By most standards, the 2016 campaign has been bananas. A self-professed socialist has given the supposedly "inevitable" Democratic frontrunner a run for her money, while the billionaire TV personality who has become the other party's frontrunner is so completely loathed by something called the "Republican Establishment" that he now has his fellow Republicans actively looking for ways to sabotage him.
Some intra-party hostility is normal during primary season, but what's going on in the GOP has gotten legitimately apocalyptic, with prominent conservatives publicly denouncing Donald Trump, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney delivering an 18-minute speech castigating the mogul, and a bunch of Republican "operatives" holding a closed-door meeting in DC, where the idea of mounting a third party challenge to Trump was openly discussed.
That would be a desperate move, and it's almost impossible to imagine a Republican-in-everything-but-name beating both the GOP and Democrats in November. But there have been some half-cooked theories about a third-party spoiler winding up in the Oval Office via some of the more obscure machinations mandated by the 12th Amendment. To wit, if no one gets 270 electoral votes, that means the Electoral College is deadlocked, and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would pick the president, with each state's delegation counting for one vote each.
For that scenario to come to pass, the hypothetical Trump-slayer would have to win a substantial number of states, and the last third-party politician to do so was George Wallace in 1968. (Richard Nixon won, with no 12th Amendment trickery required.) 2016 has been a strange year, but is there a conceivable universe where a third-party candidate really puts a dent in the electorate, or even wins? We asked Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, to game out the possibilities with us. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Is there really going to be a competitive third party candidate in 2016?
Geoffrey Skelley: I'd say there's at least some chance of that. The obvious problem for [anti-Trump conservatives] would be finding someone to [run]. I guess it's possible that Mitt Romney might be willing to do it [because] he would be helping challenge the Republican Party in some way. But that individual would have very little chance of winning, and you would also have to know that, by doing this, you are basically guaranteeing that Hillary Clinton will be president.
Is that because a conservative third party candidate might split the Republican vote and hand all the swing states to the Democrats, like some people think happened when Ross Perot ran in 1992?
There's a debate about who would've won head to head—and actually Clinton might have won against George H.W. Bush. But there's no question that there were probably a couple of states that Clinton won that he might not have won in a head-to-head matchup.
But Trump is really nothing like George H. W. Bush in 1992. Is there an example that's more like what we're seeing now?
Really, the best example of this has to be the 1912 election. Teddy Roosevelt decides that he wants to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination because he was displeased with how Taft—who was essentially his successor—had handled the presidency. Well, Taft goes on to beat him at the convention for the nomination. Roosevelt walks out with a lot of supporters and runs as the Bull Moose Progressive Party candidate, and actually ends up finishing second in the electoral college. But [Democrat Woodrow] Wilson won forty-two percent of the vote and four hundred thirty-five electoral votes.
If no one wins two hundred seventy Electoral College votes, a vote in the House of Representatives picks the president. What would happen if there were a conservative third party candidate?
If you had a Mitt Romney running, maybe he [would win the House vote]—or someone who has that kind of clout. Romney would probably be the best example of somebody who might be able to get enough support from members of the House who are Republicans.
Is it safe to say a situation like this definitely favors conservatives, even if a Democrat wins the popular vote?
Well, here's another thing to keep in mind: You have a situation where you have a state like, Arizona—that's probably the best example—where you have four Democrats and five Republicans [in the House]. Ostensibly, you would expect the Republicans to end up getting the vote, and that Arizona would back whoever the Republican is. But what if you had three Republicans supporting Trump, two supporting Romney, but then four supporting Clinton for the Democrats. Does Arizona go to the Democrats? Did Clinton get one vote out of that?
This [ambiguity] is a very hidden problem with the Electoral College. Well, it's not even hidden! We talk about it in almost every election cycle. It never comes to pass, but when does lightning strike again? And does lightning strike in such a way that we can't determine a winner? You thought 2000 was bad? In that case, it was just arguments over the validity of certain votes in one state. It would be much more drawn-out, so yeah, it would be insane.
What makes it so hard for a third-party candidate to win a whole state?
You're not going to find a lot of people in the middle who are going to vote for this other person. A few of them do, but you're talking like roughly a tenth of the electorate that's truly independent.
What if the candidate were someone a little more left-leaning? Would that help?
People were talking about [former New York City Mayor Mike] Bloomberg running. We [at the University of Virginia] were debating internally—could Bloomberg even win a precinct in the entire country? Probably not! Every state is going to have a solid base of Democrats and Republicans who are not going to vote for an independent candidate. They are going to stick with their party, and that makes it really hard to get to a plurality. I know Gallup talks about how we have a record number of independents, but that's largely hogwash because if you push those "independents," it turns out that most of them vote one way or the other every time.
So on the whole, what happens if there's a conservative third-party candidate in the race?
It's really hard for a Republican to win.
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