Could Trump Actually Win a 3rd-Party Nomination?

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It's not easy being Green.Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Last week, Donald Trump finally tore up his not-so-sacred pledge not to run against the Republican presidential nominee if he loses — or is unfairly robbed of! — the GOP nod. The move has renewed the discussion of whether Trump might be able to continue his campaign by attaching himself, botflylike, to a third party and getting its nomination. As many have pointed out, 12 states’ third-party filing deadlines will happen before the Republican National Convention does, which likely means that, in order to have even a chance of actually winning, Trump would have to dump the GOP Establishment before it officially dumps him (of course, a third-party Trump run would be more about scorching the Earth than actually winning). But let’s set aside that reality for a minute and explore Trump’s chances of taking over the tickets of the only three minor parties with a national presence large enough to support a successful presidential candidate: the Green Party, the Constitution Party, and the Libertarian Party.

The Green Party

Could Trump plausibly be the nominee? No.

The Constitution Party

Could Trump plausibly be the nominee? Maybe. 

At first glance, the best third-party option for Trump would seem to be the far-right Constitution Party. Founded as the U.S. Taxpayers Party by the late Conservative Caucus chairman Howard Phillips in 1992, the party adopted its current name in 1999 to reflect its “focus of returning government to the U.S. Constitution’s provisions and limitations” (it now bills itself as “the philosophical home of the tea party”). Constitutionalists, as they call themselves, are firmly opposed to marriage equality, abortion, and gun control; and advocate for isolationism, the repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment, the elimination of Social Security, and a moratorium on all immigration to the United States, “except in extreme hardship cases or in other individual special circumstance.”

Though Trump’s platform doesn’t align exactly with that of the Constitution Party, spokesperson Karen Murray recently told the Washington Examiner that any of the Republican candidates “would be welcome to seek the nomination.” “Would the party nominate such a candidate? This I cannot say,” she said. “It is up to the delegates at the convention to choose who will best represent the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights in the person of a candidate for the highest office in the land.”

Where they are on ballot access: The Constitution Party is already qualified to put its presidential candidate on the ballot in at least 16 states. If Trump did manage to secure the party’s nomination, getting onto the ballots of the country’s remaining 34 states would be extremely difficult — each state has its own frequently difficult-to-navigate ballot-access rules, some of which would require the gathering of tens of thousands of valid signatures by early this summer — but not technically impossible.

The current field: Time isn’t on Trump’s side. The party’s convention begins on April 13. Murray told the Examiner in order to be considered for the presidential nomination, “a candidate must receive the support of half the delegates of two states, in writing, submitted at the convention.” Were Trump to make that happen, his competition for the nomination would consist of Texas minister Scott Copeland and longtime conservative activist Tom Hoefling. Like Trump, neither Copeland nor Hoefling has ever held public office.

Murray said that while the “publicity, donors, and votes” associated with a current GOP candidate “are definitely to be desired,” the party would not adopt anyone who would “compromise [its] principles.” She added that members “are looking for principle and courage, not bait and switch,” which wouldn’t appear to bode well for Trump’s prospects among them. On the other hand, at least some of them might find Trump’s apparent tolerance for David Duke appealing. 

The Libertarian Party

Could Trump plausibly be the nominee? Maybe.

Where they are on ballot access: The Libertarian Party is a well-established organization already on the ballot in at least 32 states and on track to qualify for all 50 in time for the 2016 election, making it, in theory, a more attractive vessel for a Trump third-party run than the Constitution Party.

The current field: Libertarian Party head Nicholas Sarwark has said that several major-party candidates (he won’t say who) have contacted him to discuss being considered for the nomination, but, as anyone who has ever spoken to a Ron Paul supporter knows, it’ll be quite hard for an outsider to successfully parachute in. “You have to convince the delegates that you’re a libertarian or you’re libertarian enough,” Sarwark told NBC News, noting that none of the mainstream contenders, including Trump, “purport to the libertarian platform.” And Libertarians are clearly looking at the 2016 election not as an opportunity to get co-opted by Trump (or anyone else) but, as Sarwark put it, as a potential “break out” moment fueled by support from Republicans who have become disillusioned with the party.

In an interview with the New York Times, the front-runner for the Libertarian nomination, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, called Trump a “polarizing” figure who, along with Hillary Clinton, was “[setting] the dinner table … favorably for a Libertarian candidate.” And of course, Trump cannot both set the table and eat dinner, or to put it more clearly:

I think they’d get their heads handed to them,” Mr. Johnson said of any mainstream Republican who sought the Libertarian Party’s backing. But, he added, “it would be terrific from an attention standpoint.”

Libertarian delegates don’t commit to a presidential candidate before their convention, so Trump could probably submit himself for consideration. It might be worth it, if only for entertainment purposes: Johnson’s current competitors are Libertarian Republic magazine founder Austin Petersen and anti-virus software developer John McAfee, of the bath-salts-and-Belizean-murder fame