HAIL MARY

The Republican Establishment’s Desperate Scheme to Steal the Presidency

The stop-Trump set’s latest fantasy: a third-party conservative candidate who could leave Clinton just short of the magic number.

03.22.16 4:01 AM ET

Well, now they’re really serious, they swear.

The “they” here are the Republican power people, and the thing they’re now really, really serious about is stopping Donald Trump.

Seen this movie? Yeah, I have too. But we have a new iteration now, since a lot of these folks went on the record to talk to The New York Times about their latest stop-Trump scheme. It’s desperate, it’s daft, and if it’s going to have any impact on the election it will probably be only to make it more likely that Hillary Clinton wins in November.

But there is a chance, just a chance, that it will succeed, and if it does succeed, it will produce what I have thought for some time now would be this election’s ultimate nightmare scenario: the House of Representatives appointing as president the person who finished third—a very, very distant third—in the Electoral College.

Here’s the bleak tale of how that would happen.

The Times article notes that Republicans are hoping to block Trump in Wisconsin on April 5 with either Ted Cruz or John Kasich and then build from there. But if that fails—and it’s likely to—these GOP insiders are prepared to run an “independent conservative” for president on a third-party line.

The first and most obvious question that most people would ask is, “Who is this savior?” That’s actually the least interesting question. The Times article mentions Rick Perry and former Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn. A twice-failed presidential contender and a retired senator whose with extremely limited appeal beyond the base. Yawn.

But let’s put “who” aside. The more interesting questions here are 1) How would this person get on 50 state ballots and 2) What impact on the actual vote would this candidacy have?

The answer to the first question is that this candidate wouldn’t have to get on 50 state ballots. He’d only need to get on a handful of state ballots, provided they were the right states. This may make no sense to you. How can a person win by getting on only a handful of ballots?

Here’s how. The Times story doesn’t spell all this out, probably because the players didn’t want to talk about it, but: The point of such a candidacy would not be to get 270 electoral votes. The point would be to keep Hillary Clinton from hitting that target. And Trump of course, but mostly Clinton. And if that happened, the election would get tossed to the House of Representatives.

And under the rules, the House can elevate to the presidency any of the top three finishers. You following me?

So let’s play with a scenario. This person gets on the ballot in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia… just a few electoral-vote rich states. And he somehow manages to win a few states, just enough to come to claim 70 or 80 electoral votes. He’ll be stealing most of these from Trump, so Trump will be down around 190 electoral votes. But he’ll alter the electoral chemistry in weird ways in just enough states (Florida, Ohio, maybe Virginia) that he’ll keep Clinton under 270. So let’s say it’s Election Night and the totals are—hell, let’s make it maximum-dramatic: Candidate X 79, Trump 190, and Clinton… 269.

One vote short!

What happens next? The election goes to the House of Representatives. Here’s the important thing to know about this. This is not a normal vote, in which the 435 members each have their own single vote. No. Each state delegation has one vote. So Wyoming’s one at-large representative has the same voting power as California’s 53. Further, and more to the point: The Republican Party controls a majority of 33 state delegations. The Democrats control just 14, and three are deadlocked.

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So what would the House do? It’s obvious what they’d do. Hello, President Coburn-or-whomever! No matter that Clinton came within one electoral vote of the presidency. No matter that this person finished a distant third, winning only five or six states. Because he is the Republican Party choice, the House will install him as president.

It would be a a coup d’etat by constitutional means. This would be the ultimate definition of that—shoving someone into a race he can’t possibly win just so he can get on a few ballots and keep the leader under 270, finish a distant third with a small percentage of the vote, and then be handed the keys to the White House. Yes, they would do it, in a heartbeat.

Fortunately, I doubt it can work as a practical matter. To the second question I asked above, about how this person would impact the vote, the probable answer is that he’d simply split the Republican-conservative vote and help Clinton. I mean, imagine a three-way Clinton, Trump, Rick Perry race in, say, Georgia. It’s about a 55-45 Republican state, maybe a little less. If Perry got anywhere north of 10 percent, he could hand the state to Clinton. All the important swing states are less Republican than that, meaning that in Florida or Ohio, for example, if Perry took even 5 percent, he’d ensure a Clinton win there.

Now, defenders of this stop-Trump effort might say, oh, Tomasky, you’re being too conspiratorial. We just want to get the person on as close to 50 ballots as possible and maybe then he can even win. But that seems delusional. If anything, two conservative candidates splitting the moderate-to-conservative vote ought to help the Democrat win a lot of states with something like 37 to 44 percent of the vote. Clinton could thus win Arizona, Missouri, Indiana, South Carolina, and maybe others.

That’s why at the end of the day I suspect nothing will come of this. These people leak these things to see if they can gather any momentum. And they’re just desperate to find a way to destroy the monster they created.

That’s the central fact they can’t face up to.