As Donald Trump’s chances of becoming the 45th President of the United States have plummeted over the last ten days (13 points behind Hillary Clinton among likely voters in the latest Monmouth University poll released today) there has been growing speculation that the Republican Party might need a Plan B to stay in the running.
Last week, ABC News announced that Senior Republican Party officials were trying to work out what steps they would need to take to run a Republican candidate if Trump decided to withdraw rather than face electoral humiliation. Today, we heard that Evan McMullin, a previously little-known conservative Republican, is considering standing as an independent.
Whilst the speculation is intriguing, neither option seems particularly likely. The reason? Each state has deadlines for getting the names of presidential candidates on the ballot paper and time is running against alternatives.
First, let us look at McMullin’s independent conservative candidature proposal. According to research carried out by Ballotpedia, it is already too late to register as an independent candidate in 26 of the 50 states, worth 294 of the 538 electoral college votes. Another seven states (including the largest, California), as well as Washington DC, have deadlines this week. That is another 103 electoral college votes, leaving only 141 up for grabs.
The map below shows the states where the deadline for independents to register has already passed (in grey), those where the deadline is this week (dark green) and those where the deadline is later (light green).
But getting on the ballot paper in the first place is not straight forward for an independent – they need the signatures of electors in the state to register their candidacy. In some states, the requirements are quite lax: getting on the ballot paper in Tennessee (deadline a week Thursday) only needs 275 signatures. Getting on the ballot in California (papers due in on Friday) however requires 178,000 signatures. Getting all the signatures needed fast enough for a candidacy to be meaningful looks like a logistical impossibility from a standing start.
So, the McMullin approach looks doomed for any candidate who has not already got their papers in. More practical is the other option: that Trump stands down and the Republican National Committee appoint an alternative.
The state deadlines for the two main parties tend to be a little more lenient than for independents. We have however already passed the deadline for four states – Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey and West Virginia – all based on a timescale based on the end of the party conventions. Delaware and New Jersey were unlikely to be won by the Republicans but Michigan was a rustbelt state that Trump’s strategy might target and West Virginia has been a solid Republican state in recent elections.
Two more have deadlines this week, including key swing state Ohio. Next week sees two states that the Republicans ought to win, Missouri and Louisiana, along with another key swing state, Iowa. Those states bring us up to 83 electoral college votes, of which 26 are currently showing in the polls as going Republican.
Another seven states have a deadline by the end of the month: another 83 electoral college votes, this time 47 of which are currently polling Republican. The cream of the crop of these is Texas, with 38 votes, second only to California in its political weight in the college.
Our map below shows these deadlines: shades of blue for August deadlines and light yellow for the first week in September (including the largest swing state, Florida).
Many Republicans would be extremely concerned about some of the blue states above going Democrat blue in November by default because there was no Republican on the ballot. The ABC report talked about the RNC having an alternative in place by “early September”. But by 6 September, a total of 233 electoral college votes would have gone.
But if the Republicans already think they are going to lose with Trump, does this matter? After all, a Trump withdrawal gives them an excuse that could help them construct a positive narrative for future elections. There is also a concern that a negative reaction to Trump could have an impact “down ticket” in the elections – that Republicans standing to be Senators, Congressmen or for state offices could lose votes as a result.
That latter factor, however, cuts both ways. For example, if I was Rob Portman (the Republican senator for Ohio standing for re-election), I would want Trump to stay on the ballot. Assuming that a replacement will not be found by Wednesday, a Trump withdrawal would mean having no Republican on the ballot paper, meaning some Republican voters would be likely to stay at home.
Portman won his seat in 2010, as part of the Tea Party election – a strong year for the Republicans. That year, he won comfortably in this frequently marginal state, taking 57% of the vote, a total of 2,125,810 votes going his way.
But two years later the state’s other senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown, also won, helped by Obama’s re-election. Brown won 2,762,757 votes, 50.7% of the votes cast in a tight election. Obama won a nearly identical 50.6% of the vote in the state at the same election.
The risk for Portman therefore is that even if he got as many votes as he did in 2010, only having the Democratic candidate for president on the ballot paper would bring those additional Democratic voters to the polling station without a similar effect on the Republican side. Even if this was only replicating the 2012 result, that is a loss by over 600,000 votes.
So, Senators and Congressmen facing tight elections are likely to want a Republican candidate for president on the ballot paper, even one as flawed as Trump.
The only way Trump does not stand is if he erratically decides to flounce out of the race. I think he has too much ego for that.