A GOP Break-Away isn’t Coming

There won't be a Lincoln Party. It isn't sustainable.

To follow on from my post yesterday, and to directly address a notion from the comment section of that post, let me state unequivocally that there is not going to be a major schism in the Republican Party that creates a spoiler party. The incentives just aren’t there.

In the discussion, Michael Reynolds offered the following in the context of the potential for someone like The Lincoln Project to launch an alternative conservative party

The LP never wins anything. The Greens never win anything. What they do, occasionally, is cost the GOP of the Dems a seat. That’s what I want the new Lincoln Party to do. No, they won’t win much if anything, they’ll be spoilers. But occasionally they’ll win something – maybe a House race, maybe even a governorship in a place like Utah or Alaska.

On one level, I understand the sentiment: why can’t the Lincoln Project take its activities to this new level? And yes, if there was a third party that could glean 5% or so of the vote in some congressional races that might could make a bit of difference. (Although the margins in many congressional races are such that even a consistent 5% might not make much of a difference).

But, the reality is none of this is going to happen and I will outline why.

First and foremost it would require an awful lot of money and effort for a cause whose mission is to lose elections.

Consider that what is being asked of such a party is to siphon votes, not to win office. Running for office is hard enough and expensive enough that candidates and donors need to have some hope of winning, else why run and why contribute?

But, you say, the Libertarians do it. The Greens do it. Why not the Lincoln Party?

Well, first, the Libertarians and Greens (and the Constitutional Law Party and the Reform Party and dozens of others in recent years) really barely run. They do not raise tons of money and they do not run quality candidates. They often are not on the ballot. Further, they are a combination of true believers and/or vanity parties who run to either to try and get their ideas into the public and/or to feed the vanity of the candidate.

And yes, sometimes they matter as spoilers, but not that often. Typically they are mathematically insignificant–especially in a systemic fashion. They are usually minuscule in their effects.

It is also easier to mobilize a significant third party run for president because of the significance of the Electoral College. It is possible that third party voting in certain states in 2016, for example, cost Clinton some key states. Third party candidates in 2000 were almost certainly significant to the final outcome.

At any rate, creating enough attention and interest in a sustained way to be a loser is not going to incentivize much activity. Certainly not enough to constantly spoil elections for the Republicans.

Moreover, voters understand when a party has a chance to win and when it doesn’t. And given the choice between a party closest to their sincere preferences that will definitely lose and a party merely close to those preferences that can win, voters overwhelmingly vote for close but not quite if that party can win.

Of the many reasons I advocate for some form of proportional representation in our electoral syste, is that it provides a system wherein voters can vote their sincere preferences and those parties have a chance to win seats in the legislature. That is why there are more parties in such systems.

People aren’t going ot vote in election after election for parties that can’t win office. They just won’t (save in very small numbers).

Therefore, second, given the constraints and incentives in our system, a group like the Lincoln Project and its supporters only have one choice: vote for, and contribute to, Democrats. If one cannot support Republicans, then that is the only game in town.

This is not ideal, but it is reality.

An alternative would be to try and use the primaries to reorient the Republican Party in a more Lincoln Project orientation, a la the Tea Party. However, the main problem at the moment is that base voters in the GOP who control primaries appear more interested in MAGA types than Lincoln Project Types.

In truth, the only viable break-away would have to come from within existing Republican office-holders who were confident in re-nomination and re-election. And for it work at a scale that mattered, it would likely have to be regionally based in such a way that the local GOP would have no sway. I don’t see a basis for that at the moment.

If such a basis existed, we would not have sesen Trump do as well nationally as he did nor would the GOP have done as well with House seats.

So, again, we are trapped as a country right now because all of the mechanisms of acquiring power at the federal level in particular create incentives for two parties only.

The problem becomes, of course, a large coalition is hard to manage and whatever is done to court Lincoln Project types will, by definition, alienate and anger the liberal and progressive wings of the coalition.

