Of the names on the presidential ballot in Virginia, Evan McMullin is perhaps the least well known. The former Army veteran, CIA operations officer, Capitol Hill staffer, investment banker and political advisor to House Republicans, has received a tiny fraction of the coverage given to Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, or even Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
But unlike Johnson, Stein or any other third-party candidate, McMullin has a chance to win Electoral College votes Nov. 8 – and as a result, a highly improbable opportunity to win the White House.
McMullin, running as a conservative independent, is even or leading in his home state of Utah in recent polls. He is also making a dent in several other states despite entering the presidential race less than three months ago. A victory in Mormon-heavy Utah, though, is what could put McMullin on the national map.
“Morale is high. It’s been high for a while now,” McMullin said. “We’ve seen good movement in the polls. Also incredible movement in terms of our digital engagement. It’s been through the roof, off the charts.”
McMullin’s hope is that Trump will do well on Election Day, but not well enough. He hopes a win in Utah — and possibly Idaho and Wyoming — will deny both Trump and Clinton the 270 votes needed to win the presidency through the Electoral College.
If that happens, the 12th Amendment mandates that the House of Representatives picks a president from the top-three vote getters in the Electoral College — and only from among them. McMullin is hoping that his stance on traditional conservative positions will appeal to the Republican-majority House, and they’ll pick him over Clinton or Trump.
“If given the choice between two big government types and a guy like me that favors limited government, a strong defense and reforming entitlements and the protection of life, if they didn’t choose me, then there would really be questions about what they stood for,” McMullin said.
If the unlikely scenario doesn’t play out, McMullin is still running one of the most successful third-party campaigns in U.S. history. He is poised to become the first person outside the two-party system to win electoral votes since George Wallace in 1968.
More impressive is the rate of McMullin’s success after announcing his candidacy on Aug. 8 of this year.
The late entry has delayed key milestones of his campaign, such as publicly announcing a vice-presidential candidate. While Trump and Clinton had their selections announced in early summer with full media coverage, the relatively obscure Mindy Flinn, a political consultant and digital media strategist, was selected as McMullin’s vice-presidential running mate earlier this month to little or no notice.
The ticket is hoping enthusiasm for a third option beyond Trump and Clinton, two historically unpopular candidates, will appeal to voters.
“I’ve heard from many people who are college students who would say ‘I waited my whole life to vote, and these are the options? These are the best people?’ Flinn said in an address to supporters in Washington D.C. earlier this month. “But now as they’ve learned more about our campaign — these are people of all political stripes — they’re saying you’re giving us a ticket we can vote for and be proud of.”
Trump is polling poorly in Utah, but so is Clinton. The state has given its electoral votes to the Republican candidate in every presidential election since 1964, but now is poised to give them to McMullin, a Mormon who spent two years on a mission trip to Brazil before enrolling at Brigham Young University.
McMullin is pro-life and campaigns on promoting individual religious and personal liberty. He spent several years in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and has said the key to success is reaching out to Muslims, not trying to ban them from entering the United States, as Trump has proposed.
“He’s not a serious candidate. He’s an angry man who has captured the attention of a lot of people who are really struggling,” McMullin said. “Their frustrations are legitimate, but he has then combined them with people’s deepest, darkest fear, ultimately to empower himself.”
That message has helped fuel the McMullin campaign. At a stop in Idaho earlier this month that was expected to draw about a hundred people, there were more than 1,200 in attendance.
He’s also seen success in the east coast, particularly in Virginia. The Old Dominion is one of 11 states where’s McMullin is on the ballot. The efforts in Virginia were frantic and success. In one week, the campaign garnered 9,600 signatures, nearly double the amount required to get on the ballot.
“This group came together in this miraculous team way because everyone felt so strongly ‘I have to deliver this option for myself and for others’,” said McMullin’s Virginia team leader Daniel Marquardt. “That was the feeling among pretty much everyone working on this initiative.”
Though the campaign hasn’t conducted any internal polling on where McMullin stands in Virginia, Marquardt said they’ve found nearly a third of voters in the Commonwealth are undecided. He thinks this creates opportunity in a state where some Republicans are not happy with Trump as their nominee.
“These are conservatives that feel they must prevent a Trump presidency. I’m saying you can vote for Evan,” Marquardt said. “You don’t need to turn to the other side in order to do what you think is best. At the end of the day we’re seeing supporters come out of the woodwork.”
In voter heavy Northern Virginia, the campaign is hoping its message will resonate even stronger. Battleground Loudoun County voted for Marco Rubio over Trump in the Republican primary. Virginia’s 10th congressional district representative Barbara Comstock, who is facing one of the nation’s tougher re-election challenges, endorsed Rubio initially and continued to distance herself from Trump even after he clinched the presidential nomination. Earlier this month, Comstock condemned Trump following the release of a video tape in which he made sexually explicit comments.
Though McMullin admits he won’t carry Virginia in 2016, he sees the Old Dominion as a base for what he calls the “new conservative movement.” While facing an uphill battle to generate name recognition — let alone the presidency — he’s hopeful that the progress made in three months will translate into greater success for conservative values in the years to come.
“This is a new conservative movement that will extend beyond Nov. 8,” McMullin told supporters at a campaign event this month. “We will build from there. Know as you invest in this with us, with blood, sweat and tears, with whatever you can give, this is something this country needs. It is gaining traction like nothing I’ve ever seen before and all the people who do campaigns say what we’re building and how we’re doing it is unheard of.”