Here's how bad the 2016 presidential race has gotten for the many conservatives who are repulsed by the terrible choices of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump: They're hoping Mitt Romney runs for president.
Romney, you may recall, tried to run for the Republican nomination as the conservative candidate in 2008 and fizzled out. Then the former moderate governor of Massachusetts was the establishment candidate many conservatives bitterly opposed in 2012. Maybe the third time's the charm.
#NeverTrump conservatives certainly seem to hope so. National Review is running op-eds calling Romney the "only man who can save us from future calamity." Even influential conservative blogger Erick Erickson thinks the time has come for Romney 2016.
"I can't believe I'm even writing this," Erickson admitted.
Well, believe it. When it comes to identifying a conservative third-party candidate, the #NeverTrump cupboard is nearly bare. Ballot deadlines loom. Trump is starting to consolidate Republican voters and is suddenly competitive with Clinton in the polls.
The other candidates floated all had a dilemma: They risked doing too poorly in November to effect the outcome of the election, and thus looking weak, or doing well enough to be seen as the Ralph Nader of the right who helped Clinton win. For candidates with future political ambitions, neither is an appealing prospect.
Romney avoids both these problems. He probably isn't planning a political future past 2016, yet he still has the name recognition and network of support to have a real impact. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that the 2012 Republican nominee could win 22 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Clinton and Trump this year, including 27 percent of young voters.
Most conservative third-party boosters don't just want to play spoilers. They would like to deny both major party candidates a majority in the Electoral College and throw the election into the (presumably still Republican-controlled) House. That's likely too tall an order, since it would require denying Clinton electoral votes as well as Trump. But Romney offers conservatives a better chance of anyone they are realistically going to get.
In fact, at this late date, Romney may be the only candidate who can realistically do it at all, unless conservatives can find another Mark Cuban-type billionaire. And even a billionaire might not be able to pull it off. The draft Ross Perot movement was well underway in 1991 and he was already surging nationally by this time in 1992.
Romney is the candidate who is best positioned to jump in at the last minute and actually compete with Trump and Clinton. So what's the problem? Well, Romney is also the worst possible symbol for anti-Trump conservatives.
The toughest remaining pockets of anti-Trump resistance within the GOP aren't really moderate Republicans, among whom the billionaire actually performed well in the primaries, but movement conservatives. Romney isn't a movement conservative, although he is more influenced by them than Trump, and would probably fare best in November by running as an explicit centrist this time around.
Romney is nothing if not a creature of the establishment. If Trump loses to Clinton and Romney, Trump can plausibly claim to be a victim of establishment sabotage. Come 2020, the conservatives who backed a Romney third-party bid will have long been blamed for giving the country a second President Clinton.
#NeverTrump is best vindicated by Trump collapsing in the general election on his own, without conservatives backing Romney or anyone else, or by Trump actually being elected and being a bad president. Principled opponents of Trump naturally would like to avoid the second scenario and think the first is too great a risk.
If Clinton wins with Romney taking a significant share of the vote, Trump's sins will quickly be forgotten and she will become the focus of all conservative ire — as well as those on the right who (arguably) enabled her.
The most anti-Trump conservatives I know would consider that a price worth paying for keeping the reality TV star out of the White House. And many would harbor at least some hopes that Romney could actually win.
Thus the real question is whether Mitt Romney, coming off a massive loss to Barack Obama just four years ago, agrees on either count.
#NeverTrump is counting on him.