This story has been updated.
Dozens of prominent Republicans have pledged to ditch the GOP in the general election if Donald Trump is the nominee. The question is: Where will they go instead?
Anti-Trump leaders have tossed around a variety of alternatives to staying home or voting Democratic, including backing a third party or drafting Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, to run as an independent. None of them appear easy to pull off, though they are not necessarily impossible.
All of the most popular scenarios the #NeverTrump side has floated come with serious problems of their own, either due to logistics or politics.
Let’s go through the options individually. One idea a number of conservatives have floated, such as Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, is founding a new party to take on Trump from the right. Top donors and activists are exploring their options, according to recent reports in Politico and the New York Times.
The fantasy of Romney swooping in to carry the party-in-exile’s banner on the Grand New Party ticket is an appealing idea, but ballot rules make it difficult to pull off – especially if anti-Trump forces don’t start organizing immediately.
Texas alone, the crown jewel of the GOP’s electoral map, requires compiling almost 80,000 signatures before May 9 from registered voters for an independent candidate — all from voters who didn’t participate in the state’s already completed primary. The barrier to forming a new party in Texas somewhat less high, around 47,000 signatures and the deadline is slightly later in May. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is considering an independent bid of his own, has set a self-imposed deadline of mid-March to decide due to ballot concerns — and he has $41 billion to spend on a nationwide canvassing effort.
That doesn’t mean the barrier is insurmountable, though. Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, told MSNBC that he believed a court challenge to high signature requirements might force tougher states to grant a spot on the ballot. With enough resources and organization, Winger said a candidate could potentially alternate between petitioning states for independent access, trying to take over an existing minor party, or forming a new party, depending on which was easier.
All of this gets much harder logistically and legally the longer they wait, however, and at this point many Republicans are still holding out hope of crippling Trump in March or fighting him in a contested convention in late July.
The good news is that these barriers would also make it difficult for Trump to get on the ballot as an independent if he loses the Republican nomination, something that he’s threatened recently as talk of a contested convention increases.
What about existing third parties? The two main options are the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party, a paleoconservative party that emphasizes God and guns at home and non-interventionism abroad. But there are serious political and procedural issues with these options as well.
Some Trump critics have floated the idea of voting for either in protest or installing one of their own favorites as the nominee. Erick Erickson, the influential RedState editor, proposed Republicans “adopt” the Constitution Party as their home in exile.
Republicans have done this before at the state level, most notably in Colorado, where former Rep. Tom Tancredo ran for governor on the Constitution line after the GOP nominated a divisive candidate in 2010.
Officials with both the Constitution and Libertarian Parties who spoke to MSNBC sounded excited about the chance to court Republicans – but on their terms.
“We have been watching the Republican Party implode for a number of years, and this is finally the end result,” Peter Gemma, finance chairman for the Constitution Party, told MSNBC. “We would welcome their troops.”
They have ballot access problems of their own, however. Gemma said he had a modest goal of getting the party on the ballot in 24 states in 2016. It would take a major infusion of resources to get them full access.
That leaves the Libertarian Party, whose leaders are already arguing that their potentially universal ballot access makes them the preferred refuge for alienated Republicans and Democrats.
“I am the third party,” former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, the party’s 2012 nominee, told conservative gathering CPAC on Thursday. “The Libertarian Party will be on the ballot in all 50 states.”
Johnson, who is running for the Libertarian nomination again in 2016, notably addressed the crowd the same hour as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, who is considered an intellectual leader of the #NeverTrump movement on the right.
“I think Donald Trump wholly alienates more than half of Republicans,” Johnson told MSNBC. “If nothing comes of this election with regard to the Libertarian Party, then nothing is going to ever come of it, I don’t think.”
Johnson ticked off the list of his own disagreements with Trump: His “racist” comments; his anti-immigration position, which Johnson strongly disagreed with both as a libertarian and a former border state governor; and his opposition to free trade.
But Johnson has plenty of other disagreements with the GOP, his former party, and noted that Libertarian Party members tended to be social liberals.
“I’ve said a long time that marijuana is not doing harm to anyone else, where is the criminality in consuming marijuana?” he said.
That raises another issue: Republicans could pull the lever for the Libertarian or Constitution Party, but they might have to do so for a candidate or platform they’re not comfortable supporting.
The Constitution Party, for example, takes many of the same positions that Republicans have criticized Trump for adopting or nodding toward. Its platform opposes trade deals, is tough on legal and illegal immigration and calls for an isolationist foreign policy.
Virgil Goode, a former GOP congressman and the Constitution Party’s 2012 nominee, endorsed Trump last November as “the only candidate truly focused on reforming our immigration system.”
The Constitution Party also has been accused at times of fringe ties. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described finance chair Gemma a “longtime racist,” citing his connections to groups the center has labeled extreme and a report he appeared at an event with former KKK leader David Duke. Gemma, for his part, said the report was mistaken and that Duke and white supremacists “have no connection to the Constitution Party” nor does he agree with their views.
As for the Libertarian Party, Johnson could have some credibility with Republicans as a former governor. But he faces competition for the nomination, including from John McAfee, the paranoid tech entrepreneur whose recent biography is even more unconventional and bizarre than Trump’s.
These issues could be mitigated if anti-Trump Republicans managed to pick their own nominee for the Libertarian Party or Constitution Party, but that would be technically difficult and would likely face resistance from existing party members if they see a hostile takeover that pushes them from their core platform.
In the case of the Libertarian Party, delegates will choose its nominee at a convention in May, and the delegates will be chosen at individual state conventions across the country in the spring.
“It’s very impractical,” Nicholas Sarwark, chairman of the Libertarian Party, told MSNBC in an e-mail when asked about the possibility of an outside GOP effort. “It didn’t work for the Ron Paul people trying to infiltrate the GOP, and it’s unlikely to work for GOP people trying to infiltrate the Libertarian Party.”
That leaves Republicans with few easy choices for a unified response outside of a write-in campaign. That could give them a way to register their protest, but it’s not a strong option for fielding a viable national contender. It’s either stop Trump in the primaries or bust.