3rd-party Trump candidacy could make 2016 a Wild West show


The collective gasps and amazement from “serious” pundits about the fact that Donald Trump is leading the Republican Party right now should be ignored.

Unless the would-be narcissist-in-chief actually runs as a third-party or independent candidate. Then, all bets are off. And the votes Trump would siphon off wouldn’t necessarily come only from the GOP candidate.

Let’s jump ahead 12 months. One year from now, both major parties will have wrapped up their conventions. Each party will have a nominee. We likely will be back where we are in the summers of most presidential election years: Two candidates, two running mates, lots of campaigning in swing states, lots of appearances on Sunday morning shows, endless polling, electoral vote projections, endless negative ads — the usual.

And most voting Americans will be firmly committed to voting for one of two candidates. Most likely, at least 45 percent on each side, with the rest still weighing their choices. Very few recent elections go against that prediction.

Trump? Jeb! Bush? Scott Walker? A committed GOP voter is going to vote for the party, no matter who the candidate is. Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders, if he upsets the electoral apple cart? Democrats will vote for the Dem candidate. No, the vote totals won’t be that different.

Unless there’s a third-party candidate.

Polling right now asks for a first choice and often a second choice in the crowded GOP field. With too many candidates, there are too many ways to split the vote to make such polling meaningful. Once the field gets whittled down, and voters vote in actual primaries or caucuses (and some candidates run out of money), we’ll see numbers that matter.

But by November 2016, a third-party candidate might be enough to throw all projections out the window. An independent Trump candidacy would throw a wrench into the electoral works — something the Donald has not ruled out.

In recent modern presidential elections, the percentages in the popular vote totals showed slim divisions, with a few notable exceptions. The Electoral College totals often were more lopsided. Popular vote percentages given here are rounded and don’t include third-party or independent candidates, except for 1980, 1992, and 1996, where John Anderson and H. Ross Perot captured a sizable percentage of the popular vote total despite capturing no electoral votes. There, the presence of a third-party candidate made a lot of difference. And in 1968, a third-party candidate really made a difference. These figures of the popular vote come from the online Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

2012: Obama, 51 percent, Romney, 47 percent.

2008: Obama, 53 percent, McCain, 46 percent.

2004: Bush, 51 percent, Kerry, 48 percent.

2000: Bush 48 percent minus, Gore, 48 percent plus (yeah, we all know what happened that year).

1996: Clinton, 49 percent, Dole, 41 percent, Perot, 9 percent.

1992: Clinton, 43 percent, Bush, 37 percent, Perot, 19 percent.

1988: Bush, 53 percent, Dukakis, 46 percent.

1984: Reagan, 59 percent, Mondale, 41 percent (this was a Reagan “landslide”).

1980: Reagan, 51 percent, Carter, 41 percent, independent John Anderson, 7 percent.

1976: Carter, 50 percent, Ford, 48 percent.

In 1972, Richard Nixon walloped George McGovern, 61 percent to 38 percent. There was a similar lopsided result in 1964, with LBJ getting 61 percent to Goldwater’s 38 percent.

But 1968 was another stunner. Nixon got 43-plus percent, Hubert Humphrey got 43-minus percent, and George Wallace captured almost 14 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes, winning five Southern states. One of several reasons that Nixon won the presidency that year.

Right now, Trump is polling well in both New Hampshire and Iowa as well as nationally. In New Hampshire, his supporters seem to be older, traditional conservative voters, with lots of Tea Party support. In Iowa, however, much of Trump’s support seems to be coming from younger voters described as “moderate” but who are disillusioned with politics and political choices. (The main characteristic Trump supporters share is a lack of college education.) Five-Thirty-Eight went so far as to call Trump the “Nickelback” of candidates — widely disliked, but with staunch supporters.

The same kind of supporters who voted for Perot in 1992 and in lesser numbers in 1996.

So who would be hurt by a third-party Trump candidacy? Polling right now shows it would hurt Republicans, but a year from now, a Trump candidacy also could very well draw votes away from a Democratic candidate, tapping into a peculiar brand of populism. If Trump appeals to at least some younger voters that Democrats count on, that could have a big impact on the election.

A lot can happen between now and next November. Trump could implode. Voters could decide he really is a jerk (even more than those who think so now). If Trump fades as a serious GOP candidate, would his ego and his billions keep him in the race?

It’s going to be an interesting election.


2 Comments on “3rd-party Trump candidacy could make 2016 a Wild West show”

    • It’s true that Ralph Nader got nearly three percent of the popular vote that year, but I don’t think it affected the outcome (Florida hanging chads notwithstanding). The only vote that mattered that year was 5-4 in the U.S. Supreme Court.

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