such a bid, talk has shifted to Mitt Romney, who has the name recognition, personal wealth, and fundraising base to be an immediate factor.
But as personally satisfying as it might be to have an honorable man such as Romney to vote for, this idea raises as many questions as it answers.
What is the goal?
To assess the utility of such a candidacy, you first need to lay out what it seeks to accomplish. So what is the point of Mitt 3.0?
In It to Win It
Could a Romney bid scramble the map such that he could actually win? While I have yet to see polling on this question, it seems dubious at first blush. As unpopular as Hillary and Trump are, splitting the center-right vote is hardly a recipe for GOP success on its face. More likely you’re looking at an eerie redux of Bill’s Perot-driven pluralities.
Throwing it to the House
I hear this one a lot. The theory holds that we just need to win a few states and the GOP House (if it still exists) will select the next president, presumably someone other than Trump. But these scenarios conveniently elide the challenge at hand: peeling off 63 electoral votes from Obama’s 2012 map. Winning red states isn’t enough. Between Romney and Trump you would need to make huge gains in blue and purple states – an uphill battle given the dynamic mentioned above. This approach would require someone more ideologically and geographically situated to pick off blue states – perhaps a Bloomberg type without the gun/soda-grabbing tendencies.
Now, if you are concerned that Trump might win, if not run away with it in a landslide, splitting the center-right might actually serve a purpose. My skepticism is well-documented, but in this case Romney could make sense if the goal were merely to hold Trump shy of 270. States such as Utah, Idaho, and others would be the most likely to flip, making his path more difficult. This ends in a Hillary presidency, or (at best) the House deciding, with all sorts of recriminations from the Trump hordes.
The other purpose a viable, well-known, well-funded candidate might serve is a fallback in case of a Trump implosion. If the bottom truly falls out, Dan Maes–style, you’ll need somebody there to fill the void. Such an effort may well be self-fulfilling, which, depending on your perspective, could be a feature and not a bug.
I hear this one a lot, too. Conservatives need to demonstrate that they didn’t roll over for Trump and offer an alternative vision for the principles of the party. The idea here seems to be to mitigate the damage caused to the party. But lending Trump the GOP imprimatur is a sunk cost. You can’t save the brand with buyer’s remorse. It could also give congressmen from moderate/suburban districts nominal coat tails to latch onto, but at that point you’ve got an open mutiny on your hands.
The Party’s Over
By running an “establishment”-backed campaign explicitly competing for GOP voters, you’re playing into the very pathologies that brought us to this point. At best you’re setting up a self-fulfilling dolchstosslegende that will haunt whatever is left of the GOP. I’d submit that the best way to wrest control of the party back from the Trump asylum is to allow him to fail miserably without the cover of a sabotage narrative. But perhaps you believe the schism is too advanced or otherwise inevitable. Maybe the rise of the populist-nationalist strain has made it impossible to put the humpty dumpty Republican coalition together again. Running Mitt is the equivalent of spinning off a new conference – the New Big East of U.S. politics. The problem there is that Trumpists keep the brand and the BCS bid while the movement risks becoming a mid-major. I’m not there yet, but this is plausible if you legitimately think a new vehicle is required.
This one is the single most important point, and where I tend to depart. Many (most?) pushing the Mitt idea are operating under the assumption that his presence on the ticket would be a boon for turnout, thereby saving key seats, and possibly preserving control of entire chambers. Implicit in this idea is that broad swaths of the Republican electorate will decide to stay home absent a Romney candidacy: that they are top-of-the-ticket voters who can’t be moved by the specter of the Clinton-Schumer-Pelosi axis steamrolling Capitol Hill. But logically this brings us back to the goal of a Romney bid — can he win? Or is this just a symbolic candidacy?
Lending Trump the GOP imprimatur is a sunk cost. You can’t save the brand with buyer’s remorse.
Since I have yet to hear a compelling case for a win, that leaves symbolism. And while Mitt may lend a big morale boost for guys like me who would prefer to vote for somebody they can be proud of, I wasn’t going to sit out this election to begin with. Conservatives willing to come out and cast a symbolic vote for Romney don’t strike me as the type who need that sort of hook. Perhaps I’m wrong, and if I am, tell me — who is the person who was totally going to sit on the sidelines this November unless they got to vote for a custom third-party candidate? Losing the House and Senate? Meh. But symbolic vote for Mittens? Sign me up!
I appreciate the need for conservatives to park their vote somewhere. But that’s what the Libertarian line is for. Social conservative who can’t countenance it? Write in your choice. Heck, if you’re that Romney superfan who won’t vote unless it’s for Mitt, that accounts for your problem as well.
I can actually see a concerted write-in effort being the best move. It offers the potential to build a movement (and an important data trail) without the headaches of an actual candidacy — from drafting and funding to even qualifying for state ballots under the imminent deadlines.
#related#In the end, we already have third-party options at our disposal, and ones that don’t carry huge risks to the future of the party. I fully expect a Gary Johnson (or whomever) to be polling in double digits as soon as pollsters start asking, and that alone will change the dynamic significantly. Put them on the debate stage and who knows where it goes.
My point is this: We must have a clear objective from a custom candidacy, whether by Mitt or anybody else. There is a clear risk/reward proposition, and we need to have a sense of the marginal gains before undertaking the effort. In the end, this campaign needs to be about the importance of saving seats in the House and Senate (and beyond). If we can’t sell the damage that could be wrought by a reprise of full Dem control under Hillary, our goose is already cooked — and the presence of Mitt isn’t going to save us.
— Liam Donovan is a former GOP staffer who works in government relations in Washington, D.C. This article originally appeared at The Buckley Club and is reprinted with permission from the author.