How late is too late for an independent or third-party presidential run?
That question is becoming paramount as the Republican Party barrels through its primary season bitterly divided and with the chances growing that it will open its July convention without a nominee in hand. Conservatives resolutely opposed to a Donald Trump presidency have been investigating a third-party bid for weeks, hoping that if they can’t rally the party behind Ted Cruz then at least they’ll be to give the Never Trump movement an alternative not named Clinton in November. And the recent, if hardly surprising, demise of the paper-thin “loyalty pledge” that Republican candidates signed last year means that either Trump or Cruz could conceivably mount an independent campaign if they lose the GOP nomination in Cleveland.
The short answer is that no, it’s not too late for a third-party or independent run, and it might even be possible for someone as wealthy and well-known as Trump to launch a serious campaign as late as July. (Note: Serious does not necessarily mean winning.)
But for the anti-Trump forces scrambling to find a conservative alternative, time is very much running short.
The most organized Never Trump group includes Erick Erickson, the Georgia-based conservative activist and radio host, and William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard. They met in Washington last month with about a dozen other supporters, and Erickson said another meeting is planned for next week. They settled on a two-track strategy of trying to deny Trump the GOP nomination while simultaneously laying the groundwork for a third-party bid if they can’t. With Trump stumbling recently and Cruz defeating him in Wisconsin, the group is, for the moment, focused more on stopping him in Cleveland. For Erickson, that means trying to rally the party around Cruz, a candidate who many members of the anti-Trump GOP establishment despise nearly as much as Trump. Yet as Erickson acknowledged in a Monday phone interview, “there is a real risk if we wait too long.”
The three main options for the anti-Trump group would be to use existing minor-party lines to field a conservative candidate, to create an entirely new party, or to back an independent candidate without a party affiliation. The consensus, Erickson said, is to use existing parties—although they might not be the same one in every state. The Libertarian Party already has a ballot line across the country, and the Constitution Party—which runs on a strict conservative platform—expects to be on as many as 25 state ballots by November. “It’s an all-of-the-above approach,” Erickson said. “If, let’s say, Candidate X is on the Constitution Party in one state and the Libertarian Party in another state, well the Electoral College members are bound to vote not for the party but for the person.”
And who might ‘Candidate X’ be? Who knows. Erickson has talked up former Texas Governor Rick Perry as a possibility, but since Perry has already endorsed Cruz, he isn’t publicly entertaining a third-party run. And given that intra-party divisions are, in part, what led to Trump’s dominance in the first place, it might be difficult to get conservatives to rally around a single alternative. “We’ll worry about the candidate later,” Erickson told me.
That won’t be good enough for either the Libertarian or the Constitution Party, neither of which is willing to simply let disaffected Republicans walk in and take over their parties. They view the current chaos in the GOP as a nearly unprecedented opportunity to expand their reach—and as a potential threat. “We don’t want a protest candidate,” said Peter Gemma, a member of the Constitution Party’s executive committee who attended the anti-Trump meeting in D.C. “If there’s some Republican who’s in a snit because Donald Trump has got the nomination or it looks like he has the nomination, that’s a protest. We’re an independent party. We think the elephant is dead.”
The Constitution Party’s nominating convention is next week in Salt Lake City, but Gemma said it was possible for individual state parties to drop their affiliation with the national party and put someone else on the ballot. At the meeting, he said he was open to working with the anti-Trump forces, but he told them that any candidate would have to commit to the party and embrace its platform, which lines up with conservative Republicans domestically but stands in opposition to an interventionist foreign policy. “Name recognition isn’t as good as the policy. You’ve got to agree with the platform,” Gemma said. “We don’t care how fancy the guy looks or how he speaks. It’s, ‘Does he understand and will he run with it? And is he committed to stay there?’”
There wasn’t much of a response. “It’s my personal view that they patted me on the head,” he said.
The Libertarian Party has more ballot lines, and it won’t pick its nominee until a Memorial Day convention in Orlando. But its chairman, Nicholas Sarwark, has a similar open-but-wary attitude to the possibility of a GOP defector. “For a change politically, we kind of hold all the cards,” he told me. “So if somebody wants to come to Orlando and try to get our nomination, they’re going to have bring their A game and come and convince delegates that they’re Libertarians, or Libertarian enough. That’s something that’s going to be up to the delegates.”
He or she would also have to compete against several candidates who have been running for months, including former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and John McAfee, who developed the eponymous computer anti-virus program. To have a chance of winning, Sarwark said, a candidate would likely have to voice their support for marijuana legalization and opposition to the drug war and interventionist foreign policy. “It will be a hell of a fight if someone tries to hijack it,” he said of the convention.
One option that might have been available four years ago but is not now is the Americans Elect line, which won ballot access in 29 states by 2012 but failed to recruit a bipartisan ticket nominated through an online ballot. The organization shut down last year, and its founder, Peter Ackerman, actually went to court to get the ballot lines taken down so they could not be used by a candidate who ran counter to its mission. “We shut down specifically so Americans Elect was not available to anyone else,” Ackerman said.
If Cruz or another Republican toppled Trump at the GOP convention, the billionaire could still run as an independent either without a party affiliation, by running on the lines of other minor parties in different states, or by running as a write-in candidate in the 43 states that allow it. (“Trump is easy to spell,” Democratic strategist Tad Devine noted this week in USA Today.) But there’s no indication that Trump’s organization is planning for that possibility, and if he doesn’t lay the groundwork now, the best he might be able to hope for after July would be to play spoiler.
The deadline for running as an independent or new-party nominee in Texas is in May, and those for other key states like Illinois, Florida, and Michigan fall before or immediately after the Republican convention. “There’s a lot of states where you’d be helpless if you didn’t start to do anything until the convention,” said Richard Winger, the longtime editor of a newsletter called Ballot Access News. Another obstacle for Trump would be so-called “sore-loser” laws in a few states, including Texas, that forbid candidates who have appeared on the primary ballot under one party from running in the general election as an independent.
In California, leaders of the right-wing American Independent Party have already tried reaching out to Trump’s campaign about running on their ballot line if he doesn’t get the GOP nomination. But they’ve gotten no response from his national headquarters, said Markham Robinson, chairman of the party’s executive committee. “Our electorate here is, for better or worse, inclined to vote for a celebrity,” Robinson told me. Yet Trump might be reluctant to align with the American Independent Party for the same reason many others in California are: It is best known for having nominated segregationist George Wallace in 1968. “We do suffer from the difficulty of people having too long a memory,” Robinson conceded. “They think we’re still a segregationist party. And that has been obsolete for some time.”
When former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was considering his own independent campaign, he reportedly set a March deadline for making a decision because he knew how difficult and costly it is to get on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Aside from paying for ads and a typical campaign infrastructure, an independent candidate would likely have to spend millions of dollars to hire petitioners who can gather the tens of thousands—in some states, hundreds of thousands—of signatures needed to secure a place on the ballot.
Experts like Winger say that may have been an overly conservative timeline, especially for a billionaire like Bloomberg. Winger is fond of reminding reporters that in 1980, John Anderson didn’t declare his independent run until April 24. “He got on the ballot in all 51 jurisdictions. And the laws are better now than they were then,” Winger said. The bottom line is there is still time for a late twist to this already zany election—but not a lot. “I wouldn’t say plenty of time,” Winger said, “but there’s more time than the media seems to realize.”