A Third-Party Candidate Is Looking More Likely

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures between rival candidates Marco Rubio, left, and Ted Cruz, right, at a debate in Detroit on March 3. A third-party candidacy is now being seriously considered by Republicans who can’t imagine themselves voting for either Trump or Hillary Clinton, and there is no obvious candidate, the author writes. Jim Young/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

At the end of last week's Republican debate, all the candidates said that they would support the Republican nominee, no matter who it is.

In post-debate commentary, this was treated by many of the pundits as inconsistent with—even a recanting of—the strong anti–Donald Trump positions articulated by Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and John Kasich during the debate. It's very hard to understand this interpretation.

The most important decision of the next president will be the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice, and probably two more over his or her first term. The effects of that nomination will be with us for perhaps 30 or 40 years.

It is reasonable to have doubts that Trump will nominate someone who can come close to filling the void left by Antonin Scalia, but we all know—to a certainty—that neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders will do that.

So it is perfectly rational for Rubio, Cruz and Kasich to say—despite their scorn for his views and temperament—that they will support his election.

What the pledges of ultimate support do, however, is probably disqualify Rubio, Cruz and Kasich to run as third-party candidates against Trump if he gets the nomination. Trump could still violate his commitment, because he seems to be able to say or do anything without losing his base, and it would not be surprising if he chose to run even if he lost the nomination in a contested convention.

The ineligibility of Rubio, Cruz and Kasich is significant, however, because a third-party candidacy is now being seriously considered by Republicans who can't imagine themselves voting for either Trump or Clinton, and there is no obvious candidate.

Trump argued in his press conference on Saturday night that a third-party candidate would throw the election to Clinton. However, if we assume that a third-party conservative actually appears—someone who represents the mainstream Republican base—it is quite possible that such a candidate could win enough states to deprive either Trump or Clinton of an electoral majority.

We should not forget that both of them will be seriously impaired candidates, not trusted by many in their respective parties or by the electorate at large.

If no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, the Constitution provides—as we all learned in Bush v. Gore—that the House of Representatives then elects the president, and, significantly, the House votes by states, with each state having one vote.

Thus, assuming that the Republicans are able to hold in the 2016 elections roughly the same number of seats they hold today, the House would elect a Republican.

There are many reasons to worry about this outcome, particularly the fact that the new president would not have the popular mandate that he or she may need in this very troubled world—but from a purely political perspective, it would preserve the Republican Party and its principles to fight another day and result in a Supreme Court nomination conservatives want.

Peter J. Wallison is the Arthur F. Burns Fellow in Financial Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. As general counsel of the U.S. Treasury Department, he had a significant role in the development of the Reagan administration's proposals for the deregulation of the financial services industry. He also served as White House counsel to President Ronald Reagan.

A Third-Party Candidate Is Looking More Likely | Opinion