Can a #NeverTrump Republican Win in 2020? Don’t Bet on It.

Does this man look like Teddy Roosevelt to you? Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The #NeverTrump Republicans, who were a formidable force in 2016, even after the mogul became the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, are a much-reduced group now. And those who have not either reconciled themselves to the 45th president or resolved to support Democrats (at least until Trump is deposed from leadership of the GOP) have a very bleak future.

Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, considered an ultrapartisan writer as recently as 2012, is one of the most resolute #NeverTrumpers, and is also very angry about the apostasy of her fellow Republicans who are newly minted nationalist-populists now that there is power to be pursued that way. So when she discusses what people like her should do in the next presidential contest, she’s not sanguine about the reconquest of her old party:

[I]t’s hard to see, even with a slight erosion in support among Republicans, that a dogged anti-Trump opponent could win. You’ve heard the Republicans relishing in his first year “successes,” delighting in the party’s turn to immigration exclusionism and joining in the anti-FBI and anti-Mueller slurs. A Trumpized party has made its choice and will, with the encouragement of state TV (Fox News), in all likelihood be willing to go down with the Trump ship, blaming the NeverTrump movement and/or media if he fails.

Beyond that, Rubin’s not sure she wants to associate with these people:

Why would an anti-Trumper want to run under the banner of a party of quislings who accommodated themselves to Trump, ignored reality, engaged in conspiracy theories and failed to defend democratic institutions? 

All righty then!

Rubin seems to be open to an alliance with Democrats, assuming the donkey hews to the middle of the road. But if, as she fears, Democrats really Feel the Bern in 2020, there could be an opening for “a fiscally prudent, strong-on-defense, practical center-right candidate who has earned credibility by opposing Trump from the get-go,” running as a third party or independent candidate. And she mentions John Kasich, Mitch Daniels, Brian Sandoval, Larry Hogan, and Charlie Baker as 2020 possibilities.

Any time the subject of third-party presidential bids comes up, the very first question that must be asked is whether the putative candidacy is designed as a protest vehicle or a serious effort to win the presidency. Rubin is talking about winning. Yet she brushes off the massive evidence against the viability of third-party candidacies as irrelevant in “the age of Trump,” when anything could happen.

Some realities are more firmly established than those Trump upended in 2016. Putting aside the southern regional anti-civil-rights candidacies of 1948 and 1968, the last time a candidate from outside the donkey-elephant duopoly won a single state was in 1924, when Progressive candidate Robert LaFollette carried his own state of Wisconsin and bagged 13 electoral votes. That’s over 90 years ago. The last time before that was in 1912, when former president Theodore Roosevelt won six states and 88 electoral votes.

Look at Rubin’s list of possible candidates for 2020. Do any of them strike you as the next Theodore Roosevelt? I didn’t think so.

In a recent chat at FiveThirtyEight, focused on a scenario much like the one Rubin discusses, Perry Bacon Jr. aptly summed up the real-life prospects for a bipartisan independent Kasich-Hickenlooper ticket:

perry: So imagine that it’s September 2020 and Trump is still behaving as he did after Charlottesville and making moves in the vein of his pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The Democratic presidential nominee is Bernie Sanders. In that world, Kasich/Hickenlooper could win Utah, for sure. But I’m struggling to think of other states …

clare.malone: Would that ticket win Colorado?

perry: I don’t think so.

And the fundamental problem with a third-party candidacy is that if it doesn’t have a realistic chance of victory, it can produce perverse results — you know, like splitting the anti-Trump vote and giving the very reason for people like Rubin leaving their party a potentially calamitous second term.

If we were at a rare moment like 1860 when one of the major parties was collapsing and partisanship was fluid, it might be a different matter. But as we all understand, partisan loyalty at the polls and in Congress is at an all-time high; that’s precisely how Trump won the presidency after a hostile takeover of the GOP, and how he’s mastered his party in office despite the howls of protest from the #NeverTrumpers.

No, a “center-right” third/independent ticket in 2020 is not a lively prospect. If Jennifer Rubin doesn’t want to participate in what even she regards as a kamikaze mission to take back her old party, she needs to suck it up and join the other one. That’s the only alternative to just consigning herself like so many other #NeverTrumpers to the political margins, making acerbic comments from the sidelines while the real game is played by Republicans and Democrats.

Can a #NeverTrump Republican Win in 2020? Don’t Bet on It.