Why Trump can't run as an independent

Donald Trump and GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich hold a news conference at Trump Tower in New York on December 5.

Story highlights

  • Donald Trump changed his party enrollment this week from GOP to unaffiliated
  • In a column published in April, John Avlon explores Trump's prospects as an independent candidate
  • Avlon: Trump's embrace of birther rhetoric would doom his appeal to most independent voters

Among the political threats wielded by Donald Trump in his carnival barker quest for the presidency is that if denied the Republican nomination, he would run as an independent.

As an independent myself, I usually cheer the prospect of any independent campaign. It shakes up the arrogant assumption that our elections are wholly owned subsidiaries of the two major parties and their respective special interests.

But Trump has already burned his bridges with most independent voters by choosing to go full birther and pander to the far right wing of the GOP.

It's a shame because in his purely CEO persona, Trump could have mounted a semi-credible independent campaign. Look at what Ross Perot was able to accomplish with such an appeal nearly 20 years ago or what Mayor Michael Bloomberg has done in New York to date.

John P. Avlon

An independent candidate running on a proven record of executive leadership, job creation and improving American competitiveness could be a serious presidential candidate this time around. Especially because a new Washington Post/ABC poll shows that 41% of American voters now identify as independents. We are the plurality and provide the balance of power in any election.

Independent voters tend to be closer to Republicans on economic issues and closer to Democrats on social issues. In other words, they are fiscally conservative but socially liberal. They hate hyper-partisanship and special-interest gridlock in Washington, and they have been deficit hawks since at least the days of Perot.

It's perhaps useful to remember that Perot campaigned primarily on reducing the deficit and the debt at a time when America was struggling to get out of a recession and many people thought that Japan was a rising power that would eclipse the United States. Now, many of those same conditions exist, with China taking the place of Japan in the "Rise and Fall of Great Powers" narrative.

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But crucially, Perot was decidedly liberal-to-libertarian in his social beliefs. He was avowedly abortion rights and even back then supported gays in the military. The CEO candidate is usually liberated from social issue litmus tests by saying that what people do in their private lives doesn't affect on-the-job performance. A guy such as Trump could embody the old libertarian line, "I want the government out of the boardroom and the bedroom." Many would cheer.

But instead, Trump has done a 180-degree reversal on abortion (like Mitt Romney before him) in the hopes of winning the GOP nomination, because abortion-rights Republicans have become an endangered species despite the endurance of "individual freedom" rhetoric. (We can get into how Barry Goldwater's wife co-founded Arizona Planned Parenthood in the 1930s another time.)

Even worse, he made a strategic decision to pander to the outer reaches of American politics by embracing thoroughly discredited conspiracy theories to drum up support from the fringe. This has succeeded in the short run, compounded by his already high name recognition. But it will hurt both Trump and the GOP in the long run, while nuking any hope he had of appealing to independent voters.

If Trump were to try and run as an independent, he could still win enough votes to poll in the low single digits of the popular vote, as Pat Buchanan did before him. But given his super-rich persona -- now added to his opportunistic endorsement of Obama Derangement Syndrome -- his votes would come entirely out of the Republican nominee's hide, opening the door for President Obama's re-election.

In contrast, Perot's independent campaign won 19% of the popular vote in 1992 -- coming in second in terms of all-time independent presidential candidacies to Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party presidential campaign in 1912. They won votes from the vast vital center of the American electorate. Trump would not.

Trump has debased himself and any ideas he had of a political career with the serial idiocies he's articulated in this flirtation with a presidential campaign.

Of course, there will be a cadre of political consultants who encourage him to run because they see dollar signs in their eyes, not because they are thinking of the good of the republic. This is predictable but pathetic.

Independent voters are now the largest and fastest-growing segment of the electorate. At the end of the day, we decide which party will win control of Congress or which candidate will win the presidency. But a candidate who panders to the extremes and parades his own irresponsibility cannot assume that he'll win independent votes just because he slaps the independent label on a self-funded candidacy.

A credible independent candidate needs to be a consistent advocate for the principled positions independent voters care about -- reducing the deficit and debt while combating hyper-partisanship.

Trump made a decision to inflame polarization in the pursuit of self-promotion. As a result, he sacrificed his right to be taken seriously as well as any claims he had to represent independent voters credibly in the 2012 election.