Trump Has Months to Consider Independent Bid

Trump Has Months to Consider Independent Bid
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Donald Trump could hold the threat of an independent presidential bid over the GOP for months.

And it could be just that – a threat. Given the extraordinary expense, organizational requirements, and other challenges of getting on the ballot in every state – nearly 600,000 petition signatures are needed in total – the threat seems hollow to some.

But Trump has several months to decide. The first state deadline isn’t until May 9 in Texas, which requires roughly 80,000 signatures for ballot access. The next deadline is in North Carolina on June 9th, where 90,000 signatures are required. The bulk of states have an August or September deadline, with various signature requirements or filing fines.

There is also the possibility of a third-party bid, which could save the business mogul some time and money, as several of those parties have spots on various state ballots. But Trump has flirted with and rejected that option before.

The GOP frontrunner has been dangling the possibility of an independent run over the heads of the Republican establishment if he is “treated unfairly.” It’s a race Trump would likely lose, and one that would benefit the Democrats. That’s why GOP leaders wanted him to sign a loyalty pledge – which isn’t legally binding – and are reluctant to intervene during the businessman’s many controversies, lest they risk awaking an even bigger giant.

But, in addition to the timing-consuming groundwork and the legion of volunteers needed to gather signatures, some states have “sore loser laws,” which prohibit someone who ran as a major party candidate in the primary to make an independent bid in the general election. Trump has already filed as a Republican in the Texas primary, which, according to state law, prohibits him from running as an independent in the general election in the second-largest state. He could, however, challenge it in court. There also is the swing state of Ohio, where Trump filed his declaration of candidacy on Friday as a Republican. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has rendered Trump ineligible for an independent bid, since he has already officially registered his intentions to run as a Republican.

Election law experts, though, say the sore loser laws in some states are murky, and in many cases don’t apply to presidential candidates.

Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, points to the 1980 bid of John Anderson, who had run in several GOP primaries before withdrawing to run as an independent and made the ballot in all 50 states. Winger says the only alternative candidate to be kept off a state ballot (Michigan) because of a sore loser law was former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who ran as a Libertarian candidate in 2012.

“It is difficult, and it's a terrible amount of work, but people do it,” says Winger of the logistics surrounding an independent bid.

Ed Rollins, who managed Ross Perot’s independent bid in 1992, estimated that such an endeavor would cost upwards of $250 million.

“It will cost him a fortune to get on all the state ballots. He will have to go up against two parties, and two candidates, and will have to share the free media with them,” Rollins says. “It’s not impossible but certainly difficult. I don't think he will do it.”

If any candidate could handle the costs involved, it’s Donald Trump. But the New York real estate mogul has spent little, comparatively, on his own campaign so far, and has received more free media and has more name recognition than any other candidate. But that could change with an independent bid. Additionally, those candidates have to reach a certain percentage in the polls to be eligible to participate in the general election debates. 

Perot began his bid in February of 1992, challenging a grassroots movement of volunteers he cultivated over months to get him on the ballot in all 50 states. Rollins notes that Perot had 4 million volunteers and it still wasn’t easy to solidify an independent run. And in the last six weeks of the campaign, he spent $65 million, a significant portion of which was on an ad campaign, according to Rollins, who noted that television ads are much more expensive today.

Perot went on to win 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election, which benefited Bill Clinton in defeating George H.W. Bush. But Perot won zero electoral votes.

Michael Kang, an election law professor at Emory University, says the requirements surrounding independent candidacies are designed to be difficult. And while Trump could afford it financially, “It’s not always a matter of writing a check,” Kang says, noting different ballot requirements for each state along with the campaign structure and organization required to support such a move.

Trump has already surprised naysayers in his Republican presidential bid by getting on the primary ballot in many states already. He attracts the largest crowds in the field so far and signs up voters to his mailing list at each event. 

“A new poll indicates that 68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP & ran as an independent,” Trump tweeted last week.

But translating Trump’s support into actual votes remains to be seen. The challenge is even greater in the general election, where the major party candidates earn most of the attention and the support. “It’s easy to overestimate amount of support a candidate like Trump would have,” says Kang.

One way Trump could fast track ballot access is to get nominated by minority parties that already have ballot access and would align with Trump. Johnson ran a Libertarian in 2012 (but won less than 2 percent of the vote) for example. Winger notes that 12 states have independent parties.

In 2012, Trump considered running on the Americans Elect ballot, which was poised to have a spot on all 50 state ballots. Ultimately he opted not to. The American Independent Party of California, for example, would be willing to nominate Trump this cycle “under the right circumstances,” says party secretary Markham Robinson. The party will decide its nominee through its own convention process, which would take place after the state’s early June primary and no later than August 15.

Perot opted to run as a third-party candidate in 1996, forming the Reform Party but only garnered eight percent of the vote in the general election and was not included in the debates. Trump, himself, flirting with running as the Reform Party’s nominee in 2000 before withdrawing from consideration.

Trump wrote in a February 2000 New York Times op-ed of his Reform Party bid: “I had enormous fun thinking about a presidential candidacy and count it as one of my great life experiences. Although I must admit that it still doesn't compare with completing one of the great skyscrapers of Manhattan, I cannot rule out another bid.”  

This story was updated to reflect the Texas "sore loser" law.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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