Bloomberg presidential mania is back again. Expressions of enthusiasm for a Michael Bloomberg presidential campaign span the gamut, from hedge-fund manager William Ackman (writing, behind a paywall, in the Financial Times) to Bloomberg’s pollster Douglas Schoen to Bloomberg himself (speaking, again behind a paywall, to the Financial Times). Which is to say, it is not a very wide gamut. When you muse too many times about running for president without following through, people treat it as a joke.
Of course, everybody treated Trump’s last presidential trial balloon as an obvious ploy for attention that wouldn’t materialize, until he went ahead and ran. Not many people considered the possibility last year that Trump could win the Republican nomination, or that Bernie Sanders could win the Democratic nomination. Before we join all the other pundits in dismissing out of hand the possibility that Michael Bloomberg might be sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States, let’s stress test the assumption.
One reason Bloomberg’s presidential ambitions have always been so comically detached from reality is that he fills a space on the political spectrum that is overserved (socially liberal, fiscally conservative) whereas the actual unmet political demand is just the opposite (socially conservative, fiscally liberal). Democrats keep nominating social liberals whose secret heresy is a willingness to cut deals that trim spending on Social Security and Medicare. Republicans nominate fanatic tax-cutters for the one percent who want to deregulate Wall Street. Both parties’ elites agree on free trade and more liberal immigration. Bloomberg has always wanted to enter what is an oversaturated market for views congenial to the elite.
But if Trump and Sanders win their nominations, then the opposite would suddenly hold true. Instead of the socially liberal–fiscally conservative set having too much representation, it would suddenly have too little. A candidate who is neither a socialist nor a racist would have a large niche. Bloomberg faces a logistical challenge that is perhaps insurmountable: He would need to start getting his name on the ballot in early March, and he's probably not going to know the major-party nominees by then. He would certainly need Sanders as the Democratic nominee, and probably Trump as the Republican nominee as well, to have a viable constituency. But if he did somehow find that combination awaiting him, the long-clogged lane he occupies in the center might suddenly break open for him.
And yes, I know, independent presidential candidates “never win.” How do we know this? We know it because no winners exist among the small sample of third-party presidential candidates. But if the impossibility of winning an independent candidacy was not a fixed law of the universe, then how to explain the relative frequency with which it has succeeded at the state level? Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Lowell Weicker in Connecticut, or Angus King in Maine, among others, have established the mechanical viability of defeating two major-party candidates. It is clearly possible for an independent to win a three-way race against two established party candidates in a state. And if it is possible to do it in a state, it is also possible to do so in enough states to add up to 270 electoral votes.
For all of the disadvantages of running as an independent, it confers certain offsetting benefits. Independent status implies you are, well, independent. A certain proportion of voters see the two parties as “the system,” and thus the election of a candidate outside them as a blow against it. It is therefore oddly possible that even a candidate like Bloomberg, who in many ways embodies the dominance of elites over American political and economic life, can attract voters who feel alienated from it.
Recent independent candidacies have failed, but their failure may tell us less than a surface analysis would suggest. In 1992, Ross Perot was up to 39 percent in the polls, before he began wigging out in public, ranting about President Bush’s plot to disrupt his daughter’s wedding, dropping out of the race even while riding high, and then erratically reentering in October. Perot still received 19 percent of the vote. The ability of an independent candidate who was very evidently not in full possession of all his marbles, running against both a Democrat and a Republican who were moderate (shockingly so, by today’s standards), suggests the independent brand has inherent appeal.
Obviously, running a competitive race that merely leaves Bloomberg in third place (like Perot, or John Anderson in 1980) or even one that gets him to second (like Teddy Roosevelt in 1912) wouldn’t do him any good. (And despite Ackman’s fantasy that a split electoral college would result in Bloomberg’s election, the reality is that House Republicans would elevate the Republican candidate.) Getting from competitive to first place is not as imposing a barrier as it might seem, though. A three-candidate race creates an inherently unstable dynamic, where voters have to choose based not only on their preference, as they do in a normal two-way race, but also on the basis of which candidate can win.
I remember listening to my parents discuss the 1980 election when I was a kid. Both of them preferred Anderson to Jimmy Carter, and Carter to Ronald Reagan. My mom voted for Carter anyway, as did many moderates and liberals, causing Anderson’s polling to collapse. But the same dynamic that can cause an independent to collapse if he falls behind the major-party candidate could just as easily cause the major-party candidate to collapse if the independent surpasses him. Anderson and Perot suffered from the same feedback loop: Nobody wanted to vote for them because nobody wanted to vote for them. That feedback loop could just as easily run the other way.
Indeed, it might run the other way more easily now than in the past. One paradox of American politics is that high numbers of voters call themselves “independent” even as smaller numbers of them actually swing between the parties. Political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have called this phenomenon “negative partisanship” — most voters have developed deep voting attachments not out of positive affection for their own party but out of intense loathing and fear of the opposing party. An initial Bloomberg base would consist of pure independents (a small number) plus Democrats who can’t abide socialism and Republicans who can’t abide Trump. If that base reached a threshold of viability, Bloomberg could see a sudden influx of Democrats who are terrified of Trump, Republicans who are terrified of Sanders, or both.
Obviously, a Bloomberg win remains a long shot. But if Trump and Sanders get the nomination, then we have already entered a world in which an unimaginable outcome — the election of either a self-professed critic of the “free enterprise system,” or a reality-television buffoon as president — has become inevitable. In a world like that, the election of buttoned-down CEO Michael Bloomberg might quickly seem not just thinkable but downright boring.