For months, voices from the #NeverTrump movement have confidently promised Americans a fifth credible presidential candidate, an alternative not only to Donald Trump but to Democratic pick Hillary Clinton, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party standard-bearer Jill Stein.
Echoing those promises, a shadowy group calling itself “Better For America,” funded by Mitt Romney associate John Kingston III, has been doing prep work for that unnamed candidate.
On August 8 the suspense, such as it was, came to an end. The candidate is David Evan McMullin, a name unfamiliar to voters but well-known on Capitol Hill. Starting as an adviser to congressional Republicans on national security issues, he rose to the position of GOP House policy chief. Now he’s running for president.
Why? The conventional wisdom says that he’s there to keep Trump out of the White House — even at the cost of a Hillary Clinton presidency — by giving anti-Trump Republican voters somewhere else to go.
I think the conventional wisdom is wrong. When we look at what McMullin and Better For America are up to, and where, two far more likely reasons leap into focus. Those reasons are:
First, to help Trump get elected, but with plausible deniability so that the GOP wins the White House without #NeverTrump leaders having to lose face by kissing the ring (“we did our best but he won anyway, guess we have to live with it”).
Secondly, to ensure that Libertarian Gary Johnson doesn’t become the first independent or third party presidential candidate to carry a state since George Wallace won Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia in 1968.
McMullin is custom-made for Utah — a native, a Mormon and a graduate of Brigham Young. Better for America seems focused on promoting him there. The organization also made a seemingly unsuccessful ballot access attempt in New Mexico.
Johnson is the former two-term Republican governor of blue New Mexico. He’s going toe-to-toe with Trump and Clinton in Utah’s polls and endorsements contest. If he’s going to win anywhere, it will be in New Mexico or Utah.
The most likely purpose of the McMullin campaign is to fragment the anti-Trump vote in New Mexico, Utah and perhaps other states, allowing Trump to win those states with smaller pluralities than he’d need in a race with fewer significant opponents — and to contain the threat of a third party breakout that might carry over into, and expand in, future elections.