Third Party Strategy Could Make Trump 2016 Kingmaker

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Much attention has been devoted to Donald Trump’s rage-filled, politically incorrect presidential campaign in recent weeks. Although Trump’s celebrity persona and fiery speeches have helped him gain popularity among Republicans, there does appear to be some authenticity among his level of political support.

Recent polls show that Trump has the momentum of a run-away freight train. An ABC/Washington Post poll released last week showed Trump with an incredible 24 percent among Republicans, leading his nearest rival by 11 points, a feat accomplished through a combination of conservative, red meat rhetoric and showmanship. New polls this week put his national numbers as high as 28 percent and show him building leads in early states like Florida (home of both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) and New Hampshire. He is running a close second to Scott Walker in Iowa.

What explains Trump’s early success? In an era where candidates come across as pre-packaged and overly scripted, Trump has offered consumers an entirely different product. Instead of playing it safe, he routinely questions President Obama’s authenticity as an American, has criticized war hero John McCain’s military record, and has openly called one of his GOP rivals a “lightweight” and “an idiot.”

Although I personally find Trump to be absurd and fairly offensive, the appeal of his candidacy to a base of voters who are—to quote the famous line from Network—“mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” is understandable. By forgoing the typical political niceties and instead raging against the machine, Trump has tapped into a populism that may not be pretty, but can help an unconventional candidate gain a following.

Although the issues are somewhat different, Trump seems to be the George Wallace of 2016. He is building a base of support by saying what is on his mind, even if much of it is revolting. In his classic The Making of the American President 1968, Teddy White wrote that Wallace was polling at 20 percent nationally and rising in September of that year before ending the campaign with about 14 percent of the popular vote and roughly nine percent of the electoral votes. It is possible that Trump could make a similar push through the use of social media and by dominating the 24 hour news cycle.

As with Wallace’s bid 47 years ago and Ross Perot’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns which drew significant numbers of general election votes, Trump should forgo the primary election and party nominating process. He should instead declare his candidacy as an independent. The third party campaign option for Trump makes as much sense as anything else in the crazy, mixed up world of 2016 presidential politics for a myriad of reasons.

First, bypassing the party nomination process would mean that Trump can take his message and larger-than-life personality directly to the general election. Instead of his campaign likely ending on Super Tuesday, a third party bid would keep him in the game until the final strike of the ninth inning.

Second, Trump has the financial resources to back the entire operation without having to rely on a major party organization. He can also afford the network of lawyers and staffers needed to navigate the complex third party ballot access laws that vary from state-to-state. Many third parties traditionally spend down their campaign resources on ballot access fights. Trump could not only foot the bill for ballot access, but would have an ample supply of money left for advertising and organizing.

Lastly, Trump would have a legitimate shot at gaining entry into the televised presidential debates, something that has not been done since 1996. The Commission on Presidential Debates states that in order to qualify to appear in the presidential debates a candidate must “have at least a mathematical chance of securing an Electoral College majority” and “have a level of support of at least 15% (fifteen percent) of the national electorate”. A combination of a 50 state ballot access drive and the use of targeted advertising and populist messaging could certainly help Trump meet both of these requirements.

Although Trump’s candidacy is a longshot in either the GOP primary or the general election as an independent, he has already demonstrated potential to tap into a disenchanted base within the electorate. Running as a third party candidate would allow him to ride that wave of populism and keep his message alive throughout the entire length of the 2016 race, perhaps having the power to tip what will likely be another close presidential election in one direction or the other.

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