The Curious Case of Evan McMullin

By on Oct 23, 2016 in Politics

Evan McMullin, a third party candidate in the United States’ 2016 presidential election, is gaining ground in his home state of Utah. He is considered to be a conservative alternative to Donald Trump. Recent polls in Utah suggest that McMullin is not only competitive in, but possibly winning, the state.

Date Poll Trump Clinton McMullin Johnson Stein Lead
10/17—10/19 Emerson College 27 24 31 5 M+4
10/12—10/18 Utah Policy/Dan Jones & Associates 30 25 29 4 1 T+1
10/14—10/16 Heat Street/Rasmussen Reports 30 28 29 5 1 T+1
10/12—10/14 YouGov/CBS News 37 20 20 7 1 T+17
10/10—10/12 Monmouth University 34 28 20 9 1 T+6
10/10—10/11 Y2 Analytics 26 26 22 14 1 Tie

These polls are clearly very versatile and it’s hard to get a good read on where the race in Utah currently stands. In one poll Trump was winning by 17 points and in another, from just five days later, McMullin was winning by 4. It’s not just voting support in which the polls differ. The Rasmussen poll had 15% of respondents say they had never heard of McMullin, while a whopping 48% of respondents in the Y2 poll taken only five days earlier had never heard of McMullin. But I digress — the point of this article is not to talk about McMullin’s sudden rise, but rather how he impacts the race and why his situation is so interesting.

How McMullin becomes president

McMullin appears to be drawing away support from Trump, as evidenced by the Emerson poll which says “51% of Cruz primary voters are backing McMullin while 29% are voting for Trump” (Cruz won Utah with over 69% of the vote). As laid out in the 12th Amendment, a candidate needs more than half of the electoral votes to win the presidency (with the current number of 538 electors, that majority is 270 votes). If none of the candidates get 270 votes, the newly-elected House of Representatives votes from the top three candidates to decide the president. The vote is run by state, with each state elector getting one vote. A candidate needs to win a majority of states to be elected president.

A picture of an electoral map of the United States in which Evan McMullin wins Utah. Hillary Clinton gets 268 electoral votes, Donald Trump gets 264 votes, and McMullin gets 6 votes.

A potential scenario in which no candidate receives 270 electoral votes. This is known as an “electoral college deadlock”. Map created using 270toWin.

Presumably (although certainly not surely), each state elector will vote for the candidate of their party. Using GovTrack.us’s legislature data, we calculated that Republicans are the majority party in the House in 33 states, with Democrats holding the majority in 14 and ties in 3.1 However, this will likely not be the breakup should this vote actually occur since the newly-elected House of Representatives votes. Despite this, Republicans will likely still hold the majority of states in the next House.

Should the election come to this point, it’s likely that Trump will win. However, this is already an unlikely scenario, so let’s continue with what could possibly happen. Trump is already unpopular among many Republicans, and McMullin is seen as a conservative alternative to him. The “Never Trump” movement could push for Republican congressmen to back McMullin. If this push is successful enough, McMullin could in theory be backed by 26 states and thus win the presidency.

Why this is a “curious case”

Trump is already doing poorly in recent polls, and appears to be losing the race. McMullin certainly isn’t helping him, and if his recent polling numbers in Utah are emulated elsewhere, could hurt Trump even more. McMullin realistically only has a chance of winning Utah (and not other states). It’s arguably in his best interest for Trump to win other states, because Hillary is the current favorite and Trump needs to make up ground. McMullin needs Trump to win states where Trump is currently losing in the polls in order to have a chance of causing an electoral college deadlock.

In the electoral map we created above, Trump wins states that he’s currently losing in the polls. For example, he wins Pennsylvania, where he’s currently losing by around 6 points and Florida where he’s losing by around 4 points. While he could lose these states and win others and cause an electoral college deadlock, McMullin will still need Trump to win states where he’s currently losing.

And that’s what makes this scenario so interesting. For McMullin to have a chance of becoming president, he must win one state but do poorly in all others so as not to take away Trump’s much-needed votes. Essentially, it’s arguably in his best interest to have his supporters vote for Trump in every state other than Utah. This is similar to when Marco Rubio encouraged his supporters to vote for John Kasich in Ohio during the Republican primary, in his attempt to create a contested convention.

Again, this is all extremely implausible. The chances of an electoral college deadlock are already slim, but even if there is one, the chances of McMullin receiving the votes of a majority of states are also miniscule. Despite this, this situation is very interesting and it will be interesting to see how McMullin does in Utah, and how it affects the election.

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