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What would happen if the GOP were to split in the 2020 election campaign?

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
We have seen many Republicans distancing themselves from President Donald Trump, while his most devoted followers not only cling to him but also pledge to cannibalize disloyal Republicans.

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.”

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/13/2017 - 09:35 am.

    The Joker in the deck

    is Bernie.
    He might also go independent (what he’s been for most of his political career) if he tries for the Democratic nomination (possible) and doesn’t get it (likely).
    In that case, we’d have a four way split, and all bets are off.
    A good argument for ranked choice voting!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/13/2017 - 11:12 am.

      The Midnight Toker

      Bernie Sanders will be 79 years old in 2020. Would he still inspire enough enthusiasm to generate a split?

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 09/13/2017 - 12:02 pm.

      Is Bernie a Dem?

      It’s my understanding that Bernie only joined the Democratic party for his run for the nomination. It’s my understanding that he left the party later. Am I wrong on that?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/13/2017 - 09:56 am.


    Indeed, Bernie and The Donald notwithstanding, the Republicrat duopoly seems, if anything, more strongly entrenched than ever.

    One of the truisms of American politics used to be the image of warring Democrats forming their “circular firing squad,” while tolerant Republicans insisted they had a “big tent” that welcomed all sorts of people, ethnically and ideologically. Both of those memes seem more than a little outdated in 2017. “Circular firing squad” is a metaphor that could easily fit both parties now, and every faction within both parties, especially in the Republican realm, seems less and less inclined to erect a “big tent.” Instead, the tent, if it ever existed, keeps getting smaller, which doesn’t bode well, in my opinion, for a political culture increasingly dependent upon that Republicrat duopoly.

    2020 seems a long way into the future, but in political terms, the race has already begun, with 2018’s Congressional elections already on the doorstep. Trump may not (I hope) fit the mold as a stereotypical Republican, but who among 2016’s also-rans is going to step in to become the GOP’s national leader? Every 2016 alternative had plenty of negatives, none of which have gone away since then.

    Much the same can be said on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton remains very popular among some Democrats, very much disliked among others, and of course she’s widely loathed by Trump supporters, and to pretty much the same degree, as Trump is loathed by many Democrats. Having already declared that she won’t seek office again, and given Sanders’ age, I don’t see any obvious national leaders among Democrats, either, at least at this point. Elizabeth Warren will appeal to a sizable segment of the electorate, but age works against her, and not everyone who isn’t a Trump loyalist wants to be “progressive” in the way that Warren represents.

    And, it occurs to me, what might happen if there’s no consensus? What if both parties fragment and there’s no rallying around a single candidate? Our system isn’t prepared for anything like that at this point.

    But, much like Eric, I’m cautiously skeptical of those kinds of scenarios. I expect the duopoly to be maintained, largely because so many People of Money and People of Influence have so great a vested interest in its continuation that, even in a dysfunctional condition, it seems likely to continue.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/13/2017 - 10:36 am.

    Also skeptical but. . . .

    I wonder how those who think a breakup of the Republican Party is possible think it might happen? There was no breakup threatened in 2016 because Trump won clearly enough delegates to the national convention to ensure nomination as the endorsed candidate. The party entered Congress and the Senate in January, 2017 with enough of the leadership from the previous term to ensure continued solidarity at that level. But you still have a division between the Freedom Caucus and those who lean that way and the “never-Trumps.”

    The division between the never-Trumps and the pro-Trumps has really only been ripening in the past nine months. The question is how will this division play out in the 2018 and 2020 primaries and state and local caucuses? Will Republicans in states like Minnesota face further challenges from the Freedom Caucus types like we see in Alabama where the incumbent backed by McConnell is facing a serious Trump-backed primary challenge from former judge Roy Moore?

    It’s not clear to me how the “duopoly” plays out in terms of controlling the money which factors into federal legislative races. Is it unthinkable that a fracture in the duopoly could occur if an alternative to the RNC is created that could draw significant funds from the never Trumps to create serious third party competition for conservative dollars and political power?

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/13/2017 - 10:36 am.


    After Lincoln, the presidential candidates coming from outside the two main parties have been “third-party” candidates only in the technical sense that they are formally backed by an organization that calls itself a “party.” With the possible exception of the Wallace campaign in ’68, there has been no real effort to turn an “outsider” candidacy into a genuine political party that fields candidates for offices at multiple levels (Wallace’s American Party tried, but that happened without significant help from Wallace).

