Justin Amash could affect 2020 outcome, but in what direction?

Trump is thrilled to see Amash run for president on a third-party ticket. Those hoping to see Trump are alarmed. Are the assumptions right?
Image: Justin Amash
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

The chatter began in early March. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican who became an independent last summer, was asked last week about a possible presidential campaign on the Libertarian Party ticket. He didn't rule it out.

We now know, of course, that this wasn't just idle chatter.

Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., said Tuesday that he has launched a committee that would explore a presidential run under the Libertarian Party.... "Today, I launched an exploratory committee to seek the @LPNational's nomination for president of the United States," he said on Twitter.

President Trump wasted little time in celebrating the announcement, apparently with the expectation that the Michigan congressman will help him win a second term. Those hoping to see Trump lose responded with equal and opposite alarm for the same reason.

The larger question is whether these assumptions are correct.

I'll confess to being torn. There are a few possible outcomes, and they each seem to have merit.

Amash will help Trump: There's a sizable chunk of the American electorate that's desperate to kick Trump out of the office, and any effort that divides this chunk necessarily creates an advantage for the president. The goal for Trump's detractors must be to consolidate these voters behind a credible, major-party rival, and in a race that's likely to be tight, splitting off even a small percentage of votes could make a difference.

Amash will help Biden: Giving disaffected Republicans -- who'd never vote for a Democrat -- another choice would help split the right, not the left. After all, Amash has been a conservative lawmaker throughout his career, and there's very little in his agenda that would appeal to moderate or progressive voters. Plus, he'll likely spend the next several months making the argument that Trump needs to be removed from office, and that will certainly dovetail with the Democratic message.

And let's not overlook the possibility that Amash won't make much of a difference either way: The congressman is not especially well known to a national audience; he probably won't have a lot of money; he's likely to struggle to qualify for the debates; and a Libertarian anti-government message during a pandemic and economic crash isn't likely to be persuasive to the vast majority of Americans.

Which of these arguments is the correct one? I'm leaning toward Door #3, but ask me again in a few months.