For months, the Republican establishment has faced a difficult dilemma in dealing with poll leader Donald Trump. Many GOP elites think the billionaire's offensive statements are hurting their party — but they don't want to push back so hard that Trump bolts the party, runs as an independent, and picks up substantial support.
So it's no accident that after the chorus of condemnations from both Democrats and Republicans about Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, the mogul tweeted the following:
A new poll indicates that 68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP & ran as an independent. https://t.co/ztP5d2ctZl— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2015
The new poll, from Suffolk and USA Today, does indeed show that 68 percent of self-professed Trump supporters nationally would back a Trump independent candidacy, and that only 18 percent say they would not, in what Susan Page calls "a chilling sign for Republicans." There are reasons to believe the number of voters willing to back a Trump independent bid would shrink as the election gets closer, if they start approaching their vote choice more strategically. But in a close race, a Trump independent candidacy could very well cause the GOP nominee to lose (and Matt Yglesias has made the case that Trump's views fit very well with what we might expect from a theoretical third party).
Now, it's true that back in September Trump signed a pledge stating that he'll back the eventual GOP nominee. However, as I wrote at the time, there was nothing binding him to that pledge — and Trump very conspicuously qualified it by saying that he had to be treated "fairly."
What counts as "fair" is, it seems up to Trump. Two weeks ago, he implied that an effort from Republican consultant Liz Mair to raise money from Republican donors for a "guerrilla campaign" against Trump might violate "the deal," in his eyes (even though Mair is a free agent who has no current role with the Republican National Committee):
However, all this very well may be a bluff from Trump. He openly admitted at the first GOP debate that he liked to use the threat of an independent bid as "leverage" to get what he wanted from party elites. And "sore loser" ballot laws would prevent him from even appearing on the ballot in Ohio and Michigan if he runs in the primaries there — which, of course, would make it quite difficult for him to win the presidency.
Still, the risk of a Trump third party run is clearly one GOP elites aren't comfortable taking. That was evident when RNC chair Reince Priebus — who made the deal with Trump — was asked about Trump's new proposal by the Washington Examiner's David Drucker on Tuesday, and offered only a terse and muted disagreement. "I don't agree," Priebus said, "We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values." When Drucker followed up, Priebus said only, "That's as far as I'm going to go."