“Don’t waste your vote.”
That’s the message conveyed to the electorate in this, the autumn of our discontent. Vote for Hillary Clinton or vote for Donald Trump. A vote for a third-party or write-in candidate is a wasted gesture.
It’s a difficult message to stomach because in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the nation has the worst electoral menu in its history. Just look at how their more articulate supporters justify their preference.
William Bennett served as Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration. He supports Trump. In a November 1 piece for FoxNews Opinion, Bennett and co-author F.H. Buckley called Trump “a Sam Slick who seemingly has taken every legal advantage offered by the Tax and Bankruptcy Codes. And you expected something better from a New York City businessman?”
On the same day that column appeared, Conor Friederdorf, political staff writer for The Atlantic, offered this ringing endorsement of Hillary Clinton: “There are so many politicians, many Republicans among them, that I would rather have as America’s president. If not for Trump, I would not even consider voting for her.”
That’s what their supporters are saying, so one can understand the vitriol spewed by their opponents. Not surprisingly, the New York Times reports today that more than eight out of ten voters are repulsed rather than excited by the campaign.
But wouldn’t a vote for anyone other than these two tawdry products be wasted?
In fact, the opposite may be true. Voting for Hillary or Trump would be wasteful because neither will be in a position to accomplish anything after winning the election. Both will face congressional or judicial investigations. Trump is scheduled to go on trial later this month for fraud concerning Trump University. If elected, he will face investigations into his Foundation, his taxes, and his supposed ties to Russia. Meanwhile, Hillary already faces investigations into her family Foundation, as well her private email server.
Neither candidate is likely to find Congress cooperative. Trump will not only face the unified opposition (and disdain) of congressional Democrats, he will also face opposition from his own party. At an October meeting of Republican activists and intellectuals at the Hoover Institution, the consensus was that the Party is “in for a pretty long civil war” after the election. Meanwhile, Republicans have already begun discussing grounds for impeachment of a President Hillary Clinton.
But even if a President Trump or a President Clinton is unable to accomplish anything, why vote for an alternative who cannot possibly win?
Well, not so fast. One outsider actually does have at least a theoretical chance.
It’s not Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson – the candidate who can’t identify Aleppo, who can’t name a single foreign leader he respects, and who isn’t sure the United States should have entered World War II.
And it’s not Green Party candidate Jill Stein – the candidate who questions the value of childhood immunization vaccines, and who promises to cut defense spending by half and to close 700 foreign bases.
It’s an independent conservative named Evan McMullin.
McMillin is a former undercover CIA officer, who moved on to political work, becoming the policy director for the House Republican Conference. On 9/11, McMullin, was taking computer training at Langley. But after the attacks, he was assigned to a foreign country (whose identity remains classified) where he gathered information on the Taliban, developed intelligence for air strikes, and searched for “high-value” al-Qaeda leaders including Osama bin Laden. According to a recent Washington Post profile, McMullin distinguished himself by “leaving the safe confines of the embassy to meet and develop human-intelligence assets.” As a Mormon, he couldn’t engage in the vices that often help forge such bonds. Instead, he relied on his own religiosity to reach out and recruit sources.
McMullin does not buy into the xenophobia infecting the Grand Old Party. He drew cheers at a recent appearance when he told the crowd: “A real conservative, when they see somebody else being attacked for their religion or their race, a real conservative will stand up and protect other people.”
McMullin has no organization and very little money. So why does he stand a chance?
McMullin has polled strongly in Utah, a traditionally deep red state, where Trump’s sordid past doesn’t sit well with Mormons. An Emerson College poll in mid-October actually had McMullin in first place, leading Trump by four points. Since then, his momentum has stalled, but he remains very much in the hunt.
Suppose McMullin carries Utah with its six electoral votes. To transform six votes into an Electoral College victory requires something of a novelist’s imagination. But, as a number of political analysts have noted, it could happen.
Under the Twelfth Amendment, if no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes (270), then the top three names go to the incoming House of Representatives, where each state delegation gets one vote. Republicans currently control 33 of the 50 House delegations. If Hillary Clinton is unable to muster a majority of the electoral college votes, then it’s safe to assume that the Republicans will maintain their dominance in the House. That means Hillary will have little chance of winning. Instead, the House will have a choice: Trump or McMullin.
Meanwhile, the Senate will be choosing the Vice President. Unlike the House, which selects among the top three, the Senate selects among the top two. That means that Tim Kaine or Mike Pence will be chosen, depending on which party gains control of the Senate (and further assuming no 50-50 tie).
The House keeps voting until inauguration day. If it has not selected a President by that date, then the Vice President – either Kaine or Pence – becomes President.
Now here it gets very interesting. A number of Republican congressmen have already come out publicly against Trump. The Democrats in the House may soon realize that they cannot elect Hillary, but they will also know that as long as McMullin stays in the game, the Republicans cannot elect Trump. Meanwhile, both parties will know that if they remain deadlocked by inauguration day, the Senate’s pick for Vice President will become President.
All this will create pressure to do a deal, and McMullin could end up the beneficiary.
Assuming Republicans maintain control of the Senate and choose Pence as Vice President, then House Democrats may throw their support behind McMullin for President, both to block Trump, and to prevent Pence from becoming President on inauguration day. Assuming Democrats gain control of the Senate and choose Kaine as Vice President, then House Republicans may decide to go with McMullin, to end the deadlock and to prevent a Kaine presidency.
There are many possible scenarios. The point is that as long as neither Clinton nor Trump manages to wins 270 electoral college votes, and as long as McMullin wins at least one state, then Evan McMullin will emerge as a major player in the post-election wheeling and dealing. Considering the hostility that many Republicans harbor against Clinton and that Democrats harbor against Trump, it is eminently reasonable to expect to see one party or the other turn to McMullin as the least bad choice.
A few weeks ago, with Hillary Clinton well ahead in the Electoral College, it made little sense to engage in such speculation. But as of today, the race has tightened to the extent that Nate Silver, of the influential FiveThirtyEight blog, has envisioned a tie: “If Clinton lost New Hampshire but won her other firewall states, each candidate would finish with 269 electoral votes, taking the election to the House of Representatives.” If McMullin can take Utah, or some other heavily Mormon state like Idaho or Wyoming, away from Trump, then these speculations will prove worth the time.
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, evoking the Jim Carrey character in Dumb and Dumber, who, upon being told that he has a one in a million chance of scoring with his love interest, slowly brightens and exclaims “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”
But this year, facing two appalling candidates, we have no alternative but to cling to such hopes, foolish or not. At minimum, selecting McMullin (he’s on the ballot in eleven states) or writing in his name, sends a message. To those who say “Don’t waste your vote,” a vote for McMullin responds “Then don’t waste our time.”