The success of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate has to be getting under the skin of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“He led the largest city in the country as it prospered for a dozen years, and to see this guy who is all talk seize control of the apple cart is galling to him,” a Bloomberg friend told me this week. Maybe that explains why Ian Bremmer, a Time magazine columnist and president of the consulting firm Eurasia Group, issued the following tweet Saturday: “Word from those that know: Mike Bloomberg now seriously considering independent run.” His words have since ricocheted everywhere in retweets and made the Drudge Report.
But how serious is this boomlet? The climate for an independent in the race is favorable. For years, politicos have talked of Bloomberg as a potential White House contender who would resonate with an alienated electorate that wants to end government gridlock. More than 70 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track, with both the Democratic president and the GOP Congress unpopular. The upcoming election could feature major-party candidates who have negatives of above 40 percent with voters. A dynastic race between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton would leave many voters aching for fresh faces.
Bloomberg has been officially silent about any possible interest in the White House, spending his time managing his media company and a foundation that promotes his mix of socially liberal and fiscally conservative ideas. But he has fans in both parties. Last month, Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who runs Fox News, called on Bloomberg to run, saying “it’s time” for him “to step in the ring.” New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin reported in June that New York Democrats disgruntled with Hillary Clinton were urging him to run.
Should he run, he would easily have the resources to command media attention. Bloomberg is worth $36 billion, making him the tenth-richest person in America. In 2007, he authorized an extensive examination of the idea of an independent presidential bid. At the height of Bloomberg mania, in that same year, his top aide, Kevin Sheekey, told Newsweek that if his boss ran, it would be a $1 billion campaign.
The hype had its positive side effects. Without spending more than pocket change for polls and research, Bloomberg got magazine cover stories, TV news profiles, and an endless stream of media coverage for his plan (ultimately unsuccessful) to reduce congestion by charging a toll for entering the central business district of Manhattan. Political pros speculated on what a Bloomberg campaign would be like.
#share#“Who else but a billionaire could go to the working class and tell them he can help them? Nixon went to China. Sadat went to Jerusalem. Bloomberg could go to Detroit,” Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf said in 2007.
But after all the fun, Bloomberg pulled the plug on running after he became convinced the challenges were too great and that Barack Obama was going to be the fresh face who would steal the public spotlight.
Could a Bloomberg candidacy today succeed? Certainly, dissatisfaction with both major parties is higher than it was in 2008. Large numbers of Americans view Republicans as unprincipled and less than competent, and they see Democrats as feckless and unserious. Ballot access for an independent in all 50 states would be only an expensive irritation for someone of Bloomberg’s wealth. Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, estimates that a total of 600,000 signatures would guarantee an independent a spot on every state ballot. “Even if he paid absolute top dollar to signature collectors and submitted twice the required amount of signatures as a cushion, that would only cost him $5 million or $6 million,” he told me.
Bloomberg knows that the deck is stacked against him: Even if a third-party candidate managed to win 35 percent of the popular vote nationwide, it would be hard to carry a majority of the Electoral College.
At the same time, Bloomberg knows that the deck is stacked against him: Even if a third-party candidate managed to win 35 percent of the popular vote nationwide, it would be hard to carry a majority of the Electoral College. In the absence of an Electoral College majority — something that hasn’t happened since 1824 — the next president would be selected by an insiders’ election in the House, with each state’s delegations casting one vote, and a majority needed to prevail. Right now, Republicans control a commanding 34 state delegations, Democrats have a majority in 14, and two are split evenly. Given that every House member is a Democrat or Republican, an independent’s chances of victory are slim.
At the height of Perot’s popularity in 1992, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call surveyed 301 House members on how they would vote for president in the absence of an Electoral College majority. Two-thirds said they were uncommitted; the vast majority of the remainder indicated they would either vote the same way as their congressional district or would vote for their party’s nominee. “The clear upshot was that Perot was going to have a tough time winning in a two-party-dominated House,” recalls Jim Glassman, publisher of Roll Call at the time. The same would likely be true of Bloomberg should he run.
#related#Perot did phenomenally well as an independent, winning 19 percent of the popular vote. But he didn’t win a single electoral vote. What if he had done much better and won a third of the popular vote? The political reform group Fair Vote ran a scenario in which Perot drew equally from Bill Clinton, the Democrat, and George H. W. Bush. They also examined what would have happened if Perot had drawn 60 percent of his extra votes from Bush voters, and 40 percent from Clinton. Under both scenarios, Perot would probably have lost the popular vote and failed to win a majority in the Electoral College. The final result would have been decided in the House, which would have been unlikely to pick an independent who had lost the popular vote.
In 2013, as he prepared to retire as mayor, Bloomberg was grimly realistic about his odds of ever being elected president. He told New York magazine that the idea was “just impossible”:
I am 100 percent convinced that you cannot in this country win an election unless you are the nominee of one of the two major parties. The second thing I am convinced of is that I could not get through the primary process with either party.
Thus, while Bloomberg no doubt wants to be president and could afford the stratospheric spending requirements of a national campaign, the 73-year-old billionaire will probably decide not to run. The rules and obstacles that stack presidential politics against independent or third-party candidacies aren’t fair, but they are nonetheless real. In the end, three is still a crowd when it comes to high-stakes general elections for the presidency.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.