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How Donald Trump won by signing 'loyalty pledge'

With great fanfare, Donald Trump promised not to run for president as an independent. But the pledge is not legally binding.

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    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks at a signed pledge during a news conference in Trump Tower, in New York on Thursday. Trump ruled out the prospect of a third-party White House bid and vowed to support the Republican Party's nominee, whoever it may be.
    Richard Drew/AP
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Donald Trump has signed “the pledge.”

That is, Mr. Trump has agreed to support the eventual Republican presidential nominee and not run as an independent if that nominee isn’t him.

Trump put signature to paper Thursday afternoon, after a meeting with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus at Trump Tower in Manhattan, then held a free-wheeling press conference, also at Trump Tower.

“I will be totally pledging my allegiance to the Republican Party and the conservative principles for which it stands,” the Republican front-runner said, surrounded by supporters and holding up a copy of the pledge.

He said Mr. Priebus has been “extremely fair” to him.

But if you think Trump has capitulated or allowed someone else to tell him what to do, guess again. All of this happened on Trump’s own terms, at the time and place of his choosing. He made a big spectacle of it, “winning” the political news cycle yet again.

Most important, the pledge is not legally enforceable. What happened on Thursday was a show. If Trump doesn’t win the GOP nomination, there’s nothing to stop him from going independent. At the press conference, Trump was asked every which way if he might end up running as an independent anyway, and he insisted he wouldn’t.

“No, I have no intention of changing my mind,” Trump said.

But one can easily imagine, sometime next year, a circumstance in which Trump does not win the nomination but decides “for the good of the country” or “because it is the will of the people” that he run anyway.

Trump would, of course, have to factor in the optics of going back on a promise, but he’s worth billions of dollars and has a base of support. It’s a prospect that makes Republican leaders shudder – the reason for the pledge in the first place – and brings back memories of Ross Perot in 1992. Mr. Perot, tapping into his own personal fortune, won 19 percent of the vote and is widely seen as handing the election to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

In fact, even as Trump promised not to “tear up that pledge,” he asserted that nobody can control his actions. He said it in the context of his financial independence as a candidate, but the larger message was clear.

“I'm not controlled by lobbyists. I'm not controlled by anybody,” Trump said. “I'm controlled by the people of the country in order to make our country great again."

Trump also took advantage of the live TV coverage to tout the latest national poll, from Monmouth University, which shows him with 30 percent of the Republican primary vote – an all-time high among major national polls. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson placed second at 18 percent. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tied for third at 8 percent.

Former CEO Carly Fiorina came in at 4 percent. All told, the three outsiders – Trump, Dr. Carson, and Ms. Fiorina, none of whom has ever held elective office – command 52 percent of the vote, a clear slap at the GOP establishment.

We ask again: Would voters really mind all that much if Trump later backs off a promise to that same Republican establishment?

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