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Experts say conservative hopes of a 3rd-party “stop Trump” bid are probably doomed

Mitt Romney gave a speech slamming Donald Trump at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. Experts say it'd be very difficult for Romney to launch a third-party bid if Trump wins the nomination.
Mitt Romney gave a speech slamming Donald Trump at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. Experts say it'd be very difficult for Romney to launch a third-party bid if Trump wins the nomination.
George Frey/Getty Images

Republican elites unwilling to support Donald Trump met on Thursday to see if they can still rally behind a third-party presidential candidate, according to the Washington Post.

"The third-party scenario drew intense interest, but it was also acknowledged that it would be logistically and financially difficult," Robert Costa reported.

Just how tough would an independent run be? To learn more, I spoke with four of the country's top experts on ballot access rules to figure out what hurdles a third-party movement would face.

The upshot: Pulling off an independent bid is still technically possible, but doing so would be extremely difficult.

"There's almost no way they can still get on the ballots," says Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution. "I don't know what people are smoking. This is truly a pipe dream."

Assuming Trump secures the nomination, there would be four main ways for a leading Republican — Mitt Romney and Speaker Paul Ryan have been floated as possibilities— to still run for president.

Option 1: Gather signatures to get an independent on the ballot

Each state has different and sometimes onerous requirements for getting on the ballot as an independent candidate, and their deadlines are rapidly approaching. But, theoretically, there's still time for someone to run with no party affiliation in every state.

Option 2: Persuade an existing third party to nominate a prominent Republican

This would be easier and less expensive, but Republicans would have to find an existing third party willing to let itself essentially be taken over. (One professor I interviewed jokingly called this the "host possession" scenario.)

In addition to the Republicans and Democrats, there are only two parties — the Green Party and the Libertarian Party — that have access to field a candidate in more than 15 states. Both already have their expected nominees.

Option 3: Start a new third party and get it on the ballot

States have wildly different rules for how to do this. But in about 10 of them, it's actually less of a lift to get the signatures necessary for fielding a presidential candidate than it is to get on the ballot as an independent, according to Richard Winger, an advocate and editor of Ballot Access News.

Option 4: Combine the options

Under this scenario, Republicans could begin by taking over an existing party (or parties) that have already secured ballot access in a handful of states. Then the candidate could also form new third parties and work to garner hundreds of thousands of signatures to run as an independent in the remaining states.

(I should add there is technically a fifth option: a national write-in candidacy. However, seven states prohibit them, and write-in candidates almost always lose.)

An independent campaign would require at least a half-million signatures

At first blush, none of this sounds so bad: Come up with a party name, get some people to sign a sheet, and — presto! — third-party bid.

But once you start digging into the actual obstacles in the way, the odds of pulling it off sound much more far-fetched.

Let's start with why option one — launching a purely independent bid with no help from an existing party — would be so difficult.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Each state has its own arbitrary number of signatures for getting on the ballot as an independent presidential candidate. Some states have a set number — 10,000 signatures in Massachusetts, for instance — while the others have a hodgepodge of formulas for determining the threshold. (In Montana, presidential candidates are required to get as many signatures as 5 percent of the total votes cast for the last governor.)

These different signature requirements add up quickly. Put together, an independent candidate would need about 930,000 signatures to get on the ballot in all 50 states, according to an analysis by Ballotpedia.

There is the option of running as an independent in 40 states while also forming new third parties on the ballot in the 10 states where doing so is easier than running as an independent. That would reduce the number of signatures needed to about 500,000, Winger said.

The standard rate for paid canvassers working with time constraints is around $4 per signature, putting a ballpark price range for this effort over $2 million, according to Evan Nison, who has run several ballot initiative campaigns for medical marijuana reform.

"And that's assuming all the states permit paid canvassers," Nison says. "If they don't, it would be a near-impossible task to do in a short period of time."

Beyond the canvassers, the third-party effort would almost certainly also need to hire lawyers, communications staff, and other managers, according to Nison.

State rules and deadlines make it more difficult than simply getting the signatures

But it's not just the sheer number of signatures needed that makes it difficult to get on enough ballots for a serious independent bid.

Each state also has its own rules for making sure the signatures are legitimate. In Virginia, for instance, an independent candidate needs at least 200 signatures from each of the state's congressional districts.

In Nevada, the person collecting the ballots has to say that all of the signers are registered to vote in the county where they live. Other states require every sheet of the signatures to be notarized, according to Winger.

The Republican National Convention in 2012

The Republican National Convention in Florida in 2012. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

All of these obscure state rules create big opportunities for the legal teams of the Democratic and Republican parties to challenge the legitimacy of the signatures. "I have no doubt that both political parties would have lawyers ready to knock people off the ballot," Kamarck said.

Then there's the issue of timing. The first deadline to submit the signatures for ballot access is May 9 in Texas, followed by four other states in June.

The Republican National Convention won't be held until July 18 — meaning that if the Republican operatives are serious about an independent candidacy, they can't wait to see if they can wrestle the nomination away from Trump at a brokered convention.

"The best way to get on the ballot in all 50 states is to be an organized political party well before the spring and summer. If you're trying to work that up now, it's just going to be very difficult to get on all 50," says Greg Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who has written extensively about election law. "I can't imagine how they would pull that off unless they started looking for the signatures today."

Taking over an existing third party with ballot access

Then there's the alternative route of trying to use an existing third party as a vehicle for an independent bid backed by Republican elites.

"You could work with a preexisting party that could qualify for its own ballot line," says Michael Kang, an Emory law professor and election law expert. "That would save you some of the work."

Of course, that would require finding the right party suitable for a takeover.

It's slim pickings. The four biggest parties — Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, and Green — are all nonstarters. The party with the fifth-most access to presidential ballot lines, the Constitution Party, only has access to ballots in 15 states, according to its website.

The Constitution Party has not determined its nominee but will be holding its convention in mid-April. (Officials with that party did not return a request for comment for this story.)

 (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson in 2012. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

There's also the Reform Party, to which Trump once belonged. A letter from the Reform Party chair in January said the party would be on the ballot in New York and Florida and is working to do so in California, Hawaii, and North Carolina as well.

There are 12 other parties that each only has ballot access in one state, according to Winger. But, as Magarian speculated, the third party would presumably want to use its leverage to extract some concessions out of an elite-led "stop Trump" movement.

"It's the 'mouse that roared' — presumably the party would have to have some sort of incentive to let [itself] get taken over by another party," Magarian said.

Why a third-party bid might still be possible, despite the long odds

One reason the experts are mostly pessimistic about a successful independent bid is that it hasn't really been done before this late in the process. But Kang, the Emory professor, notes that this kind of establishment-backed effort would really represent something unprecedented.

"When we've talked about third-party candidacies, they tended to be Trump-like people from the outside, who don't have the infrastructure," Kang said. "We don't know what it looks like when the Republican Party tries to force itself on the ballot through an alternate route; that just hasn't happened since, maybe, Teddy Roosevelt."

Kang also acknowledged that there were big obstacles to a third-party bid. But if any group of people might be equipped to take on these financial challenges, he said, it's the Republican establishment.

"If they tried putting a mainstream candidate on the ballot through an alternative route, they'll have much more of an ability to do it than anyone recently," he said.