Donald Trump is now the presumed Republican candidate for President of the United States. Prior to Cruz and Kasich dropping out of the race, it was not 100% clear that Trump would achieve enough delegates to “lock” the convention, but he was vey close. I am not sure if Trump will be the only candidate on the ballot for the remaining GOP primaries. Had Cruz and Kasich remained in the race, my estimate was that Trump would be about six delegates short of a lock, but even if those candidates are still listed on some future ballots, it seems likely now that Trump will win enough delegates to go into the Republican National Convention with the required 1237 votes to take the nomination.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is far enough ahead in the Democratic Primary process to enter the convention with a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders, though not enough to lock the convention from pledged delegates. However, she has plenty of unpledged delegates that are highly likely to support her. So even if Clinton goes into the convention with less than a lock with pledged delegates, she will still win the nomination on the first ballot.
So, broadly speaking, there are two possible outcomes between now and election day. 1) Trump represents the Republicans and Clinton represents the Democrats in the general election; or 2) Something else happens.
What are the alternatives?
All of the possible alternatives have to do with the Republican Party. I’ll go over them here, but this is a rough list and there are many things to be considered deep in the details. If you have information that modifies or precludes any of this, please put it in the comments.
The Republican National Convention Goes Rogue
It is not entirely clear that the Republicans, at the convention, are required to simply vote in a ballot with pledged delegates casting their preference for the expected candidate. That is required by a rule of the convention, and the rules of the convention don’t exist until they are voted on at the outset of the convention. It is possible that the rules could be changed, and all of the delegates could be released to vote for whomever they want on the first ballot. I am fairly certain that there is not a hard and fast way to prevent this, even though it would be very messy to do so.
If that happened, Trump would probably not get a majority of votes on the first ballot, simply because other candidates, especially Cruz, have played a better ground game than Trump in several states. A good number of the delegates pledged to Trump will jettison The Donald the first chance they get.
This will not bring an alternative candidate to a majority position, or even close. But it would allow the convention to proceed pretty much as though the entire Republican Primary season never happened. Likely it would allow any name to be entered into the nomination.
If, at the start of the convention, the pledged delegate rule is changed or thrown out, expect a strategy to be in place, for one or two candidates not including Trump (and, likely, not including Cruz either) to be nominated. In other words, for this extreme event to happen, there will likely be people in the party with a plan to nominate someone in particular. My money is on Paul Ryan, but that is mainly because he is so adamant on not being a nominee for president, which is a sure sign with Ryan that he wants to be a nominee for president.
An Full On Independent (third party) Candidacy Emerges
Is is possible for a third party candidate, running as an independent, to emerge from the apparent wreckage of the Republican Party. This would have to happen before the convention.
In order for an independent candidate to run, it is generally the case that a petition with a set minimum number of names has to be submitted to the state authorities before a certain deadline. A few deadlines are in June, many in July, but I think most are in August. To get a name on every state’s ballot (plus DC) about 880,000 signatures in total would have to be obtained. This would also require all the efforts in each state to pick one candidate to get behind, presumably. This is extreme, but doable, and if it is going to be done, you’ll know about it soon because those petitions would start circulating within the next few weeks.
A Spoiler Independent Candidate Emerges
The independent candidate does not have to be on all of the state’s ballots to affect the election.
Assume that Hillary Clinton is going to beat Donald Trump, and thus, in a two way race, achieve an electoral majority. But, also, assume that some people who would vote for Clinton over Trump would vote for an independent candidate rather than Clinton. If this could be forced in just one state or two, that could put Clinton at below 50% of the electoral vote, beating Trump who would also be below 50% of the electoral vote.
This would mean that the Electoral College would not be able to chose a candidate, and the decision goes to the House of Representatives.
But could you really do this? Because the Electoral College is generally winner take all, the spoiler candidate has to get a majority vote in a state to take those Electors away from the main candidates. But, since this strategy would emerge among Republicans and their ilk, but be directed against Clinton, that would require getting a LOT of Clinton voters to switch to the third party candidate.
