A third-party Donald Trump candidacy — conservative and establishment Republicans’ worst nightmare — has been realized, just not where they expected.
It’s happening, it’s happening right inside their house, and it might be even more destructive to the party than predicted.
Republicans were right to fear it: If Mr. Trump ran third-party, he’d peel off the crucial voters the GOP needs to win the Electoral College and put a Republican back in the White House.
A third-party scenario would mean certain disaster for the GOP. As conservative columnist Byron York pointed out in May 2013, it isn’t the Hispanic vote that cost Republicans 2012 — Gov. Mitt Romney would have needed 73 percent of Hispanics to pull it off. Rather, it was the white vote, where a four-point gain would have sent Mr. Romney to Washington. And those are the same crucial voters who were primed to follow Mr. Trump’s parade right out of the front door.
So far, Mr. Trump hasn’t left, but he isn’t playing nice. The show goes on, but instead of the suspected circus next-door, he is performing in the GOP’s own tent.
So how is winning the Republican primary, as he is poised to do, effectively the same as — or worse than — a third-party run? First, it’s who is supporting him. Hint: It’s not the Republican base.
Even the left has noticed that Donald Trump is not a conservative; and as the more-in-depth polls show, his supporters aren’t reliably conservative either. Furthermore, they, like their ringmaster, are also not loyal Republicans.
Indeed, some of the more in-depth publicly available polls have shown that the plurality of Mr. Trump’s support among people who identify as Republicans comes from registered Democrats who defected from their party to the GOP, and are now primed to defect to Mr. Trump. The second-largest group are independent. In third place are the folks who aren’t registered at all. Finally, in fourth place, Republicans. Essentially, a coalition made up not of engaged Republicans, but of people who checked a party-affiliation box — or didn’t — when they got their first driver’s license. They qualify as “grassroots,” as in that they play a supporting role for leaders, but they are not conservatives, they are not Republicans, and they are not “the Republican base.”
Consider Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the two runners-up who have built their coalitions on conservatives, Christians, hawks, libertarians — the “base,” so to say. A Public Policy Poll released right before Christmas found that Mr. Cruz’s highest support-levels lay among “very conservative” Republican-leaning voters. The same poll found that Mr. Rubio’s highest support-levels lay comfortably among “somewhat conservative” Republican-leaning voters. Mr. Trump, by contrast, draws his highest favorability ratings among the “very liberal” Republican-leaning voters polled. No wonder reporters find Trump supporters whose second choice is Sen. Bernie Sanders.
When registered Democrats, unaffiliated voters and “very liberal” Republican-leaning voters are banding together to push a candidate to the top, it’s safe to say the Republican Party is losing control. And not just the elected leaders in Washington, nor just the intellectuals, philosophers, writers and pundits, but the base itself. Before even taking control, Trump loyalists have given a glimpse of what is to come, declaring that to be “conservative” is not to adhere to a set of principles, it’s about Mr. Trump, and whether or not you support him.
It’s easy to regard every working man outside of D.C. as “the base,” but if we’re trying to actually count what the Republican base is, surely having voted in a primary is key. Yet internal polling by Republican candidates Cruz and Rubio has shown that Mr. Trump’s supporters have far less experience participating in Republican politics than their own supporters do. And according to a massive Civis Analytics study commissioned by The New York Times, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings among the top tier of Republican loyalists — those 80 to 100 percent likely to vote in the election — is 29 percent. That’s not a small number of people, but it’s telling that the less likely a Republican-leaning voter is to show up on Election Day, the more likely they are to support Mr. Trump, cresting at 40 percent Trump-support among those with a 0 to 20 percent chance of voting.
Still, the supporters Mr. Trump can reliably count on to show up, though less, are not few, and Messrs. Cruz and Rubio know this.
No one knows how Mr. Trump’s coalition will perform next month. As pundits, pollsters and professors have explained at length, politically marginalized and non-traditional voters are difficult to count on showing up. Then, time and time again, Mr. Trump has embarrassed any and all who dare use history as a guide to predicting this race. And if he wins, unlike pundits who almost never get fired for being wrong, a lot of conservatives and Republicans from the Senate to the base will be out on the corner.
The “third-party run” where Donald Trump summons a coalition of disaffected voters to trounce Republican and conservative hopes is upon us. It just doesn’t look how people expected. Then again, none of this does.