The calm truth that lies beneath this ridiculous presidential election is that, besides a few unexpected developments, the primary process is still a fairly staid and standard affair that is progressing more or less as it was designed to do on both sides of the partisan divide. On the Democratic side, we saw a thoroughly conventional primary race between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State/Senator/First Lady Hillary Clinton that may have seemed as if it took long, but in reality ended no later than Clinton’s own 2008 failure to then-Sen. Barack Obama… on June 7, 2008.
On the Republican side, the fight was over even more quickly and we must be resigned, no matter who we support, to reading the name “Donald Trump” on our presidential ballots. But what if another candidate steps up? Maybe we’ll see a third-party challenger change the game! There’s even been stirring within the ranks of Republican delegates to deny Trump the Republican nomination through some form of convention treachery next month. Will we see a “dark horse” ride to the rescue of moderate Republicans?
I hate to be the bearer of boring news, but no, no we won’t. And just as any discussion of Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign was purely to sell newspapers—the man didn’t even have a full slate of delegates in Pennsylvania, his own home state!—any discussion of a Mormon with handsome hair riding to mount a third-party rescue of Republican moderates on a white steed that believes in school vouchers is similarly farfetched.
Let’s be clear on what our two possible objectives are here:
1. Appear as an independent candidate unaffiliated with an established party on enough ballots to pose at least a credible challenge to Donald Trump.
2. Wrest the Republican nomination from Trump somehow.
Here are the reasons those outcomes are less believable than Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue:
Pulling a fast one on Trump at the nominating convention is incredibly difficult
This is the most recent discussion, and it’s one that Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus recently told the New York Times would require “drawing an inside straight three times in a row.” This also assumes that there is actually a candidate ready to take the nomination, which there isn’t. Trump’s erstwhile rivals in the primaries haven’t stepped up to try to argue the matter, and they would be the most likely to win such a round of chicanery and the most palatable to voters. This, by the way, is why Priebus and the RNC’s hands are essentially tied. A plurality of voters have handed the GOP this situation. Most delegates are unlikely to go back on their pledge.
As we run down our other reasons, remember: Priebus is acting very much as if he supports his party’s nominee, albeit reluctantly. He is attending fundraisers, speaking in favor of Trump (such that anyone can) and generally being the party stalwart he’s always been.
Defending Trump from such a come-from-behind effort wouldn’t take much on the RNC’s part though, because:
The general election process is actually 50 different processes…
It might be reasonable to assume that since the United States is colored in one hue on a globe and we have something called the Federal Election Commission, that running for president requires a candidate to appease just one quotidian to-do list. This couldn’t be further from reality. Each of the 50 states has its own election authority.
Even if an independent candidate performed some cold electoral calculus and determined that Connecticut or Alaska wouldn’t be worth the hassle, this effort would still require the kind of operation that can place several qualified persons in nearly every capital city in the country.
Most of those qualified persons already work for Preibus or his Democratic counterpart, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. None of those underlings would need to do much to discourage any upstarts, though, because:
Some of the deadlines have already lapsed.
It is just under five months prior to the Nov. 8 presidential elections, but it is already too late to appear as an independent presidential candidate on ballots in Texas, where an independent candidate would have needed to secure ballot access by May 9 of this year.
This effectively means that an independent candidate who runs as a spoiler against Trump can’t even compete in Texas, the largest bastion of electoral college votes in the Republican column.
Other such dates are looming or else have blown by. North Carolina’s deadline zipped past June 9, New Mexico’s will on June 30. If this seems odd to you considering the convention officially crowning Trump the nominee doesn’t start until July 18, then you understand calendars.
Many others fall somewhere in August, mere weeks away. And that poses our next problem:
These 50 separate processes are designed to be impenetrable to all but the two major parties.
Back to our Texas example: Meeting the threshold to become an independent candidate on Texas ballots requires roughly 80,000 signatures. This assumes these are all verified – meaning the names are correct and the addresses of signers can be verified – and able to stand up to the scrutiny of whatever legal challenge leveled at them by the people hired specifically by the Republican Party specifically to do that. So really, more on the order of twice or even three times that amount just to be sure.
This monumental task is often undertaken by young volunteers, and depending on the state. If it seems like the kid who took your last fast food order wasn’t sharp enough to be able to gather 500 names that are for sure all in-state residents and submit them on pieces of paper with all the information filled out correctly, that is one reason why so many smaller candidates falter. It is ridiculously easy to find fault with a page of signatures. I once sat on the couch with a ladyfriend while we watched Breakfast At Tiffany’s and invalidated like, five of them.
Even with a strong ground game – a ground game nowhere in evidence as I write this – it would still take months.
This is one of the more bewildering aspects of politics that newcomers often discover, yet:
This difficulty keeps elections from being even worse middle school food fights than they already are
As I discovered while reporting on one indescribably silly local election, petition signatures actually function as a very clear litmus test of whether or not people attempting to run for office are actually completely insane. To spare you the link I just threw down, that race was one wherein a weird situation led to a much lower than normal threshold of petition signatures to run for a city council seat.
As a direct result, a deep bench of weirdoes came out to play, including a convicted felon who had been arrested by a police officer who was also running. None of them should have been trusted with the second shift of a department store appliance section (except the guy who actually was in charge of one…), let alone a seat on a city council.
Okay, you might say, what about the existing third parties, like the Green or Libertarian Party? Surely a viable Republican like Rand Paul or Ben Sasse could hop in there just like Sanders hopped into the Democratic party, right? Well…
Those parties already selected their candidates, and they’ve already lost the election because you barely know who they are
I seriously had to look up who the Green Party candidate is. (It is physician and Harvard Medical School graduate Jill Stein, who has raised a whopping $652,000 as of the end of May – or roughly what Clinton’s campaign might spend on a couple of direct marketing buys in May of last year. The most recent FEC numbers seem to indicate she has less than $200,000 cash on hand.)
Libertarian Party Chairman Nicholas Sarwark (who one would think might have at least some incentive to overstate things on this subject) said in a recent interview that Trump’s nomination has seen a lot of Republicans jumping ship and registering to vote as Libertarian. This is good for the Libertarian Party, but not for establishment Republicans looking to co-opt the movement: They already nominated Gary Johnson.
And Johnson, similarly, was not pulling astounding fundraising numbers – having raised roughly $2.4 million on his most recent reports.
Money and media exposure aren’t absolutely everything, but in a society where the majority of eligible voters normally don’t bother, a candidate with even less lead-time than Stein and Johnson – who have both been working at this at least as long as Clinton and Sanders and Trump have been – is probably not going to win a single state.
I’ve heard friends growl about how this process favors established parties and discourages change, and I get the frustration. But, and this is key here: It does also safeguard against exactly the kind of havoc Trump is wreaking now. Seventeen weak candidates split the vote enough to make The Donald – a force of heedless, thoughtless chaos – the inevitable nominee.
And that’s really my point. We talk of right and left, of conservative and progressive, but the deepest existential conflict for any long-term observer in politics is the one between “revolutionary passion (that shows up a day late and a dollar short)” vs. “sociopathic stagnation (that understands how to fund schools).”
One of those can only occasionally get it together enough to get on a ballot. The other has held the Oval Office for 44 consecutive presidencies.