He’s not a member of a political party. He announced his candidacy after many state filing deadlines had passed. Unless you live in Utah or have seen him own cable news hosts in recent days, you may not even know his name. So why does independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin have a better shot at making history on Election Day than Gary Johnson or Jill Stein?
The short answer is, “Because that’s how crazy a year 2016 is.” The long answer has more to do with the historically low favorability of both major party candidates and the similarly disappointing showing of third-party candidates who once thought this could be their year. And, of course, the true answer has everything to do with Utah.
McMullin, a former CIA operative, investment banker, and Chief Policy Director for the House GOP, was born in Provo and graduated from Brigham Young University before attending Wharton. He was a Republican until quite recently, and his platform includes many standard Libertarian-leaning Republican stances: He wants to replace Obamacare with a “more streamlined, pro-market” approach, opposes government “subsidization” of abortion, and generally believes in deregulation and deferring to state governments.
His support isn’t at all likely to register nationally, but McMullin’s in it to win it in Utah. Talking anti-Trumpian, Mormon values and playing up his on-the-ground foreign policy experience has already shot him up to second-place in many polls of his home state (and first in at least one), where he looks increasingly capable of coming out on top in this bizarre election year.
Mitt Romney, the first Mormon presidential candidate from a major party, won the typically red state by a wide margin in 2012, but this year’s Republican nominee has made few friends amongst the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who make up sixty percent of Utah’s population. If anything, religious “values voters” are even less likely to vote for the pro-choice, pro-marriage equality Hillary Clinton, leaving the state wide open for a third-party candidate.
Until McMullin appeared, Gary Johnson thought he would be that candidate. Johnson had high visibility, experience as Governor of New Mexico, and a uniquely unpopular set of major-party opponents, so conventional wisdom in the wake of the Republican convention held that many right-leaning voters and even some Bernie Bros were his for the taking. Anger and accusations were coming at Clinton and Trump from all angles, and the Republican was hitting all the wrong notes with the “socially liberal, fiscal conservative” crowd.
Johnson, the nominee of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” party, saw Utah as the ideal place to pick up the votes Trump was losing, and for a while he appeared to have a shot at the state’s six electoral votes. Johnson still polled well nationally in the wake of the major party conventions and his numbers in Utah were in double digits through August, peaking at a projected 14.7 percent of the vote on Sep. 11, according to FiveThirtyEight.
Trump began to spiral, which could have given Johnson the opening he needed to take the lead, but he had problems of his own. A number of high profile gaffes, such as the infamous “What is Aleppo?” moment, hurt his credibility, he failed to get what would have been a huge endorsement from Romney, and Bernie Sanders’ enthusiastic campaigning for Clinton may have brought some disgruntled potential Libertarians back into the Democratic fold.
As Johnson dealt with these setbacks, McMullin was quite literally just gearing up. He announced his candidacy—which was apparently news to his former employers in the House Republican Conference—on August 8th, after the filing deadlines to appear on the ballot in 26 states. He named his running mate, 35-year-old political and digital strategist Mindy Finn, earlier this month, at which point he had already leapfrogged Johnson in the Utah polls.
If the Johnson/Weld ticket gets five percent of the popular vote, nationally, the Libertarian Party will qualify for federal funding in the next election cycle. Doing so would be a huge step forward for any and all non-major parties in America’s two-party system, and it makes sense for Johnson to keep campaigning for this reason even when his chances of winning the election are nil.
McMullin, on the other hand, is running as an independent, not carrying anyone else’s mantle. “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” his website reads, and it seems that a strong anti-Trump, pro-conservative statement is his campaign’s highest achievable goal.
That statement could be a resounding one. Should McMullin win Utah, he would become the first third-party presidential candidate to win electoral votes since George Wallace in 1968. That would make him the first such candidate to win an electoral vote on a platform that did not aggressively endorse segregation since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. It would represent a historic failure on the part of the Republican Party, which can usually take Utah for granted, as well as the Libertarians, who try hard to position themselves as the best alternative to the GOP. It would make McMullin a nationally-known figure and a historical footnote on par with Ross Perot.
It could also—and it’s hard to stress just how improbable this is—make him president. Those who see his campaign as more than a protest are pinning their hopes on 2016 being the most bizarre election year in U.S. history, and can they be blamed for thinking it just might be?
McMullin’s unlikely path to the White House would look like this: He focuses all his energy on Utah—as he is essentially doing—and wins it, making him the third-highest electoral vote-getter. Neither Trump nor Clinton reaches 270 electoral votes, meaning there is no clear electoral college winner. From there, the election gets thrown to the House of Representatives, where Never Trump Republicans and a hitherto unheard-from cadre of Actually Maybe Not Hillary Democrats come together, finding common ground and agreeing to make Evan McMullin president.
Even for it to get to the House, it would take a nightmare showing for Clinton, in which she loses nearly every state that could possibly be considered a battleground. The more likely scenario is, of course, a Clinton victory, but McMullin has a very real shot at making his statement nonetheless. Even if he comes in second in his home state, the independent appears poised to exemplify—as if we needed another example—just how deeply unpopular every other candidate is, including the other third party nominees.