I did a radio interview this morning on recent moves by Mitt Romney and others to recruit a normal, conservative Republican to run for president as a third party candidate, given that Republican voters decided not to nominate one this year. Kasich has already taken himself out of the running, but Mitt might find somebody. What's going on here?
Let's start with the obvious. What chance would a conservative, third-party candidate have of winning? Zero. What chance would Hillary have of winning with such a candidate on the ballot? 100%. So why bother?
1) Most observers think Trump is a weak general election candidate. Soon I will revive the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series with more on why Trump might out-perform our expectations, but let's say that conventional wisdom is right. If so, then the Republicans have already lost 2016, so there is no cost to a third-party run.
2) If 2016 is a lost cause, then the question is about the future of the Republican Party. As a general rule, I am skeptical of demography-as-destiny arguments, but Latinos are a large and growing demographic. Republicans poll badly with Latinos, and Trump would only make it worse while locking in the demographic for Democrats for who-knows-how-long. If the party establishment disavows him, perhaps the damage is only short-term.
3) The American political system, like all electoral systems, is party-based. Without a party, you've got a real problem trying to get your way on policy. The conservative movement only works if it is in control of a party. If Donald Trump is in control of the Republican Party, then the conservative movement is not, and regaining control of the party means wrestling it away from Trump. This sounds like a job for Dennis Hastert! Trump has about the right maturity level for him anyway...
4) Not everything is about ideology. Remember "valence?" (See my comments here and here). What if Romney and the others actually think that Trump is just too dangerous to be trusted with power, but can't bring themselves to vote for Hillary? The answer is to actively undermine Trump with a third-party run. It is a way to hand the election to Hillary without acknowledging that this is the goal. It is worth pointing out Romney's past here. He is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney recognized that the politics of the state required him to be a moderate-to-liberal-leaning Republican. When running for the Republican presidential nomination, he moved right. Why? Because that is what he thought the Republican electorate demanded. While Trump's victory this year undercuts that claim, the pattern indicates a level of pragmatism. That pragmatism requires a distrust of Trump.
Which, if any of these, are Romney's thoughts? I don't know. This year is just weird, and everybody is freaking out. So, take it away, Frank!