Evan McMullin’s bid for the presidency is a quick study. It doesn’t matter that so many state ballot deadlines have already passed. The only one that really matters for him comes on Aug. 15, when he needs to turn in 1,000 signatures to be listed as an independent presidential candidate on Utah’s ballot.
Look at the resume: a decade in the CIA, MBA from Wharton, Goldman Sachs gig, policy work on the Hill. Now that we’ve listed the unimportant parts, let’s get to the meat of the matter. McMullin was born in Provo, Utah. He is a Mormon and holds an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young. McMullin knows what’s up here, and he “plans to aggressively contest” Utah, according to BuzzFeed’s story breaking the news of his candidacy. McMullin’s first campaign logo depicts the letter “M” with one star over it. It’s an apt symbol for a candidate whose success will be measured by his ability to win one state.
The “Utah strategy” is one that Never Trump Republicans have been toying with since well before McMullin came into the picture. It was one justification for the seemingly endless efforts to recruit Mitt Romney into the race, and it’s a state in which Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is working hard as well (often in spite of himself.) McMullin’s ties to Utah make him a much more competitive fit for the state than, say, Tennessee’s David French would have been; if he has enough money behind him, it’s not out of the question that he might jump into contention in the state.
This is where the Utah strategy’s underpants-gnome problem asserts itself, though: How does a strong Utah performance, or even an outright Utah win, help Never Trumpers arrive at a January 2017 inauguration that swears in neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump?
Let’s take Trump’s clearest (still longshot) path to the presidency: holding Mitt Romney’s 2012 map and flipping Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. That gives Trump 273 electoral votes to Clinton’s 265—if Utah holds for Trump. In this scenario, McMullin can play two roles, assuming his Utah efforts are serious.
The first is to swing the election to Hillary Clinton. We don’t know how many people supporting Clinton might switch to McMullin, but chances are that in a state as red as Utah, most persuadable voters would be anti-Trump conservatives or reluctant, hold-your-nose Trump supporters. The effect, then, would be to split the state’s natural Republican majority and throw the state to Clinton by plurality, giving her 271 electoral votes and the presidency.
The second possibility for McMullin would be an outright win of the state. This is more of a test because … it’s really hard for independent or third-party presidential candidates to win states! None has done it since George Wallace took the Deep South in 1968, and he didn’t take enough states to alter the outcome of the election. But just for kicks, and because 2016 is weird, let’s say McMullin is able to take a roughly 40 percent plurality in Utah and pull off the victory, leaving Trump with 267 electoral votes to Clinton’s 265.
That would probably end in a Donald Trump presidency.
Utah-strategy proponents think that if they can get the election to the House of Representatives, they might be able to twist enough arms to throw the election to the independent candidate. Never Trumpers think that any shot to deny Trump the presidency is better than no shot at all. Reasonable enough. But still no shot at all.
Imagine you are a Republican member of Congress and Donald Trump has just won 267 electoral votes, two more than Hillary Clinton. He would have won 273 electoral votes, but for this 40-year-old ex-spook from Utah. How are you going to tell your Republican constituents, many of whom quite fancy Trump, that you cast your lot with anyone but Trump in the House of Representatives? Even though the votes would be counted by state, with each state getting one vote, it would take about five seconds of intrepid reporting to determine whom each individual member supported. The same base-driven pressures that prevented the RNC or Republican delegates from blocking Trump’s nomination at the convention, or that are forcing people like John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, and Paul Ryan to back Trump’s candidacy at arm’s length, are the same that would carry Trump through the House of Representatives. That’s especially the case if the third option is a young, unknown figure like McMullin, and not a Mitt Romney.
It’s unlikely that McMullin gets to play this role anyway. If Trump has carried Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania in the first place, he’s probably done well enough nationally to win his plurality in Utah—and also to carry some combination of Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire to render Utah’s six electoral votes moot.
But if there’s going to be a role, it doesn’t end in Evan McMullin being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. It ends in either gifting Hillary Clinton the presidency or in Republican House members personally signing off on Trump’s win. Like a lot of Never Trump conservative activity, the Utah strategy gets too cutesy with the fine print and dismisses the mass political pressures most of the party is facing.