When it first became apparent to media pundits and the Republican establishment that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was not simply going to go away -- sometime between September and October 2015 -- predictions started that he would eventually launch a third-party run, being unpalatable to many Republicans. Trump suggested this as a possibility as early as the first GOP debate.
Trump has reiterated this threat again on March 3, following former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts’ scathing attack on Trump as a “phony” and a “fraud” who is “playing the American people for suckers,” according to Politico.
But increasingly, the worries have started to swing in the other direction. There is a growing fear that Trump, unlike any previous “outsider” GOP candidate who has run a presidential campaign in recent years, is hijacking the party from within and conducting a hostile takeover.
This is why, if conservative Republicans want to protect their “brand” without being associated with Trump, they will need to openly challenge him and perhaps support a third-party conservative candidate.
If they do not want to be associated with whatever actions a future President Trump might undertake, then the best thing for the GOP establishment to do would be to try to sabotage his chances at winning the White House, even if this means a President Hillary Clinton emerges from the chaos.
Trump has so far dominated his opponents, winning 10 out of 15 early states and sparking massive, record-breaking voter turnout on the GOP side. For Republicans who want to take on Trump with a conservative third-party candidate, these voters may be out of play if a third-party candidate challenges Trump.
Georgetown University political science professor Hans Noel believes a third-party run sponsored by the Republican establishment would be risky, but may be worth it, reports International Business Times. “I think it does risk alienating some of those people, [but Trump supporters] are pre-alienated," Noel said.
He added that a third-party run would be “a viable strategy if what you want is Trump to not be the president -- which is not exactly a bad thing for Republicans to think -- because, if Trump is the nominee and he loses, then this is a blip in history.”
Such a split is probably unlikely to occur in reality, and more Republicans would likely follow the lead of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and end up backing Trump, however begrudgingly. Party splits have happened within the past century -- the 1912 election for Republicans and the 1948 election for Democrats being the biggest examples -- and it is unlikely the GOP wants to go through this wrenching process now.
But for Republicans who are more worried about what Trump will do to the party than about who wins the White House in November, a third-party run and split may be the best thing for the GOP in the long-term, as it will eventually have reconstitute itself while acknowledging the huge voter base that Trump has brought in.
Ultimately, Republican elites have largely brought themselves to this point, by stoking the anger that Trump’s campaign feeds off of and encourages, but with a “principled” guise.
If the Republican Party tries to run a third-party candidate against Trump, it has a chance of getting the immediate result it wants -- a non-Trump White House -- but it may do so at the cost of imploding the party.
It’s a huge gamble, any way one looks at it.