If Trump wins nomination, will GOP elite bolt to a third party?

Republican Party officials now see that it’s a real possibility that Trump will be their standard-bearer, and many aren't happy about it.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump poses for a portrait following an interview with the Associated Press at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., on Wednesday. Trump has defied GOP establishment expectations by retaining high poll ratings so deep into the primary race.

Donald Trump has signed a pledge to not run as a third party candidate if he loses the Republican Party presidential nomination. That hasn’t ended speculation he might bolt the GOP under such circumstances, though, as he continues to mutter that he must be “treated fairly” by party leaders, or else.

But that’s a game two sides of the coin can play (or something like that). There’s another scenario to consider here. What if Mr. Trump wins the nomination, and the party deserts him?

In other words, what if another top Republican decides Trump is so toxic to the GOP brand that they mount a third party effort of their own?

“While the other Republican presidential candidates signed the same symbolic loyalty pledge to the party nominee that Trump signed, we are already hearing that some prominent Republicans would oppose Trump if he were the party’s nominee. Perhaps one of them could run for president,” write University of Virginia political scientists Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik, raising the issue in their latest “Crystal Ball” newsletter.

Wow. A three-way general election with Trump in the middle would be huuuuugely entertaining, to borrow a favorite Trumpian word. Journalists would dance with happiness. It would be the apex, the capstone, the cherry on top of a sundae of a political season that’s already as unpredictable as any in a generation.

And a third-party GOP candidacy makes some political sense. Republican Party officials now see that it’s a real possibility that Trump will be their standard-bearer, and many aren’t happy about it. They are worried that a divisive Trump will lead to a down-ballot wipeout for other Republican candidates.

As past nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona said yesterday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, a “weak top of the ticket ... has a significant effect on the states, particularly the swing states.”

Many in the party would surely go ahead and support Trump as the nominee, on the theory that any Republican would be preferable as president to any Democrat. Trump would probably appoint lots of GOP stalwarts to administration jobs, while following general GOP economic principles, after all. It’s likely he’d pick a conservative nominee to an open Supreme Court seat.

But “probably” and “likely” aren’t for sure – and Trump gives new meaning to the word “maverick." Who knows what he’d do as chief executive? Some party elites might figure he would do so much damage to the Republican brand (and maybe, in their view, to the country) that it would be better to oppose him.

They could do this by sitting on their hands, point out Sabato and Kondik, as then-Gov. George Romney of Michigan did when conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee in 1964. Or they could run on their own, hoping to split the vote and keep Trump from the White House, or possibly rally enough disaffected voters to even win.

Yes, another Romney is available. We won’t go any further than that.

This scenario has played out recently on the state level, points out University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket at Vox’s Mischiefs of Faction political blog. In 2010, unforeseen circumstances resulted in political neophyte Dan Maes winning the Republican nomination for Colorado governor.  

State party leaders thought businessman Maes a sure loser and leaned on him to drop out. He refused, so some top Colorado Republicans instead supported former GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo, who ran for governor as the American Constitution Party nominee.

Democrat Hickenlooper easily won the three-way race. Maes came in third, with 11 percent of the vote.

Might an analogous situation develop next year, with Senator McCain and other important party actors backing someone else?

“They ... might reasonably conclude that Trump would lose the general election regardless, so they might as well take a strong stance against it,” writes Mr. Masket.

Of course, it would be a lot easier and less divisive to just nominate another Republican for president. But as Masket points out, so far the GOP establishment and Trump's rivals for the nomination don’t seem to be doing a very good job of that.

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