I continue to fear that we have one party that is dedicated to neither democracy nor governance and the other party is not in any position to institute needed reforms to rectify the situation due to retorgrade institutions. Worse, even if the the Democrats pull out a miracle in Georgia and gain control fo the Senate, I don’t think they are prepared to engage in serious reforms. (And even worser, so to speak, Trump is currently priming elements of the public to react violently if major reforms are attempted).

FILED UNDER: Democracy, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. RaflW says:

    There are glimmers of hope in terms of ranked choice voting. Maine used in this year for federal elections, and Alaskans approved it for their primary system. MN has it for a number of cities, still working on getting it more broadly accepted.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    I agree with your analysis. I wonder, though, if the intra-party nastiness such as in Georgia will have a negative effect on turnout and support.

  3. @RaflW: The problem is, those are all still electing candidates in single-seat districts. To get to really promote a new multi-party system we need ranked-choice in multi-seat districts (also known as STV, single transferrable vote, as used in Ireland).

    Ranked-choice voting can incentivize some party formation, as voters have more of an incentive to rank their sincere preference first, so more first round votes. However, what it ultimately does is guarantee a candidate supported by an absolute majority of voters.

    I am skeptical of the significance of the AK reform, but since it is unique, we will have to wait and see what effect it has. It looks like CA’s top-two on steroids, and top-two was a bad design that never was going to produce what its proponents said it was going to produce (and any electoral studies scholar could have told them that–and many did!).

  4. CSK says:

    I’ll never forget a Trump Republican, a day after the 2016 election, saying to a non-Trump Republican: “We’re in the driver’s seat now.”

  5. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    A friend asked me how RC/IR leads us to a better system, as I’ve seen argued here repeatedly.

    Sorry, but I don’t see how RC/IR voting leads a duopoly to be able to grow (effective) third parties. I don’t actually see it working in systems which already have multiple parties. Frankly, IMO it’s a nice dream, but it presupposes two things we don’t have. A working system, and better people.

    Although I’ll admit that if your goal is to keep the peasants from revolting for as long as possible, the current system is working just fine.

    Now if we can just find those better people…

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hmm. I am only interested in long-shot bets – if the odds aren’t long there’s no glory in the win. So, in that vein I’ll make a bet: we will see a GOP offshoot party gain significant traction in one or more purple, or one-off (Alaska, Utah, Montana) states.

    The GOP as currently constituted cannot even speak to the populations of California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut or Maryland. If they attempt to interest those states by moderating they lose the south and much of the upper midwest and mountain states. This means permanent minority status for the GOP. That translates as a power vacuum and power vacuums are not stable.

    If the GOP can move back to the middle, no need for a Lincoln Party. But I’m betting they can’t. Which means if a significant number of conservatives want to elect a governor in, say, Oregon, they need either a break with the national GOP, or a third party. I’m betting that there are a lot of people out there who want lower taxes without white supremacy. In fact, if I were trying to build such a creature I’d be pitching to Blacks and Latinos as well as suburban college Whites.

    As for raising cash, the Lincoln Project had more money than they could spend. Five million would launch a Lincoln Party in, let’s say, Montana where you have a mix of moderate Dems and libertarian Republicans.

    I’ll bet $1 and I’ll be generous and not demand ten-to-one odds that would seem to be suggested by your piece above. Make it five-to-one. The terms: by 2025 (after next national cycle) a GOP off-shoot party will elect a House member or governor.

  7. @Flat Earth Luddite: Again, it would depend on whether you are talking about RCV in single-seat or multi-seat districts.

    RCV/IRV in single-seat districts likely would not have too much of an effect, save as I noted before: if I am a Libertarian who always votes GOP because I don’t want to vote for a loser, under RCV I can at least register my first preference for the LP knowing that my second choice is the GOP and so my LP vote is no longer a waste and it doesn’t help the Dems.

    There could lead to better revealing preferences amongst voter and stimulate party growth. But it is unlikely to lead to substantial third party activity.

    I support RCV in single-seat districts only because it guarantees absolute majority winners as opposed to the possibility of plurality winners. But that is different than stimulating serious third party competition.

