Reince Priebus, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, was on NBC’s “Today Show” making a pitch for Republican candidates not to run as independents. “I think everyone understands that. If Hillary Clinton’s going to get beat, she’s going to get beat by a Republican. If our candidates want to win, then they’ll have to run as a Republican.” He added, “I think our candidates should pledge not to run as a third party candidate [sic].” However, what he meant was “I really hope Donald Trump doesn’t run as an independent candidate after I figure out how to deny him the Republican nomination.” The simple truth is that, of the 16 announced Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination, only Mr. Trump has the resources to run as an independent.
There have been three reasonably successful third-party efforts in the last 50 years: that of George Wallace in 1968, John B. Anderson’s 1980 effort and the Ross Perot campaigns of 1992 and 1996 (the former being the stronger effort). Mr. Wallace, running as a segregationist candidate of the American Independence Party, carried Mississippi, Alabama Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas. Mr. Anderson scored just under 7% of the popular vote and carried no state. Mr. Perot won 18.9% of the popular vote in 1992 and 8.4% in 1996; he carried no state.
While running as an independent is not the way to the White House, it does allow a candidate to play the role if spoiler. In 1992, Mr. Clinton secured 370 electoral votes, almost 69% of the total, but he did so with just 43% of the popular vote. George Bush the Elder’s 37.5% would likely have been higher if Mr. Perot had not garnered almost one vote in five. Whether Mr. Perot’s electoral achievement cost Mr. Bush a second term is a matter of debate. What is beyond dispute is that Mr. Perot’s hectoring of the Republican Party created a climate conducive to a Clinton victory. Again in 1996, Mr. Clinton won without a popular vote majority; he scored 49.2% of those votes, and Mr. Perot took 8..4%. Mr. Perot likely didn’t cost Bob Dole, the GOP standard-bearer in 1996, the White House, but again, the GOP attack was blunted because of Mr. Perot’s campaign.
Mr. Trump poses a similar threat to the GOP contender this time around. ABC News reports, “In a general election trial heat, [Hillary] Clinton leads [Jeb] Bush, the GOP fundraising leader, by a slight 50-44 percent among registered voters. But with Trump as an independent candidate that goes to 46-30-20 percent, Clinton-Bush-Trump — with Trump drawing support disproportionately from Bush, turning a 6-point Clinton advantage into 16 points.Trump’s support in this three-way matchup was 21 percent from Thursday to Saturday, vs. 13 percent in Sunday interviews.”
As with Mr. Perot, Mr. Trump can fund his own race out of his own pocket, and his ego is big enough for him to make the attempt, historic precedent of failure be damned. While he won’t win a single state (unlike Mr. Wallace, his support is not regionally focused), he can make Republican attacks on Mrs. Clinton (or Mr. Sanders, or Mr. O’Malley, or whomever the Democrats nominate) far less effective. The best play the GOP has is to go after Mrs. Clinton’s record as Secretary of State, but that will be almost useless if Mr. Trump is standing on a debate platform reminding all and sundry that the GOP botched foreign policy and lost two wars in Central Asia. The same applies to government spending and to economic policy. If Mrs. Clinton says the GOP made mistakes, that is one thing. If she and Mr. Trump are saying that, it is quite another.
Looking at the other 15 Republicans, it is pretty clear that many of them are running in 2016 so they can have a shot at 2020, or 2024, or maybe take the second spot on next year’s ticket. They are not about to bolt the Republican label and make a solo run for the White House. They are career politicians with careers to consider. Mr. Trump is not a politician, either for good or for ill, and therefore, he has no need to “stay loyal.” Mr. Trump is an arch-dealmaker, a businessman’s businessman. He is, therefore, as loyal as a starving dog.
In the coming debate, someone will ask (and Chairman Preibus has planted it already) whether candidates running for the GOP nomination will pledge to support the winner. Mr. Trump will be under pressure to take that pledge, but one wouldn’t be surprised if he resists — or reneges.