Any list of prominent third-party possibilities has to start with Trump, and not just because the flamboyant billionaire could hypothetically fund such a campaign (although he still hasn’t put that much of his own money into his current effort and has run the nation’s first, free Twitter-based campaign). While presidential campaigns always feature more than just the two major party nominees, some years the non-Republicans and non-Democrats only get a few votes, while in other years they win several percentage points or more. If he ran as an independent it’s possible that Trump could be in the latter category, in part because he is in some ways similar to the two most successful third-party candidates of the past half-century: George Wallace and Ross Perot.
Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, ran on a platform of law and order and white grievance in 1968 and got 13.5% of the vote — after having soared as high as the mid-20s in some polls. Wallace was the last third partier to win a state: He captured five Southern states and came close to denying Richard Nixon an Electoral College majority. This circumstance likely would have made Hubert Humphrey president because the Democrats solidly held the House of Representatives, which picks the president if no one gets a majority (with each state delegation getting a single vote).
In 1992 Perot, a Texas businessman, was a populist who ran against free trade, national deficits, and political gridlock. Perot outdid Wallace in some surveys, actually reaching the 40% level in June. In November, he didn’t win any states, but 18.9% of the electorate chose him to go to the White House. (Four years later, in Perot’s second and final run, he fell to 8.4%.)
Neither Wallace nor Perot were true economic conservatives. Wallace was a Southern populist willing to use tax money for middle and working class needs, and while a deficit hawk, Perot was against tax cuts that added to the national debt. At the very least Wallace and Perot were to the left of the current Republican economic consensus, which is precisely where Trump’s economic policy lies. Trump pulls from the platforms of both Wallace and Perot, and there’s a sizable audience for this approach. In the 1970s, Oakland University sociologist Donald Warren called the audience “Middle American Radicals,” or MARS, voters who are suspicious of both big government and big business and who feel that government helps the rich and the poor but not the middle class. John B. Judis wrote a fascinating piece for National Journal recently about how Trump, like Wallace and Perot before him, has activated these voters, who generally have low-to-mid levels of income and education. Pat Buchanan, who sought the GOP nomination in 1992 and 1996 and won New Hampshire in the latter, was another MARS-aligned candidate.
Republican presidential polling leader Donald Trump signed a pledge earlier this year agreeing to support the eventual GOP nominee, but that agreement is certainly not legally enforceable. If Trump wants to run as a third-party or independent candidate, there’s nothing stopping him. Trump is aware of this: The weekend before Thanksgiving, he retreated to his pre-pledge position, saying that he needs to be “treated fairly” by the GOP in order to rule out an independent bid. Some senior Republicans naturally wonder if the only outcome Trump will regard as fair is his installation as the party nominee.