Politics & Policy

Could a Third-Party Conservative Beat Trump in November?

(Scott Olson/Getty)

If Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, could a conservative third-party bid win the White House? It would be difficult, but not impossible.

It’s easy to imagine Trump becoming the GOP standard-bearer, and just as easy to imagine a large number of deeply dissatisfied Republicans concluding that they couldn’t vote for him in the general election. Where would these voters turn? Could any of the candidates Trump defeated on his way to Cleveland even mount a credible independent bid?

The logistical hurdles would be high. Forty-five states have “sore-loser laws” that bar primary losers from running in the general election. But in almost every one of those states, there is precedent suggesting presidential candidates are exempt from the law. John Anderson successfully switched from a Republican to an independent in 1980. Lyndon LaRouche ran first as a Democrat and then as the choice of various third parties in 1992. Gary Johnson dropped his Republican bid and became the Libertarian nominee in 2012. Roseanne Barr was able to transition from a Green Party candidate to the Peace and Freedom Party candidate in 2012.

But while those candidates were able to get on the ballot in most states, in South Dakota and Texas, the law is clear: A presidential candidate who loses a primary can’t run as an independent. So any conservative seeking to mount a third-party bid against Trump and the Democratic nominee would start without access to 41 reliably red electoral votes. (Could Ted Cruz win 270 electoral votes as an independent presidential candidate without appearing on the Texas ballot? Stranger and more improbable things have happened, but it doesn’t seem likely.)

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And if a defeated Republican primary candidate decided to reenter the race anyway, Trump, never shy about threatening lawsuits, would almost certainly sue him, despite the relevant legal precedent. He might lose in court, but his vanquished rival would find himself fighting 40-something cases at once, expending great time, energy, and resources just for the right to appear on the ballot in most states.

#share#If a candidate did win that right, he’d be faced with another tall task: actually getting his name to appear on the ballot. That would mean collecting lots and lots of signatures on petitions. Altogether, it requires about 900,000 signatures in order to appear on the general-election ballot in every state. A well-organized candidate and organization could manage it, but the timing would still be tight. The states with the latest deadlines set their ballots in stone by September.

Say one of Trump’s Republican rivals decided to run despite being barred from Texas and South Dakota, and managed to make to beat the odds and make it onto the ballot everywhere else. He’d still have to win a three-way matchup with Trump and either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, in which it’s conceivable that no candidate would claim enough electoral votes to take the White House.

In such a scenario, the race would be decided in the House of Representatives, where each state delegation gets one vote and the majority choice wins. Right now, Republicans control 34 state delegations, Democrats control 14, and two are split evenly. The question is whether Republicans in the House vote would vote for Trump, the party’s official nominee, over an independent conservative candidate.

It would depend almost entirely on who that candidate was. It seems unlikely that one of Trump’s vanquished rivals could mount a credible bid without the possibility of winning Texas. The ideal figure would be someone who didn’t run this year. Someone who has high name recognition and could unite anti-Trump Republicans. Someone with considerable financial resources, and ideally, a national network of longtime allies, friends, and supporters.

Hmmm. There aren’t a lot of individuals who fit that bill, are there?

Hello again!

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent for National Review and the author of Heavy Lifting.

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