GOP faces hurdles if it runs an anti-Trump third-party candidate

GOP faces hurdles if it runs an anti-Trump third-party candidate
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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents A history lesson on the Confederacy for President Trump GOP senator: Trump hasn't 'changed much' since campaign MORE’s rise has sparked rumblings of an anti-Trump Republican candidate running as a third party if Trump wins the GOP nomination. 

But to do so would take a concerted effort to get on states’ ballots, convince voters of the candidate’s viability and ultimately, leap over rules to capture enough members of the Electoral College.

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“It doesn’t matter what [Republican National Committee chairman] Reince Priebus says, if it’s quite clear that a large number of significant Republicans just can’t back Trump, then something will happen,” said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow a the Ethics and Public Policy Center, predicting a party shift if Trump, an unconventional Republican candidate, wins the party’s nomination. 

Running an establishment Republican as a third-party candidate is not far-fetched. 

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry have been floated as potential third party candidates, though both have denied any interest.

And a secret group of conservative donors and Republican operatives met last week to discuss how to thwart Trump’s campaign. 

The group agreed that preventing Trump from receiving the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination is a much safer option, but members of the group also discussed the nuclear option of stopping the populist candidate with a third-party contender in the general election. 

“It is very important that people understand that the other options are options we would pursue not to be spoilers, but to actually win the presidency,” said Quin Hillyer, a longtime conservative columnist who is serving as a spokesman for the group. “We are not talking about some quixotic, ‘look at us’ effort.” 

But a consequence of denying Trump the nomination if he comes close but fails to get enough delegates to win outright is that he could decide to run as a third party candidate himself or as a write-in candidate, Olsen said. 

“I do think if Trump were denied that he would have a very high likelihood of running a write-in campaign,” Olsen said. “How hard is it to write Trump?” 

Even Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham: Trump's Charlottesville rhetoric 'dividing Americans, not healing them' OPINION: Congress should censure Trump for his unfit conduct Supporting 'Dreamers' is our civic and moral duty MORE (R-S.C.), an outspoken critic of the real estate mogul who has lined up behind Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe media couldn't be more blatant in distorting Trump's words on Charlottesville Curtis wins GOP primary for House seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz Kimmel: Let’s make Trump a king so he has no power MORE (R-Texas) to stop Trump, warned of the grave consequences of preventing Trump from receiving the nomination if he has the most delegates. 

"He would leave — and he'd have a right to leave," Graham said in a podcast interview with former Democratic strategist David Axelrod. "If he got two-thirds of what he needs, which I think he's well on his way to doing, for us to steal from him is not going to help the party.” 

But if Trump can’t be stopped at the convention, the party is faced with the fact that a big chunk of the Republican Party would be unwilling to back him, leading to the possibility of a more conventional Republican running as a third-party candidate. 

Anti-Trump Republicans would then have the conundrum of whether stopping Trump would spit Republican votes and ultimately give Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonAssange meets U.S. congressman, vows to prove Russia did not leak him documents High-ranking FBI official leaves Russia probe OPINION | Steve Bannon is Trump's indispensable man — don't sacrifice him to the critics MORE the advantage

But Hillyer stressed the anti-Trump group is comprised of conservatives with lots of grassroots understanding and experience who wouldn’t pursue a plan that would ultimately help Clinton. 

“I don’t think there was a single person in the room who said they would support Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.” 

But for a third-party candidate to win the White House, a few things would have to happen.  

To start with, a candidate would have to either register to be on the ballot in every state, a process that can be difficult and varies state to state, or choose to be a write-in candidate and start campaigning. 

But the candidate isn’t just campaigning for voter support but also for the 270 out of the 538 possible Electoral College votes needed to win the White House, just as the Democratic and Republican nominees will do.  

The most serious exploration of a third party bid to date in this election cycle came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ultimately made the calculation a win wouldn’t be possible. 

“I believe I could win a number of diverse states — but not enough to win the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to win the presidency,” Bloomberg wrote in his announcement that he would not run. 

Electors in the Electoral College, who are chosen by state parties, are bound to pledge for the popular vote winner of their congressional district or state. Twenty-nine states go as far as banning electors from voting against their pledged candidate. 

However, some so-called faithless electors in the past have decided not to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged, tricky and technically illegal caveat that could disregard the votes of Americans at the polls. But there has rarely been legal action against these electors. 

In one recent case, a Washington state elector in 1976 pledged for Republican Gerald Ford but cast his vote instead for Ronald Reagan, prompting the state legislature to pass a law levying a $1,000 fine against an elector who broke with his state. 

Electors have been lobbied to change their votes and in some cases have received death threats and email viruses in each election cycle since 2000, according to Robert M. Alexander, an Ohio Northern University professor who has studied these instances. 

Alexander surveyed electors from 2000 on, and an average of 10 percent of electors admitted they considered defecting from their pledged candidates. That high of a number lends the potential for chaos. 

“You’re disenfranchising hundreds of thousands if not one million people by one faithless vote,” Alexander said in an interview with The Hill. 

Although it is rare for more than one elector to switch candidates, if enough Republican electors do not want Trump to win despite him winning the popular vote, they could side with the third-party candidate. 

“Trump has created enough controversy within the party that there’s going to be folks that would not be able to hold their nose and vote for him,” said Alexander. “I could absolutely see an elector or two or more say ‘I want to be the person who stood up to Donald Trump in 2016.’”

Such a move would lead to a major lawsuit that the Supreme Court would have to decide, predicted Olsen, who thinks it’s unlikely that enough electors would disregard their constituents.

“All of these [scenarios] are low probability, but I cannot imagine a circumstance where a faithless elector or a set of faithless electors would decide the presidency.”  

Even so, it is possible that a third-party candidate could pick off enough electors to deny any candidate the 270 vote threshold. 

If that happens, the newly elected House would then decide when sworn in January 2017, putting even more pressure on an already important election year for House members. 

Under this scenario, each state gets one vote, meaning the entire state delegation — regardless of party — must agree on a single candidate.  

The odds of such a scenario are “less than 10 percent, [but] they obviously rise with each step of the way,” Olsen said. 

“This is a West Wing or a House of Cards episode that may play out in the real world.”