The Republican Party is now the party of Donald Trump. That's a pretty astounding statement, but as Trump continues to not only lead in all the primary polls but also to drive the debate for all the other contenders, it would be hard to make the case that Trump hasn't completed what might be called a hostile takeover of the Republican Party brand. This could always change, of course -- nothing is ever set in stone in a presidential race. But for the time being, Trump's not only the party frontrunner, he is actually defining the race for everyone else.
This state of affairs is downright terrifying to the establishment Republican Party machine. Trump is, almost by definition, uncontrollable. He could do or say anything, and often does. The party elders have watched the rise of Trump and seen their own power diminish. What worries them most is the fact that so far Trump refuses to publicly commit to supporting the Republican candidate (if it turns out not to be him), and has left the door wide open for a third-party or independent run. Trump is using this threat as leverage over the party, which he freely admits.
Some party leaders are now contemplating pushing back, but this effort seems destined to blow up in their faces. This first surfaced in the run-up to the first televised Republican debate, as the Republican National Committee considered limiting the debate stage to only those who would pledge not to run an independent campaign if they lost the Republican nomination. In the end, they didn't do this, and Trump took center stage. The first question he faced was about his commitment to not running independently, which he again refused to rule out.
Now some state-level party leaders are pondering whether to use their own leverage to force any Republican candidate who appears on the primary ballot to sign a "loyalty oath" to the party, and foreswear an independent bid. Some states already have such rules, such as South Carolina. Some states have "sore loser" rules which bar any primary candidate who doesn't win their party's nomination from appearing on the general election ballot, such as Virginia. Virginia's Republicans are considering making this rule even more explicit, and other states such as North Carolina may follow this trend.
This might turn out to be a gigantic mistake. Especially for states changing the rules this time around, because such actions would so obviously be aimed at Donald Trump. Trump has stated that what would drive him to a third-party bid would be if the Republican Party treats him unfairly, and this certainly seems to fit the bill.
The constitutionality of such "loyalty oath" rules is an open question. So is their enforceability. If a candidate pledges not to run as an independent and then later breaks that pledge, could one party alone keep him off the general election ballot? Setting the rules for a primary is one thing, because primary elections are essentially an intra-party affair. Since it's a Republican primary, the Republicans can set whatever criteria they wish for who appears on the ballot -- it's their party, and it's their primary. Same goes for Democrats for a Democratic primary, of course. But a general election is supposed to be a neutral event, held by the government (not one individual political party). So how can one party dictate the criteria for who gets to appear on the general election ballot? Signing and reneging on a loyalty oath to one party is not against federal law, after all.
If the state-level Republicans do decide to create loyalty oaths in a naked bid to keep Donald Trump off their primary ballots, his supporters are going to be enraged. "Donald Trump" isn't all that hard to spell, so I could easily see a massive write-in campaign for Trump, either in the Republican primaries or even in the general election, if the Republicans successfully keep his name from appearing. It worked for Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, and her name's a lot harder to spell.
The Trump phenomenon is truly a cult of personality. Most of Trump's supporters are loyal to Donald Trump and not to the Republican Party at large. To put this another way, I doubt there are many Republican voters who are saying to themselves: "I'm thinking of voting for Trump, but I'd only do so if he swore to support the Republican candidate and not make an independent run." Perhaps there are a few, but most of Trump's supporters didn't make up their minds that way.
The Republican Party leaders are caught in a real bind. They really don't want to see Trump win their nomination, but Trump has already thrown down the "fairness" gauntlet. Keeping his name off the ballot would be seen as patently unfair by almost everyone (Trump supporter or not), and would give Trump a built-in excuse to launch a third-party bid if he didn't win the Republican nomination. Not that he'd really need an excuse, because predicting whether Trump will indeed run as an independent is already impossible (indeed, predicting anything Trump does is impossible). Will Trump play their game and sign loyalty oaths he has no intention of being bound by? Will there be some prominent court battles over the constitutionality of such rules? Trump sues people at the drop of a hat, so this could be a likely outcome.
A goodly portion of Trump's supporters are already pretty annoyed with the Republican Party. If the party apparatus chose an outright hostile stance against Trump, these feelings are going to get a lot more acute. Which means if Trump does run independently, a lot of his voters are simply not going to return to the Republican fold and support anyone else's candidacy. The overwhelming feeling -- on both sides -- will be of betrayal. Establishment Republicans will be saying Trump betrayed the party, and Trump voters will be saying the Republican Party is trying to rig the vote in advance. They'll both be at least partially right.
Fox News and the Republican National Committee allowed Trump into the first televised debate, and tens of millions of people watched. If Trump had been excluded, that number would likely have been an order of magnitude lower. This pretty much ended the talk of excluding Trump from debates, since television channels are in business to make money, and Trump obviously has his own built-in audience. But the primaries don't involve such questions of commerce. The Republican Party controls their own ballots. But if they use this power to exclude Donald Trump, his supporters are not going to meekly return to the party ranks and vote for Jeb or Marco or any of the others. In fact, making such a move might even create a groundswell of Trump voters demanding that he immediately bolt the party and make his own run for president. State-level Republicans don't seem to realize that they're playing with fire by even contemplating such rules. In the end, they may get badly burned, because the backlash (to borrow a Trumpism) "will be huge."
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