There's generally some discussion about third-party or independent candidates as presidential elections progress. After all, supporters of every candidate but two are being asked to settle for someone they didn't support. That's bound to lead to a desire for another option.
But this election has had talk about independent candidacies baked-in, from Trump's original agreement with the GOP to not run as an independent to Mike Bloomberg's brief dalliance with the idea (should Trump and Bernie Sanders be the nominees). Among some Republicans, the narrowing of the field to one candidate has inspired another bull market on independent candidate chatter.
There's a sense in which that talk is not about the presidency at all. With Trump at the top of the ticket, there's concern that Hispanic and black voters will turn against the party even more and that a number of Republicans, uninterested in voting for the nominee, will simply stay home. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told attendees at a fundraiser last month that "[t]he Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I've never seen in 30 years," as reported by Politico on Thursday morning. The thinking, as the Huffington Post reports, is that a third-party or independent bid could, theoretically, give those Hispanics and wavering Republicans someone to come out and vote for who isn't Donald Trump — and then vote for Republicans down the rest of the ballot.
This is an optimistic strategy, to say the least. If you're looking for someone to come out of the blue and build an enthusiastic base of support that brings people to the polls, well, the Republicans already have that. Could you get a number of Republicans to come out and vote for a protest candidate? Possibly, but if they're that fervent about it, wouldn't they come out and vote for their party's candidates anyway?
Let's set the utility of that strategy aside for a moment. Instead, let's focus on how such a candidate could even get on the ballot.
We're talking about two possible goals and two possible ways of achieving them. The possible goals are either (1) to win the presidency or (2) to improve down-ballot voting. The ways of achieving those things are either (1) to glom onto an existing party or (2) to run as an independent.
These four things are interrelated. It's probably safe to fold the second goal into the first simply because putting someone on the ballot in a few states solely to drive up turnout there would largely fail to leverage the energy that accompanies a national campaign, which is the whole point. So let's focus on how you get someone who can be on the ballot in all 50 states — or, at least, enough states to conceivably win the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Which leads us to the question of possible third-party vehicles.
It's tricky for other parties to navigate the different rules in order to appear on a state presidential ballot. This isn't unintentional; the Democrats and Republicans are very happy to set benchmarks that are easy for them to surpass and difficult for others. As a result, the number of parties that are qualified to appear on a ballot varies by state.
So in 2012, the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate was on the ballot in 48 states. The Green Party's was on the ballot in 37 — up from 32 in 2008. The Constitution Party was on the ballot in 26. There were other states where the candidates could be written in, but that's obviously not as useful.
This year, the Libertarian Party believes it will be on the ballot in all 50 states. The problem is that the party already has a candidate: Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico. So if you want to take over a third party that will be on the ballot across the country, your options are limited. (We suspect the Green Party would not be terribly enthusiastic about helping.)
Leaving the other option: getting on the ballot as an independent candidate.
To get on the ballot as an independent, most states require that you collect a certain number of signatures, often tied to turnout in the previous election, to prove that you have support and/or resources. (After all, if any random person could run for president as an independent, the ballot every four years would be a mile long. There are currently 1,718 people registered with the FEC as presidential candidates.)
The team at Ballotpedia has done the hard work of figuring out the critical numbers at play here: how many signatures are needed and when they are due. More signatures are generally needed in larger states, which makes sense given that it's often a reflection of the population. But the time frame varies widely.
The trickiest states are probably North Carolina and Texas. In North Carolina, you need almost 90,000 signatures by June 9. In Texas, you need 80,000 signatures — by next Monday. So that's not a great sign for an independent candidate hoping to get on the ballot and reel in a lot of Republicans.
To collect those signatures, you need one of two things: a lot of organization or a lot of money. People usually opt for the latter, hiring paid signature-gatherers to flood the streets and bother people at grocery stores to sign petitions. It works, but it's not cheap. Ballotpedia estimates that the cost of collecting signatures in 2014 ranged from $1.05 to $6.44 per signature. That varies by state, but if we look at the upper end of that range, we're talking about a $5.5 million investment to get on the ballot in all 50 states.
Well, except it's too late for Texas. But the choice here isn't either/or. A candidate could run on a third-party line in Texas. (In some states, Ballotpedia notes, forming a new party is easier than getting on the ballot as an independent, but the deadline for doing that in Texas was Jan. 2.) But an operation that geared up quickly and was willing to use any tools at its disposal to get on the ballot could quite conceivably still cobble together a third-party/independent run.
Then there's just that one other hurdle: seeing if it actually worked.