Donald Trump’s Third-Party Tease Exposes the Failed Republican Brand

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Visits His Scottish Golf Course
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

A new poll from Rasmussen confirms that the Donald Trump phenomenon says more about the Republican party brand than the political aspirations of the real estate developer.

More than one third of likely GOP voters, 36%, say they would consider supporting Trump if he ran for President as a third-party candidate. Almost one-in-five likely GOP voters would strongly consider supporting an independent run for President.

Interestingly, the support for a third party run by Trump among the most likely Republican voters is essentially the same Trump receives from unaffiliated voters. One third of likely voters not aligned with either party would support a third party run by Trump. Just under 20% of them, 16%, would definitely support him as an independent candidate.

In reference to a Trump candidacy, then, likely Republican voters are behaving exactly the same as voters who aren’t affiliated with either party. In fact, the Republican party has a slightly less firm hold on these likely GOP voters than it has on unaffiliated voters. That ought to keep officials at the RNC awake at night.

The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. There is a strong likelihood that the contest for President will come down to Bush for the Republicans and Clinton for the Democrats. Trump could very well play the role of Ross Perot, the eccentric billionaire whose campaign was fueled by concerns over debt, the southern border and trade deals.

The Republican party has never really recovered from that schism. The elder Bush, it is important to remember, was recruited into national presidential politics by the DC Republican establishment, who were terrified at the prospect of a Ronald Reagan candidacy in 1980. Reagan, of course, won that primary and awarded Bush with the Vice-Presidency.

Bush won his own term in a landslide in 1988, largely running as a third term for Reagan. He immediately squandered that political inheritance, passing a tax increase, increasing spending on domestic programs and generally expanding the federal regulatory state. He lost reelection primarily because of conservative anger that vented itself with the Perot campaign.

The Republican party, in Congressional and state legislative races, was given a lifeline in 1994, after the early Clinton Presidency veered too far to the left. Its victories were reactions to oversteps by Democrats rather than an endorsement of its party brand.

Bush, the younger, eked out two presidential victories against deeply flawed Democrat challengers. Both victories were very near-run affairs, capitalizing on Democrat missteps and a more clinical targeting of narrow-interest voters, rather than a positive Republican vision.

After being decimated in the 2008 elections, the Republican party was again given a lifeline by voters outraged over the far-left impulses of the Obama Administration. It has won mid-term elections, which have been framed as reactions to missteps by Obama. It has lost national presidential elections, which are framed as competing visions for the country. In both 2008 and 2012, Republican candidates have suffered declines in turnout from more conservative, working-class voters.

In one respect, the Obama Administration has been an extraordinary gift for the Republican party. In all levels of government, the GOP has political power it hasn’t enjoyed in almost a century. Its challenge, though, is that this power has been amassed through promises to challenge the Obama Administration and actively overturn its policies.

Last year, a Pew Poll found that two thirds of Americans want the next President to reverse course on much of Obama’s policy agenda. Not only has the Republican party not moved in that direction, it has arguably augmented Obama’s legacy by refusing to take action against several of his largest initiatives.

The Republican party has placidly stood by while Obama implements his own amnesty program for illegal immigrants. It has led the effort to grant Obama sweeping new powers to negotiate a multi-lateral trade deal. It has also enacted legislation ensuring that Obama’s deal with Iran is implemented.

It is the failure of the Republican party to act on the promises it made to voters that is driving Trump to the top of the polls. It is also these failures that are driving a significant portion of the party’s base to flirt with supporting a third-party bid for the White House, which would ensure a Democrat victory next year.

The Republican party today is infused with the political heirlooms of those party elders who worried about a Reagan candidacy. It is not conservative and it barely understands how to speak in language that conservatives understand. In midterm elections, when the campaigns are small and localized, it will let its inner conservative out and will, almost always, win.

In national elections, though, the party panics and tries to lock away its conservative inclinations. In 1992, a billionaire called the party’s bluff and consigned it to defeat. If it happens again next year, it will again be the fault of the party, not another eccentric billionaire.