There are some indications that a double digit percentage of Sanders supporters (between 10 and 20%) are “Bernie or Busters.” One might assume that there are more Bernie or Busters in states Bernie Sanders won in. This would have to be a state Clinton is likely to win in during the General, since the idea is to take away some of her Electoral votes. So, such states could be targeted with the independent candidate. Perhaps the independent candidate could even run a campaign that would specifically appeal to former Sanders supporters. Sanders won plenty of small states where a huge effort might allow an independent to grab those electoral votes. If the difference between Trump and Clinton is small enough, Clinton’s majority could be forced below 50% with one state.
Nebraska and Maine do not have winner take all rules. Sanders won both states, but Nebraska is red, while Maine is blue. I’m going to guess that the Bernie or Bust movement is at least average-strong if not very strong in Maine. Maine has 4 electoral votes, so even winning the entire state would not take a lot of Clinton votes away, but the point is that a number from 1 to 4 could be removed from her column in Maine.
Among blue states, Sanders did well this primary season so far in Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington, and Michigan, and a few others. He will likely do well in California. So, using the idea that states where Sanders dis well in the primary are ripe for picking off Clinton with a third party, a focus on Michigan (16 electoral votes), California (55 electoral votes) and a couple of others might work. However, these larger, bluer, states are less likely to be fooled into voting for an independent.
A better strategy might be two work the marginal states where Sanders did well. These are states that Clinton could win, but where the right third party candidate could take that win away. Florida comes to mind. Imagine a strong Florida candidate running as the independent. Even better might be a coalition of smaller Sanders-favoring not too blue states, such as Wisconsin.
(Yes, you may be thinking at this moment that this strategy could be run for Sanders himself, but remember, the strategy here is to take a few electoral votes away from Clinton so a Republican House gets to decide the outcome of the election.)
In any event, there is probably an analysis one could do that estimates Clinton’s electoral lead, then finds states where Clinton would likely win but where a third party candidate could take that lead away from her, which add up to enough electoral votes to manage this, and then find the right candidate. I’m fairly sure that somebody in the GOP is working out these numbers as we speak.
The House proportions itself out to 50 votes, one for each state. (DC is left out of the process). The majority of members in a state must agree on a candidate, or that vote is simply lost (i.e., if there is a tie among members of the house for a given state). Obviously, this gets pretty complicated. A state with mostly members of one party might vote for that party’s candidate, but if there is a third candidate, that could split out the majority causing the other party’s candidate to win, or causing a tie, in a few states.
If the House is unable to elect a president, this goes tot he Senate.
By the way, the Congress that would be doing all this is the newly elected one. So, that might be a Republican House, or maybe not. It might be a Democratic Senate. Or maybe not.
Electors Go Rogue
The Electors in the Electoral College, from most states, are required to vote en masse (winner take all) for the candidate that won that state’s popular vote. (There are a few exceptions.) But the Federal system does not require this, and from the point of view of the national election, the Electors can do what they want. The states compel the electors to follow the state’s rule with various threats, possibly including jail time, often a fine. However, it is not clear that these threats can be carried out. This has not been tested sufficiently in court. Were it to be tested, it might be tested in the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court is short a Justice, so who knows how that will go.
It is also conceivable that rogue electors would not be punished if they went rogue this year. It is even conceivable that some rogue electors will be given a ticker tape parade.
But what would these electors do? They could ignore a third party candidate that happened to win their state, or they could vote for the minority candidate because they can’t stomach the majority candidate.
If something like this happened, this might be the year we see a serious movement to amend the part of the Constitution that specified the Electoral College. Then, we can witness the fight between the small states (they benefit from the current system) and large states!
Probably none of this will happen. Probably, Trump will be anointed at the convention (after a few broken bones and maybe a few shots fired). Clinton will mop the floor with him in November. But, who knows?
I do expect an outcry from various quarters to reform both the primary and election processes. I expect that outcry to die down and be forgotten, but a few reforms to be put in place in the Democratic Party anyway, because people in the party are already part of that outcry. And,really, the big question is what is going to happen in Congress this year, and in two years. Don’t lose sight of that very important question.