No, a Conservative Third-Party Candidate Can’t Steal the Electoral College

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This is not how the Electoral College works.

Some conservative Republicans who hate Donald Trump want to run a third-party presidential candidate, such as Nebraska Republican senator Ben Sasse, who has lambasted Trump. It’s a plan that might help them turn out conservative voters, who would otherwise stay home to protest Trump, and help Republicans avoid a down-ballot wipeout. More likely, it could help conservatives preserve their dignity by having a candidate who articulates right-wing policies without the burden of Trump’s buffoonish ignorance and misogynistic bullying. Yet many people have grown convinced that the third-party plan could also do something else: throw the election into the House of Representatives, where Republicans could select their own (conservative) candidate. “One outcome, although rare, may be that no candidate crosses the necessary threshold of 270 votes in the U.S. Electoral College,” reports Reuters. “In that case, the vote for the next president would pass to the U.S. House of Representatives, currently controlled by Republicans.” Versions of this scenario have appeared in Time (headline: “The Crazy Way Republicans Could Beat Donald Trump After Election Day”), National Review (“If a third-party candidate could divide the vote enough to prevent anyone from getting an electoral-college majority, that would throw the election into the House of Representatives”), and elsewhere. The entire panel of Morning Joe, in a segment this morning, treated it as a live possibility:

Mark Halperin: The last gasp of the Trump movement is to get somebody to run or a series of people to run to stop anybody from getting 270 electoral votes.

Joe Scarborough: If they get somebody to run, the question is, is it too late? Because I’ve always heard you have to do it by March.

Mark Halperin: If you spend a lot of money it’s possible to get in enough ballots to keep either Clinton or Trump from 270, it’s possible. … With a lot of money and a well-organized effort you can get in enough ballots to block anybody from getting 270.

Steve Rattner: That is probably true, and I guess the one strategy you can do if you’re a real conservative and you want to elect a real conservative, you can block somebody from getting 270; you get in the House, and then the House presumably votes for you, the real conservative rather than the Republican nominee. That could be the one three corner shot you could try to play.

Walter Isaacson: Well, that’s not the most surprising shot — clearly if you’re a real conservative Republican and you run and turn out more conservative voters and Republicans continue to control the House partly because of that, then the Republicans in the House get to decide who they want to vote for as president, if there’s a deadlock in the electoral college. And they’re probably not going to choose Trump. So, you know, it seems that there should be a little bit more thinking of this. And I like the way you all came out on it.

Steve Rattner: Yeah, but remember that when Teddy Roosevelt did it in 1912, he simply split the Republican vote and Woodrow Wilson became president. So when you do that you’re increasing the odds that Hillary Clinton becomes president 

Joe Scarborough: Except in this case, though, if you can stop Hillary Clinton from getting to 270.

Steve Rattner: If you can, but 

Joe Scarborough: It goes into the House and whoever — if Bill Kristol finds somebody who can win some states, get in there, she’s under 270. Then suddenly, whoever that Republican is is probably going to get more votes than Trump.

Mark Halperin: The simplest way that we can get Paul Singer and all of his friends to say to Ben Sasse, “Go campaign in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. Just win those four states.” And if he wins those four states it’s possible nobody gets 270 and Ben Sasse gets picked by the House.

In slightly more detail, the plan would run like this: A right-wing third-party candidate would split the Electoral College, so no candidate reaches the 270-vote threshold. In that case, the House of Representatives would decide the winner, with each state’s delegation (regardless of population) casting two votes. Since Republicans control most state delegations, they would pick the winner, who would presumably be their right-winger, rather than Trump or (obviously) Hillary Clinton.

What gives the scenario the veneer of plausibility is that the last part of the plan is completely true. If the Electoral College deadlocked, then the House would really decide, and it really would give the presidency to the right-winger. The actual problem with the scenario is that the first part, where the independent somehow prevents anybody from gaining 270 electoral votes, is completely nuts.

Right now Clinton has the inside track to a majority of the Electoral College. Polls are a little dodgy at this early stage of the race, but most forecasters assume Clinton would win something like the states President Obama won in 2012, and perhaps some more if Trump fails to consolidate his party. That assumption isn’t terribly important. What’s important is that adding a right-wing splinter candidate would not reduce Clinton’s share of the Electoral College at all. It would increase it. Every state gives its electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes. If Clinton wins 51 percent of the vote in Florida, she gets all 29 electoral votes from Florida. Crucially, states do not require a candidate to have a majority in order to win the state. And a right-wing independent candidate will draw overwhelmingly from Trump’s support. So an independent would not take any states away from Clinton.

Instead, that candidate would make it possible for Clinton to win a bunch of states without a majority. States where Clinton might otherwise fall a bit short of Trump would become blue states. Suppose in a two-candidate race that, say, Texas would give Trump 53 percent and Clinton 47 percent, giving Trump all 38 electoral votes from Texas. Then Ben Sasse jumps in the race and takes 10 percent of the vote, all of it coming from Trump. Now Texas is 47 percent Clinton, 43 percent Trump, and 10 percent Sasse.

Now, Halperin raises a different possibility — that an independent like Sasse could win purple states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. But that scenario is completely fantastical. Winning purple states that Democrats have won each of the last two elections is hard. Doing it without a major-party label, and while splitting the vote with the Republican candidate, is impossible. Neither Ben Sasse, Bill Kristol, nor the reanimated corpse of Ronald Reagan is going to win a three-way race against Hillary Clinton in any purple state when Donald Trump is taking conservative votes and running under the Republican banner. The third-party candidate could push any number of states to Clinton, depending on how well they perform, but they’re not going to take any states away, which is the element required to make the plan work.

It’s conceivable, though extremely unlikely, that the independent candidate could win a handful of deep-red states whose Republican voters could be persuaded to abandon the party’s official nominee and vote independent en masse. (Keep in mind, Republican elites tried to do versions of this in the primary and mostly failed.) But they’re not going to pull it off in states where their margin of error is tiny, and even losing a couple of percentage points of the vote to Trump would be fatal. Running a third-party protest candidate against Trump as a moral gesture might make sense. Doing it in hopes of stealing the election is the dumbest anti-Trump plan anybody has thought up yet.