The rise of Trump changed that. Trump’s victory in the 2016 GOP primary exposed this group’s lack of support among voters. Its preferred candidates — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich — were easily swept aside by Trump and tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). Many of these people rejected Trump from the start, refusing to endorse him and preferring to vote for Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate. But Trump’s unexpected triumph sent them reeling even further.
Today, they find themselves out of power and out of step with the broader Republican electorate. Polls show Trump remains a popular figure among Republicans. More importantly, many of the issue stances that these Republicans planning to leave the party continue to tout, such as encouraging immigration and global trade, are not shared by majorities of Republican voters. Republican dissidents may cite Trump’s character as their motivation for wanting to leave, but many are also closer on key policy issues to President Biden and his wing of the Democratic Party than they are to the GOP mainstream.
This is why any third-party effort would likely not attract many current Republicans. Even Republicans who share these views are deathly afraid of Democrats and their agenda. Third parties in the United States often attract higher levels of support early in a campaign only to lose most of those voters as they realize that their preferred candidate won’t win. There aren’t enough dissatisfied, anti-Trump Republicans to mount credible challenges in safe GOP and winnable states and seats. Ambitious Republican politicians and large donors want to be winners, not spoilers.
But winning may not be this effort’s goal. Even if this new party attracted only 3 to 5 percent of the total vote in the 2022 midterms, that small difference could be enough to make a difference. Ralph Nader’s quixotic Green Party campaign for president in 2000 only got 2.7 percent of the vote, yet his vote total exceeded George W. Bush’s winning margin in New Hampshire and Florida. Had Nader not been on the ballot, Vice President Al Gore likely would have won. A breakaway Constitutional Conservative Party, to give the venture a name, could similarly determine which party controls the House and Senate.
That might perversely work to the GOP’s advantage. Democrats attracted the lion’s share of voters who fit this group’s issue stance and demographics. Indeed, five of the eight people mentioned as potential signatories on this letter publicly announced they would vote for Biden last year, and surely others followed George W. Bush’s example of writing in a candidate or voting for Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen. Such voters also backed Democrats in the key Arizona and Georgia Senate races and many House races. These people would surely be more comfortable in this new party than in a Democratic Party that increasingly moves leftward on economics and culture. A new party that stands for the 2004-era Bush Republican principles may draw more voters from Democratic ranks than from Republicans.
This prospect should not, however, deter Republican leaders from trying to get these people back on board. The Republican Party cannot gain control of the federal government without attracting some people who did not vote for Trump. That includes expanding the party’s appeal with working-class non-Whites, but it also means getting some former Republicans back in the GOP tent. A majority party in the United States is always a coalition, and that means the ardent Trump backers need to share space with those who think Trump made himself anathema on Jan. 6. That won’t be an easy coalition to form, but it’s an effort that must be made.
Ultimately, Republicans threatening to flee will need to decide which party tent they feel less comfortable living in. Unless the demand for this new party exceeds anyone’s wildest expectations, they will have to decide whether they would rather coexist with the progressive, woke left or the Trumpist, nativist right. Politics is not the “Hokey Pokey” where people can keep putting one step in a party and take another one out.
Third parties rarely get off the ground. We’ll see whose partisan house gets smashed if this effort really takes off.