For centrist reformers, the answer is almost certainly “yes.”
With Donald Trump securing the Republican nomination in Cleveland, and with Bernie Sanders reluctantly burying the hatchet with Hillary Clinton in exchange for her increasingly leftward march, the November ballot will include the names of the two most disliked presidential candidates in U.S. history.
Under these circumstances, many voters will understandably have trouble picking the lesser of these two evils – the traditional voter calculus when facing two unattractive candidates, especially in battleground states. For these voters, there are at least three other options. First, they may choose not to vote in the presidential election. While this approach avoids the need to vote for a terrible candidate (and may allow a voter to sleep at night), it also shirks civic duty. Voting is both a privilege and a duty in our system of government. Second, for those who take their civic duty seriously, they may consider voting for a third-party candidate, particularly the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson. Although there is much in the Libertarian Party Platform for socially-liberal and fiscally-conservative voters to support, the Platform embraces a number of absolutist policy positions that are, to put it mildly, politically impracticable and unsupported by most Americans. It is also dangerously naïve when it comes to foreign affairs and U.S. strategic interests abroad. If Mr. Johnson distances himself from the problematic pieces of the Platform and runs a more centrist campaign, he may attract a large number of votes (particularly if he qualifies for the televised debates and performs well). Third, voters may choose to write-in a name.
Why write-in, especially when the chance of an organized write-in presidential candidate winning is virtually nil? At a minimum, it enables voters to vote their conscience and support their preferred “candidate.” Michael Bloomberg, for example, has received numerous write-in votes for President despite never seeking the office. This year, Mitt Romney has become the leading spokesperson for this type of write-in voting by disaffected Republicans. More importantly, an organized write-in campaign could produce positive change. A disciplined centrist write-in campaign could, for example, generate enough positive momentum that it would force the candidates to alter their positions and move to the center to compete for votes that would otherwise go to the write-in candidate. Curbing the worst policy tendencies of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton would be a victory. Moreover, for those interested in lasting reform, a widespread centrist write-in campaign would signal to both parties that they will be vulnerable in national elections unless they moderate their platforms and nominate more broadly appealing candidates. Historically, one of the two major parties has responded to a popular third party by largely adopting its platform. If that were to happen, this would be a victory for all disaffected centrists. Third, an organized and well-supported centrist write-in campaign could galvanize the creation of a third party and produce long-lasting positive change by focusing on governing and problem solving rather than divisive social issues or building a larger and less-effective Leviathan.
If you are inclined to write-in an actual candidate to vote your conscience and make an impact, there are two critical roadblocks in your path. First, in a handful of states, write-in candidates are prohibited. Although it could be argued that this is an unconstitutional infringement on the fundamental right to vote, it would take a well-funded write-in campaign or a galvanized public interest law firm to litigate this issue between now and November. Second, in the majority of states that allow write-in candidates, your vote will not be counted unless the candidate is actually registered. This presents less of an obstacle because in most cases the registration process is simple and inexpensive and can be completed fairly late in the run-up to the election.
Given these rules, an independent presidential campaign could, in effect, be mounted without the trappings of a traditional campaign. This is particularly true in the age of independent voters and social media, where a well-constructed Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaign could reach millions of voters at little or no cost. As I posed at the outset of this Post, the question is thus whether voters should attempt an organized write-in campaign as a response to the candidacies of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton.
If you believe that one of these two candidates is clearly the lesser of two evils, then the answer to this question is probably “no.” This is especially true if you live in a battleground state. In such a situation, your traditional voter calculus should be to hold your nose and vote for the candidate you dislike the least.
However, if you believe Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton are equally poor candidates across a range of character, judgment, temperament, and policy considerations, then your calculus may be different. For many disaffected Republicans, this may mean writing-in a traditional Republican – an affable former Governor who is socially conservative, pro-growth, pro-free trade, and internationalist in outlook. For disaffected centrists, a well-constructed and unifying write-in campaign could be particularly appealing because it could contribute to reforming the parties themselves or disrupting the two-party system, as noted above.
To be successful, a centrist-driven write-in campaign would need to identify a unifying candidate who addresses the character, judgment, temperament, and policy flaws that characterize the Trump and Clinton candidacies. Such a candidate would have relevant experience – he or she would have served with distinction as a Cabinet Member or Governor, for example. Ideally, he or she would have worked closely with leaders from both parties and earned a reputation as a respected problem solver who puts the public interest before personal ambition, truth before political expediency, and cordial negotiation before demonization. Such a candidate would also respect both tradition and the Constitution and resist the allure of an increasingly unitary or imperial presidency. Lastly, such a candidate would develop a platform based on principles of tolerance, limited and effective government, inclusive economic growth based on equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome, sound fiscal management, and the importance of U.S. leadership in global affairs. A political unicorn? Hardly. Joe Lieberman, Mark Warner, Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels, and Robert Gates would all be viewed favorably through this lens.
In an election year that has no precedent, I would urge centrist reformers of all political stripes to consider an unprecedented response to the failure of the two major parties to nominate candidates deserving of the presidency. Let’s organize a write-in campaign for someone we could all be proud to support. Let’s vote our conscience and contribute to real political reform. Even if we don’t win, there is plenty to be gained.