The opposition to Donald Trump has been constant from the start of the 2016 presidential campaign. However, it has been unfocused and essentially leaderless. Many Trump opponents believed he would not enter the race. When he entered, they believed he had no chance of winning. Now that Trump has all but won the nomination, they believe he can be stopped by an independent or third-party campaign.
As early as December 2015, before the first caucus or primary, Mike Fernandez, a Coral Gables, Florida health care executive and financial backer of Jeb Bush, took out full-page ads in the Miami Herald and other newspapers stating he would support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Fernandez described Trump as a narcissistic ”Bullyionaire” with a hunger to be adored. Fernandez was critical of fellow Republicans “blinded by the demagoguery” of Trump.
In January 2016, National Review devoted an issue to conservative writers who made the case that Trump was not a conservative, and his nomination would do long-term damage to conservatism and the Republican Party. The issue contributed to the formation of the #NeverTrump movement, but it failed to stop Trump from winning the GOP nomination.
With Trump having secured the nomination, many Republicans now look at the race as a binary choice: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Most Republicans, unlike Mike Fernandez, see Trump as the preferred option. Foster Friess, a Wyoming financier and supporter of Republican candidates and causes, said Trump was not his first choice, but “he’s better than Hillary.” During the presidential primaries, even Jeb Bush stated that “Anybody is better than Hilary.”
Some of Trump’s strongest critics have now jumped aboard the bandwagon. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who called Trump a “cancer” on the GOP who would lead the party to “perdition,” has now offered to help Trump win the election. Oh, by the way, he would also be interested in being Trump’s vice president.
Many Republicans believe it is now a question of party loyalty. As Republican strategist Ford O’Connell observes, “political parties are not meant to be ideological vessels, but competing enterprises whose job is to win elections.”
Rick Wilson, one of the most vehement anti-Trumpers, described the party loyalty argument as nothing more than “the D.C. establishment rolling over and becoming the Vichy Republicans we all know they would.”
The last hope of the #NeverTrump movement is recruiting an independent or third-party candidate to provide an alternative to Trump and Clinton. RNC Chair Reince Priebus calls such efforts a “suicide mission.”
Supporters argue that an independent candidate would not only give discontented voters a choice, but they believe such a candidate could win. At the very least, such a candidate could siphon off enough electoral votes to throw the election into the House, where the Republican majority could select someone other than Trump or Clinton.
Supporters of an independent option argue that recent polls show 58 percent of voters are not happy with their choices, and 55 percent say they support an independent candidate. Historically, the idea of an independent candidate is more appealing than the reality.
Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party is widely regarded the most effective third-party movement. Roosevelt actually came in second and swamped incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt received 27.4 percent of the vote and 88 electoral votes to only 23.2 percent and 8 electoral votes for Taft.
In 1948, Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina won only 2.4 percent of the national vote but, because it was concentrated in a few Deep South states where Truman’s name did not appear on the ballot, Thurmond captured the electoral votes of four states. Twenty years later, Gov. George Wallace replicated much of Thurmond’s success in winning 13.5 percent of the vote and 46 electoral votes in five Southern states.
In 1992, Texas businessman Ross Perot and his Reform Party won almost one out of five votes, but failed to capture a single state. At one point, Perot led both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton but, as Election Day approached, many of his supporters returned to support their traditional party.
To run as an independent or third-party candidate, there is one important requirement: you need a candidate. So far, the #NeverTrump movement has not found a willing person to oppose Trump.
Among the possible candidates are Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. Romney has name recognition and money, and would likely qualify for the debates. Romney was opposed by many conservatives in his 2012 race, which would once again be a problem. In addition, Romney’s enthusiastic acceptance of Trump’s endorsement in that campaign would be another concern.
Marine Corps General James Mattis seriously considered running before backing out. Mattis would have commanded support as a military figure and a political outsider. But, Mattis is not an Eisenhower and is an unknown commodity.
Marco Rubio‘s name is being tossed about as a possible candidate. Rubio is young, charismatic and has appealed to woman and minority voters. The downside is that Rubio won only in Puerto Rico, Minnesota and the District of Columbia, and badly lost his home state of Florida to Trump. In addition, Rubio signed the pledge to support the Republican nominee “and I intend to keep it.”
Ben Sasse, a first-term Republican Senator from Nebraska, has been a leader in the #NeverTrump movement. Sasse is only in his second year as a senator, which will raise questions about his experience. He also is unknown outside of Nebraska.
Finally, former House member and Senator Tom Colburn has expressed interest in running and is highly respected by conservatives for his attempts to cut federal spending. Colburn has stated that Trump “needs to be stopped,” but recently said he would not be the candidate.
One of the maxims of politics is that it takes something to beat nothing. So far, nothing looks like he has the race all wrapped up.
Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at The University of South Florida St. Petersburg.