When Ted Cruz suspended his presidential campaign, it set off a chain reaction of frenzy and panic. The significance of the moment was clear, and it struck fear into the hearts of many conservatives: Donald Trump had effectively locked up the Republican nomination. But what happened next was a pleasant surprise to obscure political parties long relegated to the fringes of mainstream American politics. They found themselves having a moment.
In the days following Cruz’s exit from the race, the Constitution Party experienced a surge of tens of thousands of visitors flocking to its website—which crashed under the weight of people searching for an alternative candidate. Many people undoubtedly have never heard of the Constitution Party, a political party that advocates social conservatism and noninterventionist foreign policy. But it is just one of many third parties that stand to benefit from the chaos in the Republican Party. Leaders of alternative parties that hold appeal for conservatives say Trump’s rise has sparked intense interest in what they have to offer. Many hope a backlash against the billionaire candidate might even set into motion, or accelerate, a fundamental remaking of American politics.
“I’m hoping, frankly, that this is the year that the Republican Party implodes,” Peter Gemma, a member of the Constitution Party finance committee, said. “There’s just no going back from here. How different things shake out just depends on whether people try to revive the elephant [a symbol of the Republican Party] or look for something else.” Pausing, Gemma added: “And the elephant is dead; you can’t revive it.”
It’s not hard to see why Americans want something other than the status quo. A majority of them think the country is currently on the wrong track. Voters are also facing the prospect of incredibly unpopular politicians—Trump and Hillary Clinton—as likely general-election candidates. But while people across the political spectrum are dissatisfied, divisions within the Republican Party have been the starkest. With Trump looking like the new GOP standard-bearer, some Republicans have vowed to vote for Clinton instead, while others have dramatically set fire to their voter-ID cards.
Nicholas Sarwark, the chairman of the Libertarian Party, one of the most well-known U.S. third parties, is optimistic that the Republican Party will indeed self-destruct. He is quick to note that the Libertarian Party saw a surge in donations, membership applications, and inquiries in the aftermath of Cruz exiting the race and predicts that’s just the start of what’s to come. “I think more and more people will feel the need to leave the Republican Party because they have been cheated,” Sarwark said. When they do, he hopes they take refuge with the Libertarians. “We’re the only serious option for the Never Trump people,” he added.
But is the Republican Party actually crumbling? Political parties are powered by coalitions that alternately work together and compete for dominance, and no party is inherently stable. There can also be gradual shifts, however, that fundamentally reshape political parties and the coalitions that constitute them. Trump has certainly shaken up the GOP—whether the rift in the party is beyond repair remains to be seen.
There has been speculation, in the media and in conservative circles, that Trump might be a catalyst for a political realignment—one that demarcates a seismic change in the political landscape. Divisions within the Republican Party certainly appear to have grown deeper as a result of Trump’s ascendency and won’t easily be papered over. Republican elites can’t dismiss him, much as they might like to. It would be equally unlikely to think that Trump will ever be fully embraced by the spectrum of coalitions that comprise the GOP, especially given the resistance he has encountered so far.
The extent to which Trump’s candidacy has the potential to reshape the GOP may hinge on how much sway he and his acolytes ultimately win within the party. Trump could end up leading a new party coalition with lasting power and influence. Or the old guard might reassert control after the dust settles on his presidential run. “From here on out, the question becomes: How much are Trump’s supporters growing within the party and gaining adherence, and how much are Trump’s detractors losing support?” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America who has written on political realignment.
Of course, it’s easier to retroactively determine whether a seismic shift has taken place than it is to judge the significance of events in real time. There are also incentives for partisans and pundits to proclaim a realignment is underway without much evidence. Making such a claim will inevitably infuse the election with an even greater degree of drama. “It’s a mushy term that gets used in a lot of ways,” said John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University. “Sometimes people just apply it to an election outcome they view as significant for whatever reason.” Still, realignment or not, there’s no denying that Trump’s political rise has sent shockwaves through the party.
Amid the ensuing Republican unrest, third parties are likely to look increasingly promising to disaffected Republicans, or even to Democratic voters. Tensions within the GOP could do wonders for recruitment and fundraising for alternative parties. But that doesn’t mean that it’s likely that any third party will suddenly be elevated to the mainstream or elbow out one of the dominant parties. The political system is decidedly stacked against the emergence of a nationally competitive third party as a result of an electoral system that is effectively winner-take-all.
Long odds won’t stop third-party enthusiasts from hoping that the 2016 presidential race will erode two-party dominance. Tom Hoefling, the founder of America’s Party, a conservative political party, for example, thinks a new political era is already at hand. “I don’t get any joy out of the demise of the GOP, but, look, it’s dying,” said Hoefling, who says he expects to soon secure the America’s Party presidential nomination. Republicans are “killing themselves. They’re betraying their own party base,” he said. “You can only do that for so long and people start to catch on.” (Hoefling told me that in addition to his anticipated nod from America’s Party, he has already received the presidential nomination for the American Party, and he is also seeking the nomination from the American Independent Party—all conservative third parties.)
That’s not to say that there aren’t realists. The Constitution Party’s Gemma says tectonic shifts will take a long time to manifest, lamenting that many people who comfortably adhere to the current two-party system simply aren’t ready for major change. “Most conservative leaders and consultants aren’t in it for long-term realignment of the political system,” Gemma said. “They’re not in the game for principles. The idea of starting over, creating something new, that’s hard work. So there’s a hesitancy there. It’s scary.”
If nothing else, Trump’s challenges to modern-day conservative orthodoxy make it difficult for Republican elites in Washington to ignore the fact that disaffected voters are stridently opposed to the interests of many in the establishment wing of the party. Some conservative candidates running for office will surely model themselves after Trump as a result of his success. But the general election is only just about to begin, and if Trump can’t hold onto the support of voters, or if he flounders, the chances that others will imitate his style are sure to diminish. Beyond that, the mark the real-estate mogul leaves on American politics won’t be easy to untangle from the broader conflict among conservatives over the direction of the party and what it stands for, and that may not be clearly understood for years to come.