In 1912, after four straight Republican wins in presidential election, Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson managed to turn 41.8 percent of the popular vote into a 82 percent of the electoral vote for a “landslide” victory.
How’d that happen? Because the Republican Party split between two factions and ran two tickets. The “Regular Republicans” supported incumbent President William Howard Taft, while Taft’s predecessor/mentor-turned-foe, former Republican Teddy Roosevelt, bolted the GOP and ran as a “Bull Moose” aka “Progressive.”
That enabled Wilson to carry many states that had been solidly Republican with less than 50 percent of the vote. (Less than 40 in some cases.)
Why do I bring that up? Because all of a sudden, it’s fashionable to talk about the possibility of the Republican Party breaking into its Trumpist and non-Trumpist elements and fielding two tickets in 2020.
“In Free-Range Trump, Many See Potential for a Third Party” ran the headline in yesterday’s New York Times version of this idea.
‘Full-blown civil war’ among Republicans?
Neoconservative maven Bill Kristol is quoted in the piece thus: “I think people underestimate the extent to which the Republican Party could be in full-blown civil war by March or April of next year.” But the money quote in that piece:
“People in Washington in the political establishment who think we’ll get rid of Trump and go back to normal have made a terrible miscalculation. That’s not going to happen,” said Patrick Caddell, a political strategist who has worked for Democrats for most of his career and has warned that a breakup of the Republican Party is only a matter of time.”
Caddell, by the way, is no longer any kind of Democrat. As to his prediction, specifically of “breakup of the Republican Party” — color me cautiously skeptical.
But if his prediction comes true, and the Republicans break up while the Democrats stay together, I will remind you that the Democrats’ unofficial theme song is “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
We have seen many Republicans distancing themselves from Trump, while his most devoted followers not only cling to him but also pledge to cannibalize disloyal Repubs.
(To call anti-Trump Republicans “disloyal,” as I just did, is to suggest — which I don’t mean to do — that loyalty to a party means blind loyalty to any pussy-grabbing narcissist who happens to get elected president on the party’s ticket. But good luck explaining that to a Trump enthusiast.)
System is unhospitable to third parties
My main point for this morning, though, is that our system – unlike most others in the world – is extremely inhospitable to third parties. Yes, there was Ross Perot in 1992 (who ended up getting zero electoral votes), John Anderson in 1980 (also zero) and George Wallace in 1968 (46 electoral votes, all from the deep South).
But in the end, whatever enthusiasm a third candidate may have engendered and even given the likely possibility that they affected one major party nominee disproportionately and therefore affected the outcome, none of them came anywhere near electability because of the death-grip on power Republicratic duopoly maintains on power.
In the case of Trump and a more regular Republican competing in 2020 against a single Democrat, our winner-take-all state-by-state system almost guarantees a Democratic landslide, as it did for Wilson.
It’s also true that in other nations with other systems, multiparty races are common, as are coalition governments. France just elected a president from a party that had just been formed. Ten parties currently hold seats in the Israeli Knesset and the ruling coalition consists of six parties, any one of which could bring down the government by leaving the coalition.
But those countries have different systems. Ours has been deadly to third parties.
In 1860 – when the old U.S. Democrats and Whigs two-party system fell apart, Abraham Lincoln won a majority of the electoral vote with just 39.9 percent of the popular vote and became the first Republican president. Since then, no one outside of the Republicratic two-party duopoly has been elected president. And no non-duopolist — other than Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 (who was a special case, as a former president and lifelong Republican until running as a Bull Moose) — has ever even finished second.
Disincentives are great
I do not expect the Republicans to split up. The disincentives are just too great. I do assume that if they did split, and the Dems managed to stay together (a subject for another day, but the divide between Clintonites and Sanders-ites is real, if not as painful at the moment as the Repub version) that the Dems would have a clear shot at governing and we’d see where that led.
By the way, although several of the mechanisms that reinforce the duopoly are based in the Constitution, there is no basis to believe that the founding/framing generation intended anything of the sort. In the Constitution-framing era there was nothing remotely like a national two-party system nor any intention by the framers to create one. The framers’ idea of how presidents would get elected bears almost no real relationship to what has become our system for most of our history.
The two-party-ness did begin emerging right away: factional wars between a John Adams-Alexander Hamilton faction that became the Federalist Party and the Thomas Jefferson-James Madison faction that became the Democratic-Republicans, while Washington — the closest to a real non-partisan president we ever had — fretted about it.
Washington warned against the emerging two-party system in his farewell address. But the two-party system not only emerged, it was strengthened over and over again, in part because the two parties benefited from it.
Reading over this draft just before I send it into MinnPost headquarters, one possibility does occur to me. If Trump were to seek re-election as a Republican, and if the Republicans were to deny him their nomination, I could imagine Trump ginning up an independent candidacy on an ego-plus-vengeance basis. But if that were to happen, the Democratic band should be ready to play “Happy Days Are Here Again.”