Politics

Don’t Count Out Third-Party Candidates

Republican anti-Trump candidate could be 'Lesser of two evils' campaign

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is running a third-party presidential candidate as a Libertarian. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mainstream Republicans are hunting for a third-party candidate to run against presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump in the general election, a last-ditch effort that could cost Trump votes, but could also pull them away from Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.  

According to FiveThirtyEight , more than half the electorate has a low opinion of Trump: The percentage of those who have a "strongly unfavorable" opinion of the billionaire businessman was an unprecedented 53 percent in polls taken within the past month. But Clinton's numbers are also unprecedented — while she trails Trump in the “strongly unfavorable” category by double digits, her 37 percent disapproval rating would be the second-highest of any presidential nominee.  

“Voters see this campaign, for now, as truly a choice between the lesser of two evils,” FiveThirtyEight analyst Harry Enten suggested.  

Third party campaigns have, in recent history, produced mixed results. Green Party nominee Ralph Nader earned nearly 3 million votes in 2000, carving out a niche for himself in an election where the margin of victory was less than two percentage points. Independent Ross Perot earned nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992, taking 20 million voters away from the two mainstream candidates.  

Republicans blame Perot for handing Bill Clinton the presidency that year, while Democrats insist Nader cost Al Gore the White House at the end of Clinton's second term.  

Trump's rise has split Republicans. The last two Republican presidents — George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — and Sen. John McCain and Mitt Romney, the party's last two presidential nominees, are skipping the Republican convention in July because of Trump.  

Speaker Paul D. Ryan last week fanned the flames by publicly announcing that he was not yet prepared to endorse Trump. And he was quoted on Monday as saying he's willing to step down as chairman of the  convention if that is what Trump wants.  

Ryan has invited Trump to meet with House leaders Thursday in an attempt to hasten the unification push Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is now spearheading.  

Others are digging in their heels.  

Weekly Standard founder William Kristol is actively courting candidates interested in disrupting the current race. According to media reports, Kristol met on May 5 with Romney, the 2012 standard-bearer, to discuss the possibility of introducing a third-party candidate into the mix.  

Kristol has approached Romney and retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis about entering the presidential race but neither appears interested in running at this time.  

“Look, it’s a free country. If people want to support Trump, they can do that,” Kristol told CNBC. “But I think it’s a mistake.”  

Other names floated include former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Former Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.  

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who is currently running for the Libertarian Party nomination, is urging everyone to keep an open mind.  

“I do think that Clinton and Trump are the two most polarizing figures in politics today. And when 50 percent of Americans now declare themselves as independent, I happen to think that they’re Libertarian. It’s just that they don’t know it,” Johnson said  Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”  

Johnson secured 1 percent of the popular vote as a third-party candidate during the 2012 election, a bid that had no real impact on the outcome. Could a late-term entry significantly switch things up this time around?  

According to a Monmouth University Poll conducted in late March, Johnson could peel off as much as 11 percent of the vote in a three-way race — potentially scoring the most support (15 percent) in Republican stongholds.  

“A vigorous third party campaign is a very real possibility this year, but it is not yet clear what the impact could be,” Monmouth pollster Patrick Murray projected in a release.  

And there’s no telling what could happen if Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders decides to go further out on his own.  

“If Romney and Bernie Sanders were both to enter the race as third-party candidates, every single state would be in play,” National Review writer Josh Gelernter asserted .  

Contact Rojas at warrenrojas@rollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @WARojas Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.