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How a third-party ticket could fix the GOP’s Trump problem

It’s a longshot, but one purpose for running a third slate would be to throw the presidential election into the U.S. House.

Donald Trump arriving at a campaign rally in Eugene, Ore., last Friday.
REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

As you read this, meetings are being held among Republicans unhappy with the all-but-certain nomination of Donald Trump about whether it is too late to launch a third-party ticket, in what states the not-officially-Republican ticket could get on the ballot, who should be on such a ticket, and/or what the impact of such an effort would be.

Weekly Standard editor, Bill Kristol, who is pushing hard for a third option, said recently on CNN that he believes there is a 50-50 chance that such ticket will be formed and will try to get on as many ballots as possible.

If I had to guess, I would guess the idea will fizzle. It’s hard to see it leading to a happy place for the Republican Party or its freaked-out-by-Trump establishment. But when the talk of this third-party ticket idea came up on “Face the Nation” Sunday, a comment by one of the righties on the panel of political experts caught me off guard. The panelist in question was Ben Domenech of The Federalist, whose righty sources are certainly more numerous than mine. He said, referring to the new third-party-for-establishment-Republicans idea:

“I certainly agree with you that it’s a challenge. But I also think that in this conversation about the third party side, there’s two aims that you would have with that. One would be to prevent either candidate from getting to the point where they have enough electoral votes. So it could throw it to the House of Representatives along the lines of what happened in the early 1800s.

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“But you could also see a situation with that where they simply want a candidate on the ballot so that Republican voters who are opposed to Trump will turn out supporting down ticket candidates.”

OK, that second reason seems rational. You’re GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan. You’ve given up on getting a Republican president under the circumstances. You’re worried about losing your majority in the House and the Senate and about Republican candidates at all levels. You believe that many Republican voters will fail to turn out at all if Trump is the nominee, so many that you may lose other races as well. So you are thinking whether getting a more typical Republican onto the ballot will help that turnout, and help your Republican candidates at other levels. Seems like a reach, but not much of one, at least for having the discussion.

It was the reference to “the early 1800s” and to “throw[ing] it to the House of Representatives” that got me. There’s only one election that fits. He has to be talking about 1824, the only time in history that the presidential candidate who got the most popular votes and the most electoral votes failed to win the presidency. It’s a wild tale.

Only one party

This was a brief period in U.S. history when there was only one national political party. They called themselves the Democratic Republicans and they descended from Jefferson and Madison. In 1820, Democratic Republic President James Monroe was the only candidate for president and got every electoral vote except one, which, at least according to legend, was cast by a guy who thought George Washington should be the only president to ever to win unanimously (and it worked).

The Democratic Republicans did not have a powerful or worked-out system for nominating a candidate. The nominating convention had not been invented yet. The old system in which members of Congress pretty much chose the nominee was collapsing. So four relatively powerful and popular party leaders all sought electoral votes any way they could. In some states there were elections. But in some the electors were still chosen directly by the state legislature.

If you counted the popular votes in those states that held election, Andrew Jackson, military leader and a U.S. senator from Tennessee at the time, got the most votes, but only 41 percent to 31 percent of  second-place vote-getter John Quincy Adams, the secretary of state at the time. The Electoral College (which only takes one vote) also gave Jackson the most electoral votes (99). But Adams had 84, third-place finisher William Crawford had 41 and Henry Clay had 37.

As you may know, the Electoral College system, as amended, indicated that if no one got a majority, the election was thrown into the U.S. House. The House, voting on a one-state, one-vote basis, would keep balloting until someone had the support of a majority of the states, but the House had to choose from among the top three finishers in the electoral vote. If Clay, who was speaker of the House at the time, had finished in the top three, he probably could have been elected. But he finished fourth.

Clay ended up throwing his support to Adams (the runner-up in both the popular and electoral vote) and Adams became president. He also appointed Clay to be his secretary of state. Adams was the fourth consecutive secretary of state to become president, and choosing Clay as his secretary state was widely perceived as the result of a “corrupt bargain” by which Clay would make Adams president and Adams would give Clay the job that would eventually make him the next president. (It didn’t work. Jackson ran again four years later and won in a landslide against Adams.)

Saving the GOP

Still, this story must be what Domenech means when he said one purpose for running a third slate in 2016 would be to throw the election into the House. How would that help the Repub establishment with their Trump problem?

Again, there’s only one way. It’s very unlikely, it’s triply unlikely, but it’s the only way they could be discussing where this saves the Republicans from the horrors of either a Trump presidency or a Hillary Clinton presidency.

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When Kristol, who is pushing this idea, was asked who would be the nominee, he mentioned Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. But, for the sake of discussing how it might play out, let’s assume the third party-ticket would be Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan, a replay from 2012. (Romney and Ryan are at least in the discussion on whether anti-Trump Republicans should pursue this Third Party idea.)

The Romney-Ryan ticket has to carry some states for this to work (and I have no idea whether it would carry any). It would have to carry enough states to deprive either Clinton or Trump of an Electoral College majority. The math on that is daunting, unless you believe the third-party ticket is going to carry several states. But if they do, the choice of the president is thrown into the House. For this to work, the sitting Republican House members would have to widely agree that they would vote for Romney, even though he would not be the party’s nominee and even though his ticket might have finished third in both the popular and electoral vote.

But if they did, you should know this: In the current Congress, 33 states have a majority of Republicans in their House delegations. If they all stuck together, they could make third-place finisher Romney president.

By the way, a last weird detail: In the event that nobody gets an Electoral College majority, the choice of the vice president is thrown into the Senate, and the Senate must choose from the vice presidential nominees of the top TWO finishers. If this weird scenario came to pass, and if the Romney-Ryan ticket finished third, the Senate would have to choose as vice president either Trump’s or Clinton’s running-mate.

Isn’t this a pretty system?