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If Republicans nominate Trump, can an independent win the presidency?

So it’s come to this: time to seriously consider the possibility of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination. What happens then? Here’s a doozy of an idea: a viable third-party candidate…or even a wholesale shakeup of what we mean when we say “Republican” and “Democrat.”

Crazy, right? Well, neither possibility is as far-fetched as you might think.

No candidate outside of the major parties has broken one percent of the popular vote in the last three elections, but four of six presidential elections from 1980 to 2000 featured impactful outsider candidates:

  • In 2000, Ralph Nader infamously played spoiler to Al Gore by garnering 2.7 percent of votes, including nearly 100,000 in pivotal Florida where Gore lost by the tiny margin of 537. The effectiveness of Nader’s campaign in convincing significant numbers of voters that the two parties were doppelgangers, especially when it came to the treatment of big business, put Democrats on notice that they needed to attend to their left flank.
  • Speaking a businessman’s outsider language that somewhat resembles Trump’s, H. Ross Perot became a phenomenon in 1992, winning almost 19 percent in November. He partially reprised his earlier run in 1996, establishing the Reform Party and winning 8 percent. Perot probably did not swing either election (since his supporters were largely irregular voters and he did not “steal” disproportionately from either party), but his participation changed the tenor of those campaigns, and perhaps even helped lay the groundwork for the dramatic, anti-Washington Republican victory in the 1994 midterms.
  • Most germane to a Trump 2016 scenario is John B. Anderson, the moderate Republican Illinois House member who broke from his party in April 1980 to run a “National Unity Campaign.” Anderson, who had run a surprising but hopeless third place in the early Republican primaries behind Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, rejected Reagan’s doctrinaire, ideological conservatism and sought to occupy the political center. By June Anderson was polling at 26 percent and looked genuinely viable. His high-minded, detail-oriented political style favorably contrasted with the cynical, partisan feel of normal campaigns, and, at his peak, he was the top choice of college graduates, professionals, and suburbanites. But the campaign wore off Anderson’s shine. Given the heights of Anderson’s promise, it seemed a disappointment when he finished with just 6.6 percent of the national popular vote—though clearly that level of support would be more than enough to swing many elections.

So who might take up an independent run in 2016—and would they have a chance at actually winning, Duverger’s law notwithstanding?

The greatest object of speculation along these lines is Michael Bloomberg, whose wonkish and nonpartisan success as Mayor of New York from 2002-2013 endeared him to America’s business community and to many self-identified centrists. Bloomberg’s immense wealth, impressive record as an executive in both business and politics, and ability to attract socially liberal but fiscally conservative Democrats would make him a formidable third party force to reckon with. Bloomberg (soon turning 74) has consistently deflected suggestions that he run, saying he doubts that a “short, Jewish, divorced billionaire” could be electable. He has a point. Then again, he’s apparently been taking the electorate’s temperature, so it’s not out of the question.

Could one of Trump’s former rivals for the Republican nomination challenge him as an independent, a la John Anderson, claiming that Trump’s demagoguery effectively hijacked the party’s primaries while betraying its historic ideals? To have any traction at all in this effort, a candidate would probably need to perform fairly well in early primaries while emphasizing his un-Trumpiness. Could John Kasich or Chris Christie play that role? One could imagine either governor styling himself as the true Republican standard-bearer even as much of the party has succumbed to madness.

A more intriguing (and more unprecedented) possibility would open up if Trump’s anti-Latino rhetoric continues to escalate and makes his candidacy strongly alienating to non-white voters. A Trump candidacy could move the party decisively toward being anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, and race-oriented.

At that point, a Hispanic Republican might be in a position to offer a forward-looking, inclusive brand of center-right politics as an alternative to Trump. A rising star (e.g., Carlos Curbelo) or second-tier figure (e.g., Brian Sandoval) might try this maneuver to stand for important principles and raise their profile. But most exciting would be if, a few primaries in, Senator Marco Rubio sees a Trump victory coming down the pike and decides to peddle his relatively sunny vision of a renewed America as an independent. Many factors make this unlikely: Rubio’s hopes of waiting out an overdue Trump implosion would push against risking defection and might make it impossible to time the daunting logistics of an independent campaign, and the man himself seems like a devoted partisan with a bright Republican future even in defeat. Still, it would make a remarkable story if he forsook his image as an earnest team player, started going off script, and ran full speed toward a working-class-focused moderate platform, professing his optimism about America’s multicultural future against Trump’s insistence that all Americans do is lose. Even in defeat, an independent Rubio bid could show the futility of defining the GOP exclusively as an anti-establishment, anti-intellectual, and race-oriented coalition and force the party in 2020 to take a very different tack.

Could Trump’s extremism, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s steadfast (and recently amplified) liberalism, create a centrist political vacuum in 2016, causing a real shakeup in our current partisan alignments? What it meant to be a Republican or a Democrat was very different in 1860, 1910, and 1960, and there is no reason to expect the shape of our party system to remain stubbornly fixed throughout America’s third century.

Any three-way race for the presidency would raise the specter of a sweeping realignment. If an independent bid helped Trump to win the White House, those who found themselves yearning for the old ways would have to think seriously about how the surviving party establishments should cooperate to cabin and eventually defeat him.

In the presidential scramble of 2016, who knows but we might catch a glimpse of a truly unfamiliar political future.

Author

Philip A. Wallach

Senior Fellow - R Street Institute

Former Expert - Brookings Institution

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