Looking at the idea of third-party challenge to Trump

Scott Bomboy

This weekend, veteran political journalist Jeff Greenfield said that some GOP insiders are theorizing about a third-party candidate to oppose Donald Trump, if he wins the Republican nomination. By any means, that scenario is complicated but with some precedent.


Interactive Map created on 270towin.com

Greenfield has covered politics for three TV networks and written 13 books. Writing for Politico magazine, Greenfield talked about his discussions with GOP operatives about how some party leaders would react to a potential Trump nomination in Cleveland this summer, which would potentially deeply divide the Republican Party.

“It would be a fissure so deep that, if the operatives I talked with are right, a Donald Trump running as a Republican could well face a third-party run—from the Republicans themselves,” Greenfield writes.

Greenfield quotes Dan Schnur, a veteran strategist from the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidential campaigns, as saying, “a Trump nomination would virtually guarantee a third-party campaign from a more traditional Republican candidate.” He also spoke with two other veteran strategists would believe a third-party candidate, friendly to conservatives, would function as “a safe harbor for disaffected GOP voters, and to help other Republican candidates.”

In this scenario, current GOP leaders dissatisfied with Trump would hope that the third-party candidate would allow Republican senators up for re-election such as Kelly Ayotte, Ron Johnson, Pat Toomey and Mark Kirk to have better chances to win – and keep the Senate in Republican hands, while openly opposing Hillary Clinton.

While Greenfield talked at length about some logistical barriers existing to such a candidate, there is also strong constitutional factor called the Electoral College.

Viable third-party candidates in past presidential elections have failed for the most part to make a dent in the Electoral College voting, with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. And in that election, the presence of two Republican candidates (Roosevelt and William Howard Taft) virtually assured the election of the Democratic nominee, the lesser-known Woodrow Wilson.

The last presidential election without a clear winner in the Electoral College was in 1824, but contested votes in 1876 and 2000 show how close elections can be and how the results can present unexpected scenarios.

In 2016, there would be the possibility of a third-party candidate capturing a key swing, such as Florida, which could deny either major-party candidate from gaining the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency.

In such cases, the Constitution, the 12th Amendment and 20th Amendment specify that a contingent presidential election be held in the House of Representatives after the official Electoral vote tallies are announced and as a new session of Congress starts. (A similar election is held in the Senate to pick a Vice President.)

If one candidate lacks a majority in the Electoral College, the three presidential candidates with most electoral votes are in the House contingent election. Each state delegation gets one vote in the contingent election, requiring that the winning candidate gets 26 of the 50 votes in the House.

Looking back at past third-party scenarios, the presence of a “third wheel” certainly hurt the chances of some candidates in the winner-take-all state elections to pick Electoral College electors, with Ross Perot (1992) and Ralph Nader (2000) as recent examples. But Harry Truman was able to overcome the presence of the third-party Dixiecrats in 1948.

To be sure, there are other third-party scenarios that will be discussed in coming months, with Trump, Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders mentioned as possible spoiler candidates.

On the surface, the presentation of a third-party candidate, with the tacit endorsement of at least some leaders of a major party, would be nearly unusual.

But back in 1912, the bitter fight between Roosevelt and Taft seems familiar in some ways. Taft supporters portrayed former President Roosevelt as dangerous “because of his hold upon the less intelligent voters and the discontented.” The candidates traded public insults before the convention and neither had enough delegates as they arrived at the convention for the nomination. Roosevelt had the most delegates from the primaries, but it was Taft’s control over the delegate seating process that assured his win.

Roosevelt stormed out of that 1912 convention in Chicago to become a third-party candidate. And during the election campaign, some conflicted Republicans opted to vote for Wilson, as traditional GOP campaign donors sat out the election.

If you are interested in current scenarios with the Electoral College, the website 270towin.com has an interactive map, where you pick combinations of states to see how an independent candidate could force a presidential election into the House.

Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.

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