  8. @Michael Reynolds:

    I’ll bet $1 and I’ll be generous and not demand ten-to-one odds that would seem to be suggested by your piece above. Make it five-to-one. The terms: by 2025 (after next national cycle) a GOP off-shoot party will elect a House member or governor.

    I will take that bet. I will even accept any center/center-right party/candidate as defining “offshoot” regardless of whether it is explicitly a breakaway or not.

    My argument is that in those states candidates still have the primary to shape the local party to their preferences. They have no need to create a new mechanism to get on the ballot alongside numerous disincentives to try,

  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    I’ll cross post my comment for James’ Republican Recovery post, as it is appropriate here.

    @James Joyner:

    The point of the post is I don’t know how we get there.

    It has been about a 150 years since a major party has faded out and was subsumed by another or new party, I’m thinking of the Whigs and Federalists. We’ve had the Rs and Dems for as the major parties since that time and as you pointed out, they’ve effectively switched world view. Given the staying power of these parties, and the incentives of the electoral structure, I don’t see how a third party develops. Going forward, what has been the R elite will have 3 choices, make peace with populism/nationalism, become Dems or forsake political influence, except at the ballot box and be independents.

    In the day of machine politics, it was possible for the elites and other political leaders to make the kind of decisions that could create a new party, but not in today’s grassroots driven politics. The failure of the Reform Party, despite some ballot box success and the struggle of the Green Party to be relevant, even though their platform has a lot of appeal to progressives, shows how difficult it is.

    The forecast for the next few cycles is a shrinking R party that remains relevant due to electoral structure and likely more extreme minoritarian rule.

    And remember we are demographically on track to have 50+% of the population living in 16 states by 2050. One way or the other, the current situation cannot hold.

  10. @Sleeping Dog: The concentration of the population into specific states is a majorly important point. It will further distort the EC, the Senate, and even the House. It is, as you note, untenable.

    We are headed either for reform or breakdown of some kind.

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The GOP as currently constituted cannot even speak to the populations of California, Oregon, Washington Seattle, Hawaii, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut or Maryland.

    FTFY. (Although I can’t speak for the other states. Outside King, Pierce, Snohomish, Whatcom, and Thurston counties–the ones bordering Puget Sound on the East and South, the balance of the state looks pretty pink to candy apple red over all. Of course, close to 50% of the entire population lives in those 5 counties–mostly King and Pierce–so go ahead and talk about the difference between people and land area if you wish. I’ll understand.)

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m inclined to take his bet also. I’ll even give him 10 to one. I’ll go to 100 to one if he’s willing for me to give the payout to the charity of his choice rather than to him (a $10 charity donation is pretty small in this era).

  13. Teve says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: 4 years ago I moved to a little place near Olympia. I was psyched. I drove from Florida and entered WA from Idaho on I 90. Somewhere in eastern WA I saw the biggest fucking Trump billboard I’ve ever seen, and briefly thought, “the fuck did I get myself into?” but happily things changed when I got to civilization. 😀

  14. Gustopher says:

    @Teve: Weren’t you just talking about moving from Florida to the PNW a month or so ago? Did you move back to Florida 3 years ago and now want to move back to the PNW, or is this a “2020 is a decade long” joke, or am I just mistaken?

    I really think that Eastern Washington would be happier if we ceded them to Idaho. And we would be happier. And it wouldn’t affect the Senate. And it would cause a minor negative change in the Electoral College. But overall, mostly a good thing.

  15. Kathy says:

    Remember Justin Amash?

    He left the GOP, joined the Libertarian Party, and did not run for reelection this year.

  16. Teve says:

    @Gustopher: I moved to outside of Olympia in September 2016 and the company I worked for screwed me over and I ran out of money and had to move back in May of 2017.

    I was thinking of moving to Portland about 4 months ago but the money didn’t work out. And frankly I’m a little ambivalent because I’m prone to depression and every time I’ve been to Portland, while I love the people, the sights, the restaurants, the weed, it’s been gloomy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a thing.

