Politics & Policy

An Independent Run Is More Realistic Than You Think

(Rashadashurov/Dreamstime)
A credible candidate would earn a serious look by voters.

In the days immediately before and after the news broke that I was weighing an independent run for president (it’s still strange to type those words), I was hit with two primary questions. First, “Who the heck are you?” And, second, “How can you believe an independent run will work?” As for the first question, I’m the guy not running for president. The second question deserves a much closer look.

Over the last eight days, I’ve enjoyed what amounts to a crash, graduate-level course in the potential for an independent candidate in 2016. Contrary to popular belief, the quest to find a candidate to confront Clinton and Trump isn’t simply the idle work of frustrated pundits, tossing names out until one finally sticks. In reality, there exists a serious foundation — with a comprehensive strategy, key assets, and seed funding in place. Let’s look at the key factors, in turn.

The public is ready to look at a third option

First, let’s begin with a dose of reality: Polling for independent-candidacy demand can be imprecise — and optimistic. When the public dislikes two candidates (as they dislike Trump and Clinton), it’s easy for them to express a preference for an idealized, unknown third person. But in this cycle, we not only have polling demonstrating that a generic independent candidate could reach 21 percent, we also have polls putting Mitt Romney at 22 percent, Libertarian Gary Johnson at 11 percent and 10 percent, and polling showing up to 65 percent of Americans (and upwards of 90 percent of Millennials) are willing to at least consider an independent candidate.

RELATED: Inside the #NeverTrump Candidacy that Almost Was

None of this is news to political junkies. I’m not going to pretend that this polling means a third-party candidate would sweep the field in one of history’s great political revolutions, but it does indicate that a credible candidate would earn a serious look, with Millennials (unsurprisingly) most likely to jump the major-party ship. A serious look is the critical first step.

The ballot-access problem is overblown

Pundits who like to toss cold water on independent runs always go back to the same two words — “ballot access.” As the argument goes, it’s just too late and too expensive to get on enough ballots to either win or impact the race meaningfully. At least one writer projected that it would cost $250 million, a staggering sum.

This is fundamentally off — by a factor of more than ten. Even if one assumes that an independent candidate has to pay a petitioning firm for every single signature (no volunteer involvement) and hire litigators to challenge ballot rules in particularly onerous states, we projected that the ballot access would cost less than $25 million. That’s a formidable amount, to be sure, but not significant in the context of a viable and meaningful national campaign.

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Funds are available — if the candidate has a constituency

Simply put, there is an enormous amount of money that is sitting on the sidelines. Multiple major donors are refusing to write checks for Trump, entire donor networks are lying entirely dormant, and Trump has barely even begun to tap into a small-dollar donor pool. The Democrats are set to outspend Republicans on a massive scale.

When it comes to political fundraising, there is often a “chicken-or-egg” conundrum. Which comes first, the money or the viability?

But that doesn’t mean all that money is available to just anybody. When it comes to political fundraising, there is often a “chicken-or-egg” conundrum. Which comes first, the money or the viability? Yet a man or woman with a loyal pre-existing network (or independent means, of course) can show financial muscle from the start — which will lead to immediate ballot-access success, and will spur additional giving.

Incidentally, this factor was important in my own decision not to run. Without an existing constituency, the fundraising and mobilization challenge was that much harder, and I stood a real chance of harming the conservative movement by creating the false impression that those who oppose the Trump and Clinton campaigns are far weaker and less numerous than we truly are.

The 2016 campaign is unusually volatile

The odds are still against a challenger, and he or she will have to steel themselves for a tough fight. But it’s a fight worth starting. After a political season where all the “rules” haven’t applied — and both major parties have experienced historic insurgencies — it seems mainly a matter of self-interest for someone like Donald Trump to rely on the normal rules of politics to assert that independents never win. So now the rules apply — the instant he becomes the establishment? I don’t think so.

There are potential down-ballot benefits

For those who care about preserving the political arm of the conservative movement, a strong independent campaign could have serious down-ballot benefits. Given the terrible options before them, some number of Americans — including principled conservatives — may just decide to stay home, to opt out of the “lesser of two evils” analysis and choose no evil. Boosting conservative turnout through a third-party bid could save valuable House and Senate seats, bulwarks against executive overreach.

Americans need a high-character option

#related#Finally, there is the intangible and incalculable benefit of giving politically active Americans — including conservative politicians — the opportunity to support someone this election without throwing away their dignity and credibility on the ash heap of Donald Trump’s character. It’s doubly painful to see, for example, Trump’s repeated, racist attacks on an Indiana-born American judge knowing that good men like Paul Ryan have publicly boarded the Trump Train. Unless they get off at the next stop, that decision will haunt them the rest of their careers and could plague their conscience the rest of their lives.

I don’t know if anyone will step forward. I do know that people are making personal and direct appeals to worthy challengers, people who have the resources to hit the ground sprinting even as Trump and Clinton roll through their scandal-a-day campaigns. An independent challenge is possible. An independent challenger can do great good and may even win. Who will answer the call?

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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