Can a conservative nobody from North Carolina really stop Donald Trump?

'Weekly Standard's' Bill Kristol believes David French is the man like-minded Republicans can rally behind

Rupert Cornwell
Washington DC
Wednesday 01 June 2016 18:31
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<em>David French/Facebook</em>
David French/Facebook

Bill Kristol, the leading conservative commentator and visceral Donald Trump foe, has been promising he would come up with a alternative candidate for like-minded Republicans to support. He now seems to have done so, in the person of David French. To which the overwhelming response will be, David who?

Mr French, beyond doubt, is a fine man: a decorated military veteran and eminent constitutional lawyer, and like Mr Kristol a columnist (in his case for the respected conservative journal The National Review). But, assuming he agrees to run, can he be the spoiler candidate who sufficiently splits the Republican vote in November to ensure a Trump defeat? History suggests it’s possible, but unlikely.

Third party candidates have a chequered record in modern US presidential elections. They tend to actually carry states only if they have a powerful regional base (like the southern politicians Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968). In 1992 Ross Perot, a billionaire Texas businessman, made the strongest national showing by any Independent since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, gaining 19 per cent of the national vote. But because that vote was spread over the entire country, and because the US has a first-past-the-post system, he didn’t win a single state.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t shape the result. Whether Mr Perot sucked votes disproportionately from the first president Bush and handed victory to the Democrat Bill Clinton is still a matter of dispute. Eight years later though, the Green party candidate Ralph Nader almost certainly denied Al Gore the White House, and ensured victory for the younger George Bush.

Mr Nader won barely 2 per cent of the national vote, but in a cliff-hanger, that was enough. The crucial damage was done not only in the key swing state of Florida, where George W. Bush won by 537 votes, but also in tiny but eco-conscious New Hampshire where Mr Nader secured nearly 4 per cent of the vote. Without Mr Nader, the Democrat Gore would have won the state, and with it the White House.

If the contest between Mr Trump and (presumably) Hillary Clinton proved that close, then Mr French, even if he picks up a relative handful of votes, could have a decisive impact. But he would start out with big handicaps.

The consumer rights advocate Nader might have had little money, but he already enjoyed wide name recognition. Both are essential for a late entry into the presidential race. Mr French can boast neither – unlike, say, Mitt Romney, the wealthy businessman and 2012 Republican nominee, and ferocious Trump critic, who despite earlier pressure from Mr Kristol and others, declined to run this time as an Independent.

Last but not least, Mr French would not be the only Independent on the ballot. A potentially significant third party candidate is already in the field. In May, Gary Johnson, a former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, secured the nomination of the Libertarian Party. His running mate is William Weld, himself a popular and successsful former Republican governor, who ran heavily Democratic Massachusetts between 1991 and 1997.

Polls suggest 10 per cent or more of the electorate could back the Johnson/Weld ticket. Given the unprecedented unpopularity of both likely major party nominees, that figure could yet climb higher. Where Mr French would fit into this complicated picture is unclear.

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