A three-way race in 2020?

What are the chances of a close three-way race for president in 2020?

Probably pretty small. But if establishment Republicans and Trump Republicans continue on their present paths, it could happen.

A lot of things would have to fall into place. Here are some “ifs”:

• If Trump and his tribe, folks like Steve Bannon, were to continue to beat up establishment types for control of the Republican Party.

Incumbent Republicans in Congress will put up with Trump’s recruitment of Trumpites to run against them only so long. Two can play that game, and it’s not impossible that the establishment would seek another president with whom they can work, in order to save their own skins.

• If Trump’s poll numbers continue to slide.

What’s the percentage for Republican leaders to side with Trump if most voters don’t? If it looks as if Trump can’t win re-election in November 2020, why nominate him?

• If the Democrats coalesce behind someone who the polls show is popular nationwide.

With polls showing Trump trailing some popular Democrat, why would Republicans not drop The Donald and opt for a more popular Republican?

• If Trump’s policy choices result in bad consequences, like war or recession.

Or if he continues unable to accomplish something meaningful.

Or if he continues to veer wildly from one side to the other on key issues.

In other words, if his leadership is obviously inadequate.

So what would Trump do if all or most of these possibilities actually come to pass? If his party decides he’s not their candidate in 2020, would he go quietly, or would he fight?

My guess is he’d fight.

And we would then have three candidates for president, in what would likely be a close race.    

Consider the three main blocs of voters in the United States, at least today. There are Democrats. There are establishment Republicans. And then there are Trump Republicans. (Independent voters are divided among the three camps.)

The Trumpites apparently represent around 35 percent of the electorate, if the president’s approval ratings in the polls are an indication. The rest of the voters are split between Democrats and non-Trump Republicans. How the electorate would break in November 2020 in a three-way race is certainly problematic.

The popular vote doesn’t elect a president — that was evident in 2016, and in 2000. With Trump, another Republican, and a Democrat on the ballot in each state, there’s absolutely no telling how the electoral vote would break.

No previous situation in American history resembles this particular three-way possibility.

But in 1912, William Howard Taft, a Republican, was president. He had succeeded the popular Theodore Roosevelt, who had ascended to the presidency in 1901 on the assassination of Republican President William McKinley.

Roosevelt served out the rest of McKinley’s term, then was elected for another term of his own in 1904. In 1908, he chose to step down and endorse Taft, who easily won the presidency.

But Taft’s administration was not particularly interested in continuing Roosevelt’s reform agenda, and he soon earned Roosevelt’s opposition. Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, but the party’s conservatives prevailed and nominated Taft for re-election.

So Roosevelt left the party, formed the Progressive Party (nicknamed the “Bull Moose” Party) and ran with that party’s nomination.

Roosevelt was popular, but not popular enough.

Democrat Woodrow Wilson amassed 435 electoral votes to win easily, tallying 6.3 million popular votes (42 percent). Roosevelt got 88 electoral votes, winning six states, with 4.1 million votes (27 percent). Incumbent Republican Taft got the eight electoral votes from two states, Utah and Vermont, and 3.5 million votes (23 percent). Socialist Eugene Debs got 900,000 votes (six percent) and no electoral votes.

It should be noted that Roosevelt and Taft together earned 50 percent of the popular vote to Wilson’s 42 percent. But Wilson cleaned up on the electoral vote.

Some things are different today, more than a century later.

One key variable is the millions upon millions of campaign dollars that don’t flow through the political parties, but instead go directly from donors to candidates. How that would play out in a three-way presidential race in 2020 is unknown.

It probably won’t happen. But it would be a game-changer in American politics, and it’s a possibility.

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