2016 Elections

The 'Anyone But Trump' Strategy of Voting

What can we expect on Saturday and beyond? A chat with RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende.

Will the real candidate please stand up?

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Super Tuesday approached, I saw people on my Facebook feed advocating strategic voting: Cast the vote that would stop Donald Trump, no matter who the other candidate was. That has only continued ever since. Ahead of Saturday's Republican caucuses in Kansas, Kentucky and Maine and primary in Louisiana, I sat down for a chat with RealClearPolitics' Sean Trende, one of my favorite political analysts, about strategic voting -- what strategies might work, where they would matter most, and how to see if this phenomenon was widespread. The following is a transcript of that chat, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Megan McArdle: As I see it, there are basically three strategies you can follow:

  1. Anyone but Trump: It doesn't matter, as long as you vote against Trump. Democrats in open primary states can play, too.
  2. Vote the leader: Pick the winner in your state, and force the nomination selection to the convention.
  3. Attempt to generate an actual alternative front-runner by voting for the national poll leader, or the most plausible candidate -- probably Marco Rubio, given that he seems to have the most support from the highest number of GOP coalitions, but possibly Ted Cruz, since he appears to be the next most appealing to Trump voters.

I'll just start by asking: Which of these would someone follow if their main priority is to defeat Trump? Or am I thinking about it all wrong?

Sean Trende: No, I think you have it basically right. I actually think that, for now, their best chance lies behind Door No. 2.

Theoretically, Door No. 3 would be best -- unite behind the best possible alternative -- but no one seems to agree on who that is. So their best bet is to try to deny Trump wins in the winner-take-all states: Vote for John Kasich in Ohio, Rubio in Florida.

Door No. 1 is a recipe for what happened on Super Tuesday: a divided opposition that proves Ben Franklin’s famous remark that if revolutionaries don’t all hang together, they all hang separately instead.

MM: What about people in proportional delegate states? I saw some friends in Kentucky suggesting that it didn't matter, since they're not winner-take-all, and therefore Cruz voters should support Cruz, while Kasich and Rubio voters should push their guy.

ST: Yeah, but the narrative matters. Trump didn't do that spectacularly well on Super Tuesday -- a little more than a third of the votes -- but the headlines were great for him because he won so many states.

If Trump wins all these states outright, he grabs the headlines, and it is harder for the alternatives to gain momentum.

MM: And what about the infamous "Rule 40" of the Republican convention, which says a candidate can't be on the ballot unless he's gotten a majority of the delegates in eight states? Does that change their calculation at all?

ST: Y'know, that's a sort of giant unknown floating around out there. My guess is that Trump gets that threshold (he already has a majority of delegates in five states), so I have to believe the Rules Committee will axe the rule before the convention votes are taken. After all, it was designed to keep mischief makers out, not to prevent a floor debate whereby Trump wins by default.

MM: Is any other candidate in any sort of position to hit the Rule 40 threshold?

ST: It's hard to say, really. If we do somehow get down to two candidates soon, it could happen. But the field is winnowing almost painfully slowly, so I just don't think there's time.

MM: A few days ago, my sense was that people were ready to line up behind either Cruz or Rubio. But that the feeling now is that there simply isn't time for the field to consolidate to the candidate they need, even if they started right now -- in part because it's still not clear who the better candidate is if you want to knock out Trump. Cruz has more delegates but less support outside of the states that have already voted.

ST: That's right. It is just this bizarre, perfect storm of events that got us to this place. I think if Kasich had dropped out, you would have seen more of a stampede to Cruz or particularly Rubio. But with his decision to stay in, I think people realize the non-Tea Party/non-Trump lane (which is big!) is split, and that makes it hard to win outright.

MM: So if you're a strategic voter, the thing to do is to check the RealClearPolitics poll average for your state on the morning of the election, and vote for whichever candidate is leading there? (Note to readers: That shameless plug for Sean's fine site was not in any way solicited. I myself check it like one of those rats in lab experiments, pressing the little lever to get another pellet.)

ST: Ha! Thank you for that. And I think that is absolutely correct (and you should check the site whether there is an election in your state or not!).

MM: So the next question then: Where are the states where this will matter most? Florida, obviously. Ohio. What states should people be watching (outside of their own state, obviously)?

ST: If it gets that far, California will be key. There are still a huge number of delegates there, and importantly, its congressional district delegates are awarded winner-take-all.

Which raises the fascinating question: Who votes in the Republican primary in the Compton district? Because they get the same number of delegates as voters in the Newport Beach district.

MM: The Republican in Compton, take note: You are suddenly the most important person in America! A lonely nation turns its eyes to you!

ST: Indeed. And there are a lot of those districts in CA. If we do somehow have a race where, say, 50 or 60 delegates separate the candidates, those voters will decide the nominee!

MM: Say Trump wins one of the big winner-take-all states. How many other states, then, need to band together to deny him the nomination?

ST: If he wins one of the winner-take-all states -- let's say Florida -- he's probably up to around 600 delegates or so. It could be higher depending on what happens in Illinois and North Carolina. But that's still a pretty far way away from 1,237. So at that point, it's a war for California, New York (where you have to like Trump's chances) and especially Pennsylvania.

But candidates would have to keep going. I think Cruz would, but Rubio would have a hard time staying in after losing Florida, and Kasich really is mostly playing a spoiler role at this point, whether he knows it or not.

MM: What are the odds that this will work? How likely is it that strategic voting can actually deny him the delegates he needs?

ST: At this point, there's still a decent chance. Quite frankly, if Trump loses Florida and Ohio, I think he has a pretty hard time making it to 1,237. To be honest, the other "pure" winner-take-all states are pretty small: Delaware, Montana, Nebraska. New Jersey and Arizona are the only two substantial "pure" winner-take-all states after March 15.

If he sweeps those states, however, it's tough, especially if he does well in between. Overall, I think it's probably a 40 percent chance he gets stopped, which I sense is on the high side for most analysts. We'll have a much better sense the Tuesday after next.

MM: So Florida and Ohio are basically the Gettysburg of the GOP counterinsurgency. They stop him there, or he probably sweeps forward to take the White House.

And do they know this? You live in Ohio: Do you see the troops amassing?

ST: I think that's absolutely correct about Gettysburg. It's actually relatively quiet here, believe it or not. But I think the campaigns are gearing up for the big push (I saw my first John Kasich ad yesterday). After Michigan, all hell breaks loose.

MM: And Rubio is reportedly canceling events everywhere else to stage his final stand in Florida.

ST: That's pretty smart on his part. He can't afford to get blown out in places like Michigan, but if he can pull out 100 delegates in Florida, he's right back in this thing.

MM: OK, the last question: If people are voting strategically on Saturday, who will they vote for in those four states? What would tell us whether that's a real factor, or just an isolated case of the Washington suburbs that nearly put Rubio over the top in Virginia?

ST: Well, as much as I do love polls, they generally had Trump much stronger than he came out in the end in those states. So I think there's some evidence of this (and also potentially of some weakening in Trump's support). If we see Cruz do surprisingly well in Louisiana, while Rubio overperforms in Kentucky, or if Kasich collapses to below 5 percent, I think you'd say there's strategic voting going on (though with Carson exiting, we probably would expect Cruz to do better than the polls show).

MM: Thank you, Mr. Trende, for providing your analysis. I'll be watching on Saturday.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.