Third-party bid lingers as threat
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While Republican presidential front-runner Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Don Lemon explains handling of segment after Trump criticism NPR reporter after Pompeo clash: Journalists don't interview government officials to score 'political points' Lawyer says Parnas can't attend Senate trial due to ankle bracelet MORE may have ruled it out, both political parties have reason to fear a third-party candidate in 2016.

The conditions appear ripe for a candidate to launch a bid from outside of the Democratic and Republican parties, with voters showing a deep dissatisfaction with Washington and relative outsiders dominating the crowded GOP field.

To be sure, hardly anyone thinks a third-party candidate could actually win the White House. But there is little doubt that a late entrant could singlehandedly doom one of the other two nominees by siphoning off even a small fraction of votes.

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Third–party candidates have hurt both Democrats and Republicans in recent elections. Many think Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election in 2000, while others believe Ross Perot kept George H. W. Bush from being reelected in 1992.

"Nobody knows for sure, but it could definitely happen," Nader said Thursday of the prospect of a third-party entrant in the 2016 race.

He said the growing angst of the bases in both parties could potentially lead to a far-right Tea Party candidate emerging as an alternative to the eventual GOP nominee or a more liberal challenger taking on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"You could see someone splitting off, especially if it's done on the other side," Nader surmised.

He paused and then added with a laugh: "Then you couldn't be accused of the dreaded word: spoiler."

Other political watchers were more skeptical that a third-party challenger would emerge this cycle.

"I'd be surprised if there was a spoiler candidate for either party," said Christopher Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. "Both sides have been burned in the past."

But if it were to happen, Larimer said that such a candidate would pose a significant threat to one of the front-runners — especially as the race tightens.

"If there's a third party candidate that can pull away 5 percent of the vote — that can make a huge difference and decide an election," Larimer said.

Both former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz were floated as potential candidates, and both have ruled out running.

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, president of Potomac Strategy Group, said that RNC officials "deserve great credit for skillfully diffusing this ticking bomb" of the potential for a Republican to run as a third party candidate.

On Thursday, Trump signed a pledge vowing not run as a third party candidate were he to fail in his bid for the GOP nomination. 

"More importantly for Trump is that his agreement applies in reverse: If he wins the nomination, all the others will be supporting him," Mackowiak said. "This agreement removes a knock against Trump and will likely help him among more mainstream Republicans."

Nader noted that it's often only billionaires who are taken seriously as alternative candidates, because they have the ability to bypass the hurdle of having to raise the large sums of money needed to launch a campaign.

Nader, however, said that if Clinton were to become the nominee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could complicate her plans.

"The big question is what does Bernie do if he's won primaries and in April he's still behind Hillary?" Nader said. "The left isn't going to trust Hillary's rhetoric — she's not going to get away with it this time. So Bernie could have millions of people telling him, 'No. Run.' What happens? What does he decide?"

For his part, Sanders has promised that he would not run as a third party candidate.

"I made the promise that I would not and I will keep that promise,” Sanders said in July. “And the reason for that is I do not want to be responsible for electing some right-wing Republican to be president of the United States.”