The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Kristol is ‘semi-serious’ about launching a new third party. That’s a bad idea.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, quick to recognize the trolling value of Twitter after joining late last year, has used the platform to offer a new idea in the event of a Republican nomination of Donald Trump: A third party to offer a third 2016 candidate.

A week ago, he welcomed suggestions for the name of the party on Twitter, and, on Sunday, he wondered what symbol it should use, the elephant and donkey being taken. ("Lion?" he wondered. "Australian shepherd? Ewok?") Asked if he was serious by ABC News, Kristol said he was "semi-serious."

Kristol is a member of the Republican firmament, more than its establishment. His magazine helped sculpt the neoconservative movement. Kristol himself is credited (whether he likes it or not) with maneuvering Sarah Palin into position to accept the party's 2008 vice presidential nomination. He was a staunch advocate of the war in Iraq. His father, Irving Kristol, was a prominent conservative to whom George W. Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It's no surprise, then, that Kristol sees Trump as an affront. Trump doesn't need Kristol's endorsement or the money from big Republican donors. Trump's politics, a melange of populist anger and unorthodox, effervescent policy ideas, are the last thing Kristol (or many of his peers) might find acceptable in a nominee. And Kristol doesn't.

Hence the semi-serious third party idea. The only problem, of course, is that it wouldn't work.

The American political system is not built to reward third-party or independent bids. Over the past century, there have been a number of independent bids that have pulled more than 5 percent of the national vote, including Ross Perot's 1992 and 1996 runs (garnering him 18.9 and 8.4 percent, respectively), John Anderson's 1980 campaign (6.6 percent), George Wallace in 1968 (13.5 percent) and Robert La Follette in 1924, who got 16.6 percent running as a Progressive. In no case did the candidate break 20 percent; the most electoral votes won was Wallace, with 46. Perot, who saw the highest amount of support over that time period, never won a single elector.

What's more, Kristol's concept of a third party ignores the fact that Donald Trump would have already secured an enormous amount of support from the Republican base before that happened. In the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, Trump is the preferred first or second choice of 50 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents surveyed. Two-thirds told Monmouth University earlier this month that they'd be enthusiastic or satisfied with his nomination. That might or might not hold over the long term, but it reinforces that a large part of the Republican base would go ahead and vote for the Republican nominee if it is Trump, and not jump ship for Kristol's Ewok Party.

There has been polling about a third party bid -- considering what would happen if Trump were the third-party/independent candidate. A recent USA Today/Suffolk poll suggested that 68 percent of his current Republican support would vote for him if he ran outside the party. In earlier polls, Trump often pulled more than enough support from the Republican Party to make it impossible for the Democratic nominee not to win.

That data reinforces the idea that Trump's support is loyal. But it also reinforces how many would remain loyal to the party. There's a clear reason for that. Kristol himself wrings his hands over the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency; it would be a simple and effective case for the GOP to make that backing Trump instead of Kristol's ewok was the best way to prevent a third Clinton term.

Perhaps the most obvious reason that a third-party establishment bid wouldn't make sense is that any such division could cripple the party over the long term. The establishment and the base have had an uneasy truce for years, a detente that frayed with the tea party rebellion and, in the age of Trump, is on the brink of evaporating entirely. Formally separating the establishment from the base would likely move an awful lot of money into the former camp and an awful lot of votes into the latter. The Atlantic's David Frum outlined the tension in a recent exploration of Republican politics for that magazine, suggesting a number of ways for the party's leadership to get back in sync with its members. Splitting the party in two is not an outlined option.

All of this is premature. Trump's lead is larger than it has ever been, but it's not set in stone. Early voting in New Hampshire is underway, but the real test comes more than a month from now, when we start tumbling past the early primaries and caucuses. Donald Trump could be the nominee, which I would not have said 365 days ago. But it might not be said 60 days hence. Kristol's point isn't really that he wants a third party; it's that he doesn't want Trump -- which is still very much a possibility.

Also, having an ewok as the mascot of an elite party splintered from the GOP is symbolically iffy in its own right. Docile and luxurious and only able to win crucial fights with the support of some rough-and-tumble outsiders? It's a little too on the nose.