Former-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is again exploring a potential run for the presidency as an independent candidate. Bloomberg is a political opportunist and, at 73, retains a lean and hungry look. His policy positions, with their idiosyncrasies, tend toward classical liberalism. Speculation about a Bloomberg presidential campaign is neither novel nor a guarantee that he will actually run. But if the former-Democrat turned Republican turned independent does re-enter America’s tumultuous political waters, the Democrats may have the most to fear.
The core rationale for a Bloomberg candidacy in 2016 is space. If the Republicans nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz and the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, then the vacant centre provides a theoretical pathway for a centrist candidate. To win, Bloomberg would need to attract enough liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats to generate a plurality in individual states. By contrast, if the race is between Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, for instance, this rationale largely evaporates and a Bloomberg candidacy would be difficult to sustain.
Bloomberg poses less of a threat to a Republican candidate, even Trump or Cruz, because his most prominent policy positions are unpopular in safe Republican states. Bloomberg is an outspoken advocate of gun control, endorsed Barack Obama in 2012 because he was ‘a president who will lead on climate change’, and introduced numerous high-profile regulations during his tenure as mayor of New York (including the much-publicised attempt to ban ‘big gulp’ soft drinks). Further, at a time when economic inequality is a prominent campaign issue on both sides of politics and anger at Wall Street remains high, Bloomberg’s career as a former partner of Salomon Brothers and fin-tech billionaire is likely to be an enormous liability.
As a result, Bloomberg does not seriously threaten a Republican nominee in the southern and western states that gave Mitt Romney large majorities in 2012. A Republican candidate starts with a very solid base of electoral college votes in a general election, whether or not Michael Bloomberg runs. If he does, Republicans will still be competing primarily in the so-called swing states, including Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.
By contrast, Bloomberg has the potential to seriously disrupt the landscape for Democrats. Bloomberg’s natural hunting ground will be in the northeast, where the appeal of classical liberalism is high. If Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, it is plausible that Bloomberg could win states such as New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island, which would give him 43 electoral college votes. In addition, if Bloomberg won any two of Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Oregon or Washington, he would deny the Democratic nominee the pathway to the presidency forged by Barack Obama in 2012.
California’s 55 electoral votes might also be up for grabs. The heterogeneous political landscape of the Golden State makes it hard to predict but Bloomberg’s natural appeal to Silicon Valley and to parts of Los Angeles may make him competitive. (The robust support of working and middle-class Californians, largely left behind by the technological boom of the northwest and excluded from the glitzier aspects of Los Angeles, would provide a strong bulwark for Sanders or Clinton.) Further, in the absence of preferential voting, Bloomberg’s draw for a section of the traditional Democratic constituency in California would increase the prospects of victory for a Republican candidate.
For Hillary Clinton, Bloomberg’s entry would add to the rationale for her candidacy and may help Clinton win the Democratic nomination. Clinton’s ability to defend traditionally Democratic states in the northeast against Bloomberg makes her a more attractive candidate. However, Bloomberg’s technocratic take on classical liberalism is likely to attract voters who might otherwise vote for Clinton in states that the Democrats must win to capture the presidency. The former-mayor could split the ‘moderate’ vote and pose a serious risk to a Clinton candidacy.
Historically, third party presidential candidates have been consequential, though unsuccessful. When Theodore Roosevelt left the Republican Party in 1912 and ran as a progressive, he won only 88 electoral college votes but contributed to the electoral college landslide of Woodrow Wilson. In the transitional environment of 1968, George Wallace won only 46 electoral votes in the south but caused Richard Nixon significant concern. In 1992, Ross Perot won nearly 20 million votes in an election where just over five million votes separated Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Whether Perot helped Clinton or Bush is still a contested question. By contrast, there is little doubt that Ralph Nader’s candidacy seriously hurt Al Gore in 2000.
Bloomberg, like Perot, has significant financial resources. He also has a national profile and high name-recognition across the country. A Bloomberg campaign would seek to use these tools to offset his lack of any national political and electoral infrastructure. In the past, this has proved very difficult to achieve.
Given Bloomberg’s existing vulnerabilities, limited national appeal and structural impediments, he is very unlikely to win the presidency. Yet if Bloomberg gains traction, it is possible that he might prevent either major party candidate from reaching 270 electoral college votes. Under Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitutions, an electoral college deadlock is resolved through a contingent election in the House of Representatives with each State delegation casting one vote. (On current House numbers, the Republicans would control approximately two-thirds of the votes.) In the present political environment, that would present an intriguing and potentially unsettling prospect.
Ultimately, the exploration of a Bloomberg candidacy will probably come to naught. Bloomberg is smart enough to know that he is unlikely to win the presidency and by splitting the centrist vote he may produce a perverse outcome in the election. But while he mulls his decision, it is clear that his entry is likely to present more problems for Democrats than Republicans.