After Donald Trump’s near-sweep of Super Tuesday II states this week, conservatives have entered the fourth stage of the grief cycle identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. They have gone past denial, anger, bargaining, and some have flung themselves into depression. Assuming that all is now lost, they are now contemplating political suicide as a result.
Conservative activists within the GOP have long mistrusted Trump, based both on temperament and on his ever-shifting stances on significant policy areas. Trump has offered contradictory statements on abortion, taxes, trade, and even immigration within this cycle, an issue that only becomes magnified when comparing his positions to those from just a few years ago.
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They fear a repeat in a Trump presidency of what happened in California thirteen years ago, when mega-celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped into the recall of Governor Gray Davis, promising to bring common-sense conservatism back to the Golden State. Not long after taking office, though, Schwarzenegger shifted suddenly to the Left, ingratiating himself with the liberal Democratic establishment in Sacramento, leaving Republicans even more marginalized than before.
Even more, they fear the result of a failed Trump bid in the general election. Polls show Trump losing to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in head-to-head matchups. The Real Clear Politics average over the last five weeks gives Clinton a lead of more than six points over Trump, and Sanders has a ten-point lead in that RCP average. Furthermore, exit polling from Tuesday’s primaries show high percentages of GOP voters in swing states critical to winning the presidency who are willing to consider a third-party candidate in a Trump-Clinton general election – 30 percent in Florida, 39 percent in North Carolina, and 42 percent in Ohio. Conservatives worry that a Trump nomination will cost the GOP a golden opportunity to retake control of the executive branch.
Accordingly, conservative activists have begun to strategize about how to stop Trump’s nomination through the primary process and a contested convention, which is a normal part of the quadrennial steeplechase of presidential politics. Failing that, Politico reported on Tuesday, a handful of conservatives want to put together an independent run for the presidency that would challenge both Trump and Clinton in November. In response, Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “A third-party [bid] guarantees — not 90 percent, or 99 percent — 100 percent that your Democrats will win.”
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In this, Trump is almost certainly correct – if such a bid had any impact at all. H. Ross Perot’s 1992 bid had a personal fortune behind it, launched earlier in the cycle to get on all 50 state ballots, and focused on an issue that reached voters in both parties: the budget deficit and federal spending. Perot only got 19 percent of the popular vote and won no states, and may have given Bill Clinton a victory that he wouldn’t have otherwise won.
John Anderson’s quixotic 1980 bid as an independent after losing the GOP nomination to Ronald Reagan had even less impact, garnering only 6 percent of the vote while Reagan won a 44-state landslide. More recently, the 2000 Ralph Nader campaign got less than 3 percent of the vote nationwide, but cost Al Gore the election in Florida, allowing George W. Bush to win the Electoral College while trailing in the popular vote.
A conservative bid in November at its most effective would split the Republican vote and put the Democrat in the White House. Michael Bloomberg understood those dynamics from the other side of the aisle, passing on an independent bid that would have split Democrats and handed the election to the GOP. The damage that would do to the conservative movement would far outstrip any reward, and it would leave conservatives without any effective influence on policy for years to come.
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Conservatives defending the idea rebut these concerns in two ways. The first argument is that Donald Trump would be so awful for conservatives and conservative policy as president that he needs to be stopped before he reaches the White House. However, Republican primary voters have had that argument in front of them for months, and have repeatedly shown that they aren’t concerned about it. Trump has won most of the deeply conservative states in the South already. With the primary narrowing down to a binary choice between Trump and Cruz, Republican primary voters will have the opportunity to deliver a referendum on that question. If conservatives can’t win that, then what chance would a conservative independent bid have at all?
The second argument relies on the fourth Kübler-Ross stage – utter despair that Trump could win an election against Hillary Clinton at all. If so, then what harm could a principled protest candidacy do? If the presidency was the only office at stake in November, perhaps the damage would be minimal – but it’s not. Voters will elect 435 Representatives, 34 Senators, 12 governors, and hundreds of state legislative seats, and conservatives need to be inside the GOP tent to influence those elections to press for conservative policies and goals. Pushing an independent presidential bid will cut off conservative influence all the way down the ballot, probably for years to come.
Besides, this argument is circular anyway. If Trump is doomed to lose in November, then it makes no sense for conservatives to separate themselves from the GOP in advance. Doing so will leave Trump supporters with the excuse of conservative betrayal for his inevitable loss. That “knife in the back” narrative might transform the separation into a more permanent divorce, ushering in an era of progressive/Democratic dominance not seen since the 1994 Republican revolution.
In the end, there is no hope for any gain in such an attempt, and high risk of long-term damage and failure. Conservatives might chafe at the lack of influence they have on the choice of presidential nominee in this cycle, but the proper response involves working harder to expand the reach of conservatism inside and outside of the Republican Party rather than marching off into a self-imposed -- and self-destructive -- exile.