  17. Kylopod says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: We can play that game with several states. If you were to separate Illinois from Cook County, the non-Cook state would be solidly red. If you separated mainland New York from the islands, you’d have only a slightly D-leaning state.

  18. @Kathy: I almost went down an Amash rabbit hole when I was writing the original post.

    He changed parties but did not even seek re-election to his seat.

  19. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    @Steven L. Taylor:

    if a significant number of conservatives want to elect a governor in, say, Oregon, they need either a break with the national GOP, or a third party

    Oh you guys are sooo f’d . Oregon R convention every season is named the Dornbecher (IIRC). Meets on the coast. The 10 moderate Rs to show up are always out shouted buy the most extreme of the extreme whack jobs. A few years ago the platform included a requirement that ALL citizens be REQUIRED to own and carry firearms. My fear of a combined Eastern Oregon/Washington/Idaho merger would be the nuclear capacity – remember where the navy has their reactor school?

    Ps – if I can donate to charity, put me down on this bet too, Michael.

  20. gVOR08 says:

    The Republican Party is schizophrenic and should split.

    The Tea Party/populist/ whatever wing has nothing in common with the plutocratic wing and contradictory needs. So far the plutocrats have kept the TP attached by successfully focusing them on their cultural desires instead of their needs.

    The TP don’t really need the plutocrats. They could part ways, self-fund, and continue as a populist, ethno-nationalist Party. I can’t see that happening unless there’s some crisis that forces the TP to recognize they’re only getting a few bones and symbolic support from the plutocrats and I don’t see how that happens.

    The plutocrats can’t split from the TP. If they do they have no one to vote for them. It’s a parasitic relationship and the parasite isn’t giving up the host. It might be possible for the plutocrats to develop conflicts with each other but they all share a basic interest in low taxes for themselves and light regulation.

    The Party won’t change unless they’re forced to by a string of electoral losses or some other crisis. What I expect to happen is opening up the tent a little by allowing Hispanics, at least “white Hispanics”, into the tent. They’ve had some success doing that with Miami Cubans. They’ll also continue their gerrymandering and vote suppression efforts. And as long as they have the Majority Leader they’ll do everything possible to sabotage the Biden administration.

  21. JohnSF says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    ….in those states candidates still have the primary to shape the local party to their preferences…

    Is this viable?
    If the “active base” of the party has about 50% +1 of loonies, that’s probably enough to stop centrist candidates getting nominated.

    IIRC there was a study of how California Republicans have trended more to incubating extreme stances in proportion to their loss of real power. Indication were, moderate candidates and voters have migrated to fairly congenial suburban/rural Democrats and left the GOP to the nutters.

  22. Teve says:

    @gVOR08: why would the plutocrats ever stop playing the rubes? That’s the whole scam:

    10 billionaires give money to the Republicans
    20 Republicans scare the old white rubes with lazy blacks taking their money, trans people raping their daughters in bathrooms, the Homosexual Agenda, communists and socialists.
    30 the rubes vote Republican.
    40 Republicans cut billionaires’ taxes, let their corporations pollute.
    50 GOTO 10

  23. JohnSF says:


    …why would the plutocrats ever stop…

    In the medium term perhaps.
    But, in the longer term, even plutocrats require a functioning society in which their plute can crat.
    Unless you are engaged in extractive economics without a care for your domestic polity; similar to the Russian oligarchs or Arab princelings etc with their “retirement money”, and often their families, in London or Paris or Monaco. But I get the feeling a lot of the US business elite have no particular desire to move to Europe.

    Also, some aspects of Trumpism indicate that the “big business” agenda and the “populist” agenda can significantly diverge. Trade was the example this time around; but if a trade protection regime was established and failed, the next step for economic populists would be subsidies; they’re already there re. agriculture, after all.
    Walk down that road and wave bye-bye to low taxes.

