Would Rand Paul Be a Viable Third-Party Candidate for President?

In a recent opinion piece that ran in The Hill, I offered a scenario in which the Libertarian Party candidate could be elected as president in 2020. It’s unlikely, to be sure, but not as unlikely as at first it appears.

To be in the running, a candidate would need to receive only enough electoral votes to win a few states–enough to keep the Republican and Democrat candidates from winning an electoral majority. For example, in a close election, a third-party candidate might only win Texas and its 38 electoral votes to prevent anyone from gaining an electoral majority.

If no candidate receives an electoral majority, the president is then chosen by the House of Representatives from among the top three electoral vote recipients. Enough Republicans are dissatisfied with President Trump that they might consider a third-party candidate, and while we don’t yet know who the Democratic candidate will be, a look at the current contenders suggests that that person may be far enough outside the mainstream to produce a coalition of Democratic and Republican House members who would select the third-party candidate.

For that to happen, the third-party candidate would have to be somebody (1) who could win some states to gain enough electoral votes to throw the election to the House, and (2) who Representatives might choose over either the Democrat or Republican.

Since my piece ran in The Hill, I’ve been asked who that might be. While this whole scenario is a long shot, one person who might be able to gain enough support is Rand Paul.

Senator Paul (R-KY) already has national name recognition and a libertarian orientation, which would make him a visible national candidate. And, as a member of Congress already, House members might be a little more inclined to vote for him.

In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson received the highest number of electoral votes, but not a majority, so when the House chose the president from among the top three vote-getters, they put John Quincy Adams–one of their own–in the White House. That could happen again.

Although Senator Paul is a Republican, that affiliation would not prevent him from becoming the Libertarian candidate for president. Senator Paul’s term in the Senate does not end until 2022, so he would not have to give up his Senate seat to be the Libertarian candidate.

One strategy would be for him to say that while he doesn’t want to leave the Republican Party, he feels that President Trump is far enough away from the party’s mainstream that he is comfortable offering voters an alternative. Then, the smart strategy is to campaign hard in only a few states. In a close election he would need only a few electoral votes to be in the top three, and he could do that with far fewer popular votes than the Democratic and Republican candidates.

Many people won’t vote for third-party candidates because they think their vote is wasted, but in a scenario in which a third-party candidate made the above strategy explicit, voters might recognize that the third-party candidate has a real chance, and the “wasted vote” argument would disappear.

Yes, all of this is a long shot, but it is not as improbable as it first appears. With the right strategy, a third-party candidate with votes concentrated in a few states could be elected president, and for those who have asked me who this might be, Rand Paul is one possibility.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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