He intends to win — either within the GOP, or as Donald Trump suggested this week, outside of it. Trump sat down with CNN’s Don Lemon last night for a lengthy interview, most of which focused on the sharp criticism Trump has gotten for his demand to ban Muslims from entering the US, but Trump says that the people are with him even if the Republican establishment is not:
The conversation then turned to the potential for a third-party run. Lemon brought up the pledge Trump signed to stay within the GOP and support the eventual nominee, but Trump replied that it was a “two-way pledge,” and that Republicans aren’t keeping up their end of the bargain. The Hill captures his argument:
“If they don’t treat me with a certain amount of decorum and respect, if they don’t treat me as the front-runner, by far as the front-runner, if the playing field is not level, then certainly all options are open,” he said.
“They said they would be honorable. So far, they — I can’t tell you if they are — but the establishment is not exactly being very good to me.”
The time frame for Trump’s decision on this question is curious, to say the least. Trump tells Lemon that he’ll know after a few months in the primary process whether or not he’s being treated fairly, as the “front-runner,” and with the respect he is due. If he senses at that time that he’s being disrespected, then “all options are open” — presumably meaning an independent run. Trump’s been doing throat-clearing on that option all week, likely to intimidate his competitors and tamp down outrage over his comments about Muslims:
A new poll indicates that 68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP & ran as an independent. https://t.co/ztP5d2ctZl
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2015
But is that actually a threat? We’ll get back to those numbers in a moment, but first, Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales pours some cold water over the idea:
There is a logistical challenge of running as an independent. One expert told CNN it would take about 570,000 signatures to gain ballot access in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. But Trump can afford to spend the money necessary to pay people to gather those signatures, if he wanted to go that route, and it’s certainly possible that Trump will run as an Independent to spite the Republican Party after feeling mistreated during the primary process.
But Trump could have even more to lose than the Republican Party. Trump would be risking political bankruptcy and damage to the “winning” Trump brand.
A third-party candidacy would lead to a loss, and losing is the antithesis of who Trump says he is and often comes with a dose of humility; a character trait Trump is neither familiar with nor interested in cultivating.
That presumes that Trump didn’t already run in the primaries. Given Trump’s time frame above, all the money in the world won’t help, because all but three states have sore-loser laws that keeps failed primary candidates off of general-election ballots (a point of which Doug Mataconis reminded me this week). In order to effectively run as an independent, Trump would have to get out now or at the very least before major states hold their primaries. Most of the swing states will have their primaries before mid-April. Waiting until after the primaries — say, if the GOP wrests away a nomination in a convention fight — isn’t an option.
That also assumes that Trump will spend the money organizing in those states. He certainly has the personal resources to do it if he wants to do so, but it will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars for a winning effort. So far, Trump hasn’t spent one million dollars, nor has he had to do so; he’s been riding a wave based on almost nothing more than personal appearances and earned media. If he wants to run as an independent, and especially if he plans to win, then Trump will have to start building his organization on the ground soon, which also means he’d have to get out of the Republican primary process soon.
That brings us to the numbers, which don’t mean quite what Trump says they do. Two-thirds of Trump’s supporters means two-thirds of 30%, or roughly one-fifth of claimed GOP primary voters. But we don’t really know whether these are new voters for GOP primaries, or people who form the core of Republican elections. Based on the dynamics of Trump’s campaign, it’s a lot more likely that more of them fall among the former than the latter, in which case their impact on a general election will be smaller. Even at that, many of those voters will still be motivated by a desire for change, and aren’t likely to see President Hillary Clinton as a favorable outcome.
Also, the GOP nominee, and especially the RNC, will have a robust GOTV organization in place to help turn out those voters. (The RNC already has built it, one of the more overlooked developments in this cycle.) Even if Trump ran as an independent, it seems unlikely that he could have anything in place that would even come close to challenging that. Trump’s actually running a campaign model that is the reductio ad absurdum of the last two Republican presidential campaign failures — 30,000-foot messaging with no ground game whatsoever. As my upcoming book GOING RED (Crown Forum, April 2016) will argue, that’s a sure path to defeat no matter which party a candidate represents, and especially a candidate without a party.
The best that a Trump independent run could do would be to damage the GOP enough to elect Hillary Clinton, but even that depends on Trump getting out by no later than mid-February. Even outside of an independent bid, Trump could spend months slagging the nominee and depressing turnout, although even that might be an overstated capability if it’s seen as a dog-in-the-manger ploy. It’s a danger to the Republican Party, but at the same time, it’s not a good option for Trump either.
Update: I had left a clause out of the paragraph after the first excerpt, which I have now fixed.