Friday, October 14, 2016

The Sky Is Blue, the Pope Is Catholic, and Evan McMullin Will Not Become President

The American founders' creation of the electoral college as our nation's unique mechanism of presidential selection offers the understandable temptation to cleverly game out odd little scenarios based on its various idiosyncrasies. Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight proposes one today which, he says, could result in neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump assuming the presidency next January, but instead a little-known candidate named Evan McMullin.

If you haven't heard of McMullin, he's a former Republican congressional aide who's running for president as an anti-Trump conservative. McMullin doesn't have much of a campaign—he's only listed on the ballot in 11 states worth a total of 84 electoral votes—but two new polls show him winning about 20 percent of the popular vote in Utah. (That Utah seems to be his best state by far is not a surprise; Trump is particularly unpopular among Mormons, who are usually staunch Republican voters, and McMullin is a Mormon himself.) In one of the polls, McMullin is actually running only four points behind both Clinton and Trump, who are tied with 26 percent apiece.

As Morris envisions it, the chain of events leading to a McMullin administration begin with our hero placing first in Utah and winning its 6 electoral votes. Then, the other 49 states (plus D.C.) would need to be divided closely enough between Clinton and Trump that neither major-party candidate collects the 270 votes necessary to win a national majority in the electoral college. The resolution of the election would then be thrown to the House of Representatives, as the Constitution provides in such circumstances; the House must choose from among the top three finishers, and each state delegation receives one collective vote regardless of size. Morris suggests that enough House Republicans would prefer McMullin to Trump that he could prevail over the GOP's official nominee in such an eventuality.

One problem with this analysis is that it's very hard to envision McMullin winning Utah under any circumstances that don't also provide Clinton with an overall majority in the electoral college. Trump would simultaneously need to collapse in Utah—where even the more McMullin-friendly poll shows him four points ahead of McMullin, and the other poll has him up by 14—while regaining his electoral standing in must-win states like Florida and North Carolina where he's currently trailing the Democratic ticket. It's hard to imagine what turn of events would produce such a strong geographic divergence in Trump's popular appeal between now and Election Day, especially since third-party candidates usually perform less well in the actual voting returns than they do in pre-election polls.

But the even more fanciful component of this scenario is the prospect of a Republican Congress blocking Trump from assuming the presidency in favor of McMullin. Such a decision would arguably represent the biggest partisan defection in the history of American politics. Given the palpable fear with which the vast majority of Republican politicians now regard their party's voters, such a revolt against the duly chosen nominee would be completely out of character for today's Republican leaders—and, in all probability, would constitute career suicide for all involved. (One can easily foresee the revenge that Trump himself would attempt to exert on House members who abandoned him in this way, with the likely support of conservative media figures and a Republican primary electorate irate about such an "undemocratic" maneuver.)

The Trump candidacy has evoked a very unusual, though understandable, response in many political analysts. Put simply, they still can't quite believe that Republicans really want Trump to be president of the United States, and therefore half-expect the party to grasp any opportunity to shove him aside. But any prediction requiring Republican politicians to nervily stand up to their own voters is especially unrealistic in the current political environment. Unless Hillary Clinton wins 270 electoral votes on November 8, expect President Trump to be sworn in on January 20.