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Trump threatens a third-party bid: Why the GOP must take him seriously

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(Read caption) In this March 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Louisville, Ky.

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In yet another taunt to the Republican Party, Donald Trump is, once again, dangling the threat of a third-party run.

The businessman-turned-GOP frontrunner said Thursday he is being treated unfairly by the Republican establishment and is considering running as an independent. 

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“I am watching television, and I am seeing ad, after ad, after ad put in by the establishment, knocking the hell out of me, and it’s really unfair,” Mr. Trump said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” "They're spending now $100 million on negative, phony ads on Trump University."

“But if I leave, if I go, regardless of independent, which I may do – I mean, may or may not. But if I go, I will tell you, these millions of people that joined, they’re all coming with me,” he added.

It's not the first time the outspoken candidate has threatened to break from the party. He's issued similar warnings in July, November, December, and February. Though he signed a loyalty pledge with the Republican National Committee last fall, promising to support the eventual nominee, the party has no legal authority to bar Trump from a third-party run – and Trump knows this.

“I signed a letter with the RNC, and I said, you know, I wanna do this as a Republican – the pledges, they call it," he said in Thursday's interview. "But I’m not being treated the right way. I am not being treated properly.”

Should he launch a third-party bid, Republicans have good reason to be concerned.

Some 68 percent of Trump’s supporters would follow him out of the party and vote for him if he went ahead with a third-party candidacy, according to a December USA Today/Suffolk University poll. Only 18 percent said they’d stick with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or whoever wins the nomination.

In hypothetical general election match-ups, Hillary Clinton would lose to both GOP candidates Senators Cruz and Rubio. She would lose to Cruz by 3 points, 47 to 44, and to Rubio by 7 points, 48 to 41, according to a December Public Policy Polling survey.

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Introduce Trump as a third-party candidate, however, and Mrs. Clinton wins the popular vote, with Trump taking a significant percentage of votes from his GOP rivals. In a three-way contest between Clinton, Rubio, and Trump, for example, Trump would take 23 percent of the total votes, and Clinton would best Rubio 39-to-33.

Similarly, he would earn 20 percent of the vote in a three-way contest with Clinton and Cruz, giving the former secretary of state an 8-point lead over the Texas senator.

Still, the presidency is not decided by popular vote, and even getting the most electoral votes wouldn't necessarily guarantee a candidate's seat in the Oval Office. Under the Twelfth Amendment, if no candidate wins at least 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses the next president from the three highest electoral-vote winners, and the Senate chooses the Vice President from the top two. Such a scenario, while unlikely, could strain the legitimacy of both parties, as well as the electoral system itself.

"If Donald Trump doesn't stick to his pledge not to run as an independent it could pretty much doom the Republican Party next fall," Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, said in a Dec. statement.

Which is why Republicans are feverishly working at last-ditch efforts to stop Trump. On Thursday, 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney issued a blistering attack speech at the University of Utah, calling Trump a "phony" and a "fraud." At least two new anti-Trump super PACs are bombarding the airwaves in early voting states with attack ads designed to paint Trump as a scam artist.

GOP Governors and donors recently met in Washington to discuss how to derail Trump, surrogates have been called in to attack the candidate, and rival campaigns have drafted plans to overtake him – all for naught, it appears. The billionaire businessman continues to top polls; he's won 10 of the 15 early nominating contests; he's earned some 46 percent of the delegates that have been awarded so far; and he's collected endorsements from the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.

“I’ve brought in millions and millions of people to the Republican Party, and they’re gonna throw those people away,” Trump said in televised comments Thursday. “And I’ll be honest – whether I ran as an independent or not – those people will never go out and vote” for another candidate.

To be sure, Trump is doing well enough in the polls and the early nominating contests that he has the clearest path of any of his rivals to the nomination and may not need to launch a third-party bid. And it may be an empty threat. It's not easy, or cheap, to get on the ballot in all 50 states, and Trump might not make all the ballot deadlines. Some states also have “sore loser” laws that might block him from getting on the ballot as anything but a Republican.

And running a successful third party candidacy is extremely unlikely, as The Christian Science Monitor has previously pointed out. Still, forecasting blog FiveThirtyEight says Trump "might be the closest thing we’ve seen to a viable third-party candidate in a long time."

And this is an election cycle like none other. If an outspoken businessman and reality TV star who insults Mexicans, Muslims, war veterans, and women can lead the GOP nominating race, even wilder things could happen. If there's one thing political observers – and GOP elites – have learned this year, it is that this election cycle is anything but conventional – and Trump is anything but predictable.