Mark Halperin: If you spend a lot of money it's possible to get in enough ballots to keep either Clinton or Trump from 270, it's possible. … With a lot of money and a well-organized effort you can get in enough ballots to block anybody from getting 270.
Steve Rattner: That is probably true, and I guess the one strategy you can do if you're a real conservative and you want to elect a real conservative, you can block somebody from getting 270; you get in the House, and then the House presumably votes for you, the real conservative rather than the Republican nominee. That could be the one three corner shot you could try to play.
Walter Isaacson: Well, that's not the most surprising shot — clearly if you're a real conservative Republican and you run and turn out more conservative voters and Republicans continue to control the House partly because of that, then the Republicans in the House get to decide who they want to vote for as president, if there's a deadlock in the electoral college. And they're probably not going to choose Trump. So, you know, it seems that there should be a little bit more thinking of this. And I like the way you all came out on it.
Right now Clinton has the inside track to a majority of the Electoral College. Polls are a little dodgy at this early stage of the race, but most forecasters assume Clinton would win something like the states President Obama won in 2012, and perhaps some more if Trump fails to consolidate his party. That assumption isn’t terribly important. What’s important is that adding a right-wing splinter candidate would not reduce Clinton’s share of the Electoral College at all. It would increase it. Every state gives its electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most votes. If Clinton wins 51 percent of the vote in Florida, she gets all 29 electoral votes from Florida. Crucially, states do not require a candidate to have a majority in order to win the state. And a right-wing independent candidate will draw overwhelmingly from Trump’s support. So an independent would not take any states away from Clinton.
Instead, that candidate would make it possible for Clinton to win a bunch of states without a majority. States where Clinton might otherwise fall a bit short of Trump would become blue states. Suppose in a two-candidate race that, say, Texas would give Trump 53 percent and Clinton 47 percent, giving Trump all 38 electoral votes from Texas. Then Ben Sasse jumps in the race and takes 10 percent of the vote, all of it coming from Trump. Now Texas is 47 percent Clinton, 43 percent Trump, and 10 percent Sasse.
Now, Halperin raises a different possibility — that an independent like Sasse could win purple states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. But that scenario is completely fantastical. Winning purple states that Democrats have won each of the last two elections is hard. Doing it without a major-party label, and while splitting the vote with the Republican candidate, is impossible. Neither Ben Sasse, Bill Kristol, nor the reanimated corpse of Ronald Reagan is going to win a three-way race against Hillary Clinton in any purple state when Donald Trump is taking conservative votes and running under the Republican banner. The third-party candidate could push any number of states to Clinton, depending on how well they perform, but they're not going to take any states away, which is the element required to make the plan work.
It’s conceivable, though extremely unlikely, that the independent candidate could win a handful of deep-red states whose Republican voters could be persuaded to abandon the party’s official nominee and vote independent en masse. (Keep in mind, Republican elites tried to do versions of this in the primary and mostly failed.) But they’re not going to pull it off in states where their margin of error is tiny, and even losing a couple of percentage points of the vote to Trump would be fatal. Running a third-party protest candidate against Trump as a moral gesture might make sense. Doing it in hopes of stealing the election is the dumbest anti-Trump plan anybody has thought up yet.
One of the things you do when you are positioning yourself for a future presidential run is to pose as a party loyalist and then volunteer for down-ballot drudge work. That's how Richard Nixon rehabilitated himself in 1964, and why he had an enormous advantage over Nelson Rockefeller — who attacked Goldwater supporters at the convention and refused to lift a finger for the ticket in the general election — in 1968. When Ronald Reagan jumped into the '68 race very late and Nixon was trying to hold the line against the wildly popular Californian among Southern conservatives, his loyalty to Goldwater probably saved the day. That's the context in which we should understand the decisions by Ted Cruz and John Kasich to fold their tents before it was mathematically necessary this year. Why make permanent enemies of Trump supporters? Both these men are almost certainly thinking about giving it another whirl in 2020, after Trump's inevitable defeat. Being the party loyalist who nonetheless offers the party a very different future is the safest course of action.
Anyone who actually joins Trump's ticket or gets too close to the fire of the Donald's rhetoric, on the other hand, is probably not thinking about 2020.
There will be other would-be shapers of the post-Trump Republican Party as well, whether it's another White House candidate from the Family Paul, or fresh faces nobody's thinking about. But the great thing about the impending Trump disaster is that none of the survivors will get blamed and everyone can pretend it was a one-off aberration — a sort of natural disaster — that need not recur. It will help enormously that 2018 — like 1966 — should be a very good year for the GOP. Thanks to fortuitous turnout patterns, midterms are now always elections where Republicans should be better than external circumstances might suggest. The midterm in a third straight Democratic administration should be especially strong for the "out party." The Senate landscape for 2018 is almost impossibly pro-Republican. And on top of everything else, the more down-ballot damage the party suffers this November, the more likely crazy-large gains will be two years later. Indeed, it will be easy for Republicans to point to 2010, 2014, and 2018 and argue that there's nothing wrong with the GOP that the right presidential candidate cannot fix.
And without a doubt, that candidate is looking at him- or herself in the mirror each morning.
Yeah, it's groan-inducing to say this, and not something I want to be true at all. But thanks to the newly minted 2016 Republican presidential nominee, the 2020 Invisible Primary has already begun.