It all comes down to Evan
What if it all came down to Utah? For the first time in, well, forever, that strange question is haunting the final week of the presidential campaign. And it’s all because of a last-ditch ticket backed by renegade conservatives who can’t stand Trump.
If you haven’t heard, former CIA agent and Republican staffer Evan McMullin linked up with ex-Twitter executive Mindy Finn in a bid that could prevent both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump from receiving the 270 electoral college votes needed to win outright, triggering a tiebreaker vote by the House of Representatives.
That’s where things get dicey. “The House would choose from among the top three electoral vote-getters—Trump, Clinton and McMullin,” as Laurence Arnold recently noted on Bloomberg. “Each of the 50 state delegations would get just one vote, even California’s, the largest with 53 members. A candidate who wins the support of at least 26 state delegations would become the president-elect.” Republican officials who privately oppose Trump would suddenly face a big decision.
Theoretically, at least, they could lead a principled rejection of both major candidates by traditionally-minded Republicans. They’d risk a public outcry by casting their lot for a team that won Utah alone. But maybe, the logic runs, the American people would actually breathe a collective sigh of relief, rescued from four years of bitter partisan grind. There’s precedent, however distant, for a congressional coronation; in 1825, Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in the Electoral College, 99-84, but the House broke for Adams. And in an ironic sense, McMullin would wind up less of a spoiler than Ralph Nader—the last third-party warrior to mess with the system—who’s still blamed by some sore Democrats for the Bush years.
But without a Utah win, McMullin/Finn is a footnote. Right now, the upstarts face a tight three-way race that Trump’s barely leading. And in classic Trump style, he’s bad-mouthing McMullin as a “nobody” while his surrogates and supporters set about smearing the guy. BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins recalled,
“This week, a prominent white nationalist tried to smear the candidate with a robocall in Utah claiming, among other things, that McMullin is gay. (He’s not.) The story garnered national headlines, but members of the Trump camp have been circulating rumors about McMullin for weeks.”
As strained as the attacks may be, this is politics; they do tend to have an effect.
Cognizant of the chance that Republicans desperate to sink Clinton will quietly break for Trump, the McMullin campaign has already set its sights beyond Utah. After all, a Clinton presidency could last just four years, while the GOP’s inner turmoil could persist for generations. “I believe, and Mindy believes, it's unlikely that the Republican Party will be able to make the kinds of changes it needs to make after this election,” McMullin told George Stephanopoulos. “These are generational problems. So maybe over time, over a number of decades, these changes can be made, but the reality is the conservative movement doesn't have time for that. And if the Republican Party can't make the changes, as (it) wasn't able to do after 2012, the conservative movement will need a new political vehicle.”
Does that mean “a new conservative party” is in the works? Maybe.“At the very least I believe that's a new conservative movement,” McMullin said. On Twitter, early McMullin voters echoed their candidate’s generational worries, and wishing there was a way to “shock” Trump or Clinton—“slippery,” “corrupt,” and “decadent” figures both—“back into reality without emboldening the other.”
But with everyone still so uncertain whether Trumpism will fade after Election Day, it’s important for McMullin not to get out too far ahead of disgruntled conservatives. “I don't know if McMullin can or should form a new party or a movement,” said Washington Examiner senior political columnist Tim Carney, who recently announced he wrote in McMullin for president. “Hopefully the volume of the vote for him will send a message to the GOP and the Libertarian Party that some slice of the electorate is made up of stubborn principled conservatives.” What if you threw a third party and nobody came? That’s not something the Never Trump constituency wants to find out.
Merely promising a brand-new movement entails risks too. “The question is can it become something other than just Kempism?” warned Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, a columnist at The Week, referring to the upbeat, upright free marketeering of Jack Kemp, Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996 and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s political mentor. Either way, history is already being made. “I voted for myself the other day,” McMullin recently tweeted. “It was the first time in my life that I didn't vote for a Republican.”
Even as minor parties seem primed to make a bigger impacts in the years to come, it might be a very long time before a presidential candidate says something like that again.