    The primary polluting industries are likely dying anyway. Fossil fuels are a fools game; and even petrochemicals are going to see massive step-changes in efficiency due to technology IMHO.
    Then you’ve got the slow erosion of the relevant voter base.

    Sure, you can throw up your hands a say, “hell with it, let’s go for minority rule”.
    But if you’re a smart plutocrat, you can see that game has a massive downside risk.

    That’s a lesson sensible European plutocrats learnt the hard way.
    It’s not that the davoisie are necessarily nicer than American business elites; it’s the historical lesson than being on top of an unstable structure today doesn’t protect you from the mob tomorrow, never mind who evoked the mob in the first place.
    Best avoid mobs.

    “Do not call up what you cannot put down.”

  24. @Just nutha ignint cracker: I will happily contribute $100 to charity if a breakaway third party conservative is elected governor, to the House, or to the Senate between now and 2025.

  25. @JohnSF: It is more viable for a faction within the party to capture nominations and then seats in Congress than it is for a third party to form and win seats.

    Indeed, it is immensely easier (and has no analog anywhere else in the world).

  26. @Just nutha ignint cracker: But can’t you do that, to one degree or another, with every state? (Remove X or X and Y and change the outcomes?).

    All states are some shade of purple. None are 100% blue or red (although some come closer than others).

  27. Not the IT Dept. says:

    The Lincoln Project has never – to the best of my knowledge and I follow their twitter feeds daily – said they want to set up a new party. What they want is to remove from office all the Trump-enablers at the national and state levels. Once the ground is cleared, presumably something new can grow and develop, but I’ve never seen any of them indicate an interest in that.

  28. @Not the IT Dept.: This is true. They just make a useful shorthand for a potential breakaway faction.

  29. DrDaveT says:


    Not the IT Dept.

    : What [the Lincoln Project] want is to remove from office all the Trump-enablers at the national and state levels.
    Unfortunately, that’s the equivalent of saying that you want to cure your metastasized cancer by amputating everything below the neck.

  30. gVOR08 says:


    But, in the longer term, even plutocrats require a functioning society in which their plute can crat.

    They also need a decent global climate in which they, and their grandchildren, can plute their crat. Hasn’t slowed them down. They seem to feel their wealth will protect them.

  31. JohnSF says:

    They’re not monolithic.
    The big money backers of the Republicans and fringe rightism, Kochs, Mercers, Thiel etc get the headlines.
    But there’s a lot of others who either steer clear, or contribute Dem, or split their money.
    Most tech and finance types know enough about the realities of the world (geophysical and historical) not to go all in for doomed causes.
    Similar but more so in Europe.
    You get a few rich loons willing to back Brexit or the FN or whatever, but most are aware that a functioning society is a good thing (those who have doubts can be cured by quick visit to Novosibirsk; and enough have had exposure to things Russian to learn that lesson).

    The (mainly) US subset of the 0.01% who are ultra-right have got high on their own supply.
    Not a pathway to long term success.

  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: @DrDaveT: @Steven L. Taylor:
    I believe I christened them the Lincoln Party and I’m certain they will take my lead on the name. Rights negotiable.

    Conway and Rick Wilson and the rest are unemployable in the GOP. But they have a big donor list. That donor list will tap out if they don’t justify their existence. I don’t think they’ll be happy as denizens of YouTube for long. I think they’ll go looking for a few specific scalps, open R+ House seats, or seats with weak Trumpist incumbents. They knock a guy down and claim credit for electing his opponent.

  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I expect that you can. As I noted, I can only speak about Washington State, where while we have a Democratic governor and House of Representatives, the Senate is a narrow Republican majority. (I looked this up today, so unless I misread…). The GOP is clearly speaking to some significant portion of the citizenry of my state. Those Republicans are not being elected by fir trees and tumbleweeds. They’re speaking to someone. Think of it as a correction of the popular notion that because 5 counties are majority blue at the national level, the Dems have a lock on the state. It might be nice if they did, but the GOP is only one or two “nominate somebody who isn’t a complete whack job” from majority government here.