Sean Trende has been arguing for some time against the idea that Republicans who oppose Trump should mount a third-party run if he’s the Republican nominee. The other day he suggested that this course of action would destroy the Republican party. He tweeted, “If the R establishment picks up its toys and goes elsewhere the first time it loses a primary in 52 yrs, it will *never* unring that bell.” In future primary races where the establishment wins, it will have no credibility in telling intraparty opponents to suck it up and vote for the nominee in the general election.
I have great respect for Trende, but I don’t buy this argument for a number of reasons.
First (and with apologies for examining a tweet quite this minutely), this description of the battle lines among Republicans is inaccurate in a way that carries a pro-Trump bias. If there’s a third party anti-Trump Republican candidate, his supporters will include a lot of people who can’t reasonably be included in any definition of the “establishment.” Trump has in many states lagged among Republicans who consider themselves “very conservative.” An anti-Trump candidate will draw from these voters. A lot of them will be people who voted for Romney and McCain only grudgingly. They won’t, that is, be the people who told other Republicans to vote for the nominee in the name of party unity. They’ll be the people who were on the receiving end of that message, but who this time can’t stomach following it. The Gingriches, Giulianis, Christies, and Doles of the world will, by contrast, be once again telling everyone to fall in line behind the Republican nominee.
Second, it’s not clear to me how much these messages really work on anyone. A lot of Republicans defected to Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, even though Republican officials told them that they shouldn’t. Moderate Republicans regularly cross the aisle when Republicans nominate someone who is unacceptably conservative. Parties win when they nominate candidates who give most people a reason to vote for them, and they can’t guilt-trip their way to victories when they don’t.
Third, anti-Trump Republicans will be blamed for a Trump defeat even if they don’t back a third-party candidate. If conservatives stay home and Trump loses, his followers will say it’s the fault of anti-Trump conservatives for sitting it out. If Trump loses by plumbing new depths with Hispanics, Asians, blacks, and moderate white women, his followers will say it’s because the anti-Trump conservatives validated liberal attacks on him as a bigot. If Trump doesn’t put together a national organization capable of contesting a general election, his supporters will blame anti-Trump Republicans for not doing it for him. This morning John Nolte tweeted: “If Trump loses to Hillary. . . I will forever blame #NeverTrump.” I am sure that he is predicting his own future behavior with perfect accuracy.
Rational Trump supporters will in 2020 back a Republican nominee if they think he would make a good president, regardless of what anti-Trump Republicans do in 2016, and irrational Trump supporters will act irrationally regardless of what anti-Trump Republicans do. There may be good reasons for anti-Trump Republicans not to run a third-party candidate, but the fear that pro-Trump Republicans will hold it against them doesn’t seem like one.
(Disclosure: Ted Cruz has been a friend of mine for a long time.)