Calling him a long shot underestimates the odds.
Evan McMullin, the 40-year-old former CIA operative who on Monday became the latest entry to the wild 2016 field, will likely not be elected president. He may not even be able to get on the ballot in enough states to even have a mathematical chance.
But that doesn’t make McMullin irrelevant. If he and the experienced Republican hands behind his candidacy deliver, they could be Donald Trump’s worst nightmare heading into a fall campaign in which GOP disunity could make all the difference.
His statement announcing his candidacy was as tough on Hillary Clinton as it was Trump — a critical part of a potential appeal that will focus on principle over party.
“She fails the basic tests of judgment and ethics any candidate for president must meet,” McMullin wrote of Clinton.
Turning to Trump, McMullin said that to elect him “would be deeply irresponsible.”
“Republicans are deeply divided by a man who is perilously close to gaining the most powerful position in the world, and many rightly see him as a real threat to our republic,” McMullin wrote.
This all might seem like an attempt to script a “Dave” in a world of “House of Cards” — if not a “Punk’d” for politics. McMullin has never held elected office, and he entered the day he announced his candidacy with barely 100 Twitter followers.
The moment to enter for a third-party candidate who could actually win has clearly passed. Ballot deadlines are in the rearview mirror in 27 states, together worth 323 of the 538 electoral votes. You can’t get an invitation to the presidential debates unless you have the potential to hit at least 270 — not to mention poll at no less than 15 percent nationally.
Given those realities, Trump’s message to conservatives has been simple. “You have no choice,” he said the week before last, citing the need for conservative justices on the Supreme Court.
But it’s actually not that simple. McMullin has the potential — and that’s all it is right now — to be a parking place for conservative voters who can’t bring themselves to veer into Clinton’s lane. Toss in a Libertarian ticket that includes two former Republican governors, and voters who lean to the GOP have options.
McMullin won’t and can’t compete everywhere. Yet he doesn’t have to in order to complicate Trump’s already narrow path to an Electoral College majority.
Take McMullin’s native state of Utah and its six electoral votes. That’s as red a state as you could design but also as anti-Trump as any. Ted Cruz won nearly 70 percent of the vote in its caucuses, with Trump running a distant third.
Nevada and Arizona, two other states with sizable Mormon populations (McMullin is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) as well as large numbers of Hispanics, could also prove more difficult for Trump with another option on the table. Virtually any battleground state could tip toward Clinton if enough Republican votes find someplace else to go.
The next move is McMullin’s. He’ll need to begin to deliver a message as a first-time candidate and use the campaign machinery that was erected in expectation of a candidacy to disseminate a message.
Prominent elected officials could be critical to that credibility. Watch Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Ben Sasse and Lindsey Graham: If any or all of them say they’ll vote for McMullin over Trump, McMullin’s messaging will be amplified.
For now, though, McMullin fulfills a particular yearning, after months of a never-Trump movement that wound through Mitt Romney, a contested convention and — famously, if briefly — the Iraq veteran and writer David French. (French was arguably better known than McMullin when he flirted with running, back in the spring.)
In all likelihood, McMullin will be the answer to a future political trivia question. He’s unlikely to even share equal billing with Ralph Nader.
But it just might be that conservatives view this election as worth the risk of spoiling. More to the point, he can succeed if they already consider the year to have been spoiled.