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Why some conservatives want to stop Donald Trump at all costs

Saving their party might be worth letting Hillary Clinton win the presidency.

Do conservatives want this man's hands on the controls of their party for eight years?
Do conservatives want this man's hands on the controls of their party for eight years?
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Some conservative Republicans are meeting this week to talk about the possibility of fielding a conservative third-party candidate in the increasingly likely event that Donald Trump hijacks their party's nomination. Trump is not only not a conservative; he also embraces the most distasteful elements of right-wing populism. An independent candidate would give voters a "real" Republican to vote for.

Such a move has an obvious downside: It likely leads to President Hillary Clinton. Trump and the "real" Republican will split the Republican vote, just as William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt split the GOP vote in 1912, giving us President Woodrow Wilson. Is blocking Trump worth the risk of electing Clinton?

If you are a conservative, I think it is.

Presidential elections are unpredictable, but there is one pretty common pattern. The longer the party has been in office, the less likely it is to win. One-term incumbents are reelected at a high rate, but after two terms the office often goes to the other party. After three terms, it's very hard to hold on to the White House.

Assuming this pattern holds, if Trump wins the 2016 presidential election, he's likely to win reelection. But the Democrats would likely win in 2024 and again in 2028. You wouldn't see a "real" Republican in the White House until 2032, after a 24-year drought.

And worse, Trump would spend eight years reshaping the party brand. Presidents are not only the standard-bearers of their party; they also control the party's institutions. In his book Presidential Party Building, Northwestern University's Dan Galvin outlines the tools presidents have to shape their party and shows that they use them to mold the party in their own image.

Conservatives have worked hard since the 1950s to remake the Republican Party as a vehicle for conservatism. How far back would a Trump presidency set them? By the time a Republican is favored to win in 2032, conservatives may no longer have much influence to nominate a candidate they like.

Compare this with four years of Hillary Clinton. A conservative's nightmare, to be sure, but likely over in four years. By then, the party can have sorted out what allowed Trump to take over and nominate a more consistently conservative candidate who would be very advantaged to win.

Twelve years out of power beats 24 ... or more.

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