A populist third party could form to capitalize on the demographic Trump crystallized.
Many predict the implosion of the Republican party through a civil war that irrevocably splits the party in two, hiving off a populist Trump-like party akin to Ross Perot’s anti-NAFTA Reform Party in the 1992 election. The Democrats relish this scenario, which let Bill Clinton win the presidency with just 43 per cent of the popular vote. But they shouldn’t. The likely loser in a new three-party system in the U.S. would be the left.
If Donald Trump loses to Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8, he’s unlikely to go away and sulk. Trump now has more than 40 per cent of the electorate behind him, tens of millions of people whose fury at the establishment has been unleashed. As Trump-detractor Mitt Romney put it recently, “there would be many, many people who still carry his banner, a banner of, if you will, anger, resentment, wanting dramatic change, different policies on immigration and trade than we have typically adopted as a party — versus those who are the more traditional, mainstream Republicans.”
Romney doubts the Republicans will get those voters back. Trump, who has been attacking Republicans with the same vitriol as he has Democrats, will make sure of it, fueling their anger with claims of an election rigged by the establishments of both parties.
If the Republicans split into two, the likely loser would be the left.
If a populist third party does form to capitalize on the protectionist, limited-immigration blue-collar demographic Trump crystallized, and if in the 2020 presidential election that third party’s candidate captures the 2016 Trump vote — or even a sizable fraction of it — it could deny both the Democratic and the Republican presidential candidates a majority of the electoral college. The House of Representatives would then be required under the U.S. Constitution to elect the president from among the top three candidates. In this scenario, the 50 state delegations (not the individual House members) would need to choose among a left-leaning Democratic party, a right-leaning populist party and a right-leaning Republican party. (The Senate would be tasked with choosing the vice president, who could be from a different party.)
If the 2020 populist party were headed by Trump or a candidate as distasteful as Trump to mainstream Republicans and Democrats, the Republican candidate would likely become president — most House delegations from populist states would prefer the Republican to the Democrat. If the 2020 populist party were headed by someone more like Ross Perot — also a firebrand but without Trump’s character drawbacks — the populist candidate might win. Perot, for example, attracted both blue-collar Democrats and anti-immigrant Republicans and at one point in the 1992 presidential race actually outpolled both Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. This third-party candidate’s popularity was all the more remarkable because the public was then less cynical about the mainstream parties: Almost 60 per cent of Americans were satisfied with the way they were governed. Today, less than half as many, 26 per cent, are satisfied, an indication of the appetite for change.
That appetite for change isn’t a one-time aberration caused by the public’s great dislike of both Trump and Clinton. In 2012, when the presidential contenders were both likeable, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, about two-thirds of the public wished that they had a third-party choice. Indeed, the current two-party system itself is largely an aberration — effectively a duopoly jointly enforced by the Democrats and Republicans to keep competing political parties out of contention. America’s founding fathers didn’t design the country’s governance system to favour the same two parties. Until the Civil War, national parties came and went, sometimes splitting, as may soon happen again. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, won in 1860 with 40 per cent of the vote in a four-party race.
If the Republican party does split into two, it will be in the interests of the two Republican factions to minimize the number of states — and thus, the electoral votes — that the Democrats can win, to deny the Democrats a majority. They could accomplish this by not competing against each other where doing so would ensure a Democratic victory.
Akin to how Republicans today don’t bother trying to win solidly red states like California or Massachusetts, and Democrats don’t bother with solidly blue states like Wyoming or Mississippi, the Republican party might leave blue-collar states like Ohio and Michigan to the populist party, and the populist party might leave more mainstream states, like North Carolina and Utah, to the Republicans. The effect would be presidential elections determined by the 50 states — very much what the founding fathers wanted.
A Republican implosion is by no means assured. A Reaganesque unifier may well emerge over the next four years with broad appeal to Republicans of all stripes. Failing that, the three-party system may make its entrance, stage right, to the unexpected dismay of Democrats.
Lawrence Solomon is policy director for Probe International. He will debate the presidential election with University of Toronto professor Clifford Orwin, at Green Beanery’s Grounds for Thought in Toronto on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 8 pm. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.