    When a “third-party” candidate runs for a big ticket office like President or Governor, it’s typically been ego-driven, or driven by one or two issues. The candidates themselves have little interest in building an organization that will play a real role in government (what did Jesse Ventura ever do for the Reform Party?). The appeal to voters is solely that of an outsider. It’s not about the real world of government, it’s about making noise and getting attention.

  5. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 09/13/2017 - 12:05 pm.

    $ = unity

    The Koch Bros will keep the Rs together and there are enough rich old white Dems to fund unity there unless there’s a charismatic challenger (E. McCarthy?) and a divisive enough issue (gender equity? health care?) to overwhelm the old folks.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/13/2017 - 12:24 pm.

    In order have a viable “split” by 2018 you would have to have a vigorous and vociferous anti-Trump movement established now.

    Minor tut-tutting is all I see–which major elected Republican has come out and said Trump is unfit for office?

    The party of principle has discovered fluidity. They’re all along for the full ride now. And all of the views that were so entertainingly displayed on Fox will make the shaft and crossarm for the cross on which the Republicans will be crucified. Maybe not in 2018, but quite likely in 2020.

    But with respect to the hurricane response, we should all be grateful that Trump watches Fox and Fox jumps all over hurricane footage.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/13/2017 - 01:03 pm.

    I’m all in

    …on Neal Rovick’s final two paragraphs. I’m especially hopeful that “…all of the views that were so entertainingly displayed on Fox will make the shaft and crossarm for the cross on which the Republicans will be crucified. Maybe not in 2018, but quite likely in 2020.” will come to pass. The consequences of that are unknowable, but I’m still optimistic enough about American society to hope that the neofascist wing of the GOP will find itself so much in the minority in electoral terms, if not in dinner-table and barroom conversation terms, that it will have rendered itself powerless.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/13/2017 - 09:34 pm.

      Schoch & Rovick

      Can keep hoping that the fever that has struck the GOP and it’s voters will break, but it won’t. We can keep waiting for the country, GOP voters, and GOP leaders to wake up and come to their senses, as we have been since 2010. That’s a sure formula for continued GOP dominance of state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. it will also result in a popular vote majority for Trump in 2020.

      What is necessary is for the Left to figure out how to appeal to more of the country and actually compete in 50 states. Because if the GOP control Washington long enough, even Ryan and McConnell will figure out how to pass legislation. It won’t be a clown car forever.

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/13/2017 - 01:38 pm.

    Trump’s possible ” ego-plus-vengeance?”

    I am glad to find out that Trump has an ego problem.

    I guess we need more humble public servants like Hilary and Bernie.

    However – Trump may not be as good of hiding his arrogant ego as Hilary and Bernie?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/13/2017 - 02:50 pm.

      “Glad to Find Out”

      It should have been painfully obvious to anyone paying attention that Trump has an ego problem. Still, better late than never.

      It does concern me that you are “glad” to learn this. Most Americans were appalled to find this out.

      “I guess we need more humble public servants like Hilary and Bernie.” When there is a private jet with “CLINTON” painted on the side, or stores start carrying “Sanders: The Board Game,” I’ll let you know what I think.

  9. Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/13/2017 - 04:02 pm.

    Don’t hold your breath

    Trump spent the primary season hurling personal insults at his opponents, and they all came around to back him. No spines to be found.

  10. Submitted by jim hughes on 09/13/2017 - 06:17 pm.

    getting on the ballot

    Isn’t getting on the ballot in 50 states the main problem for an ‘independent’? And isn’t that why Trump needs the Republican party?

    If the party manages to cut him loose and nominate someone else, wouldn’t Trump need a functioning national organization to do the work of meeting ballot requirements in every state (or at least the ones he thinks he can carry)?

    And isn’t a “functioning national organization” something that Trump probably can’t produce?

  11. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 09/14/2017 - 07:25 am.

    Maybe not a clear shot?

    I question the idea that a hypothetical split GOP and intact Democratic party necessarily means “the Dems would have a clear shot at governing and we’d see where that led.” Even if there were a split in the GOP at the presidential level, one can imagine a scenario in which the GOP still controls Congress. Only a third of the Senate would be up for re-election, incumbents in Congress have a lot of power, the split in the party might not extend down into every congressional district, and many districts might still be lopsided.

  12. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 09/16/2017 - 04:51 pm.

    I just don’t know what will happen

    The bar is now set so low that it seems anything goes. Standards of any kind are out the window. The GOP strategy to gerrymander and suppress votes has worked. Little is being done to find a 2020 candidate that isn’t establishment and 100 years old. Good grief.

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