The presidential candidates have wooed Mike Bloomberg with golf outings (Barack Obama) and coffee chats (Mitt Romney). Instead of an endorsement, the mayor has rewarded them with criticism, most recently for their “gibberish” answers to a debate question about restricting access to assault weapons. Rather than take a side in the contest—Bloomberg won’t even disclose for whom he’ll be voting on November 6—the mayor has decided to try to tip a handful of congressional races and ballot initiatives by spending $15 million through a new super-PAC. But with that mini-campaign, Bloomberg just might help decide the presidential race after all.
With Obama and Romney neck and neck, ’tis the season for quadruple-bank-shot Electoral College scenarios. This one hinges on the idiosyncrasies of Maine, one of only two states that splits its Electoral College votes. Two go to the statewide winner, with the other two apportioned by congressional district. Since the last presidential election, Maine’s Republican legislature has shifted two midsize towns that went heavily for Obama into the state’s first congressional district. This made Maine’s second congressional district, in the northern and western part of the state, even more rural and white, and also marginally more Republican.
Polls show Obama winning statewide. But one survey hyped by Karl Rove’s American Crossroads has the president down by five points in the second district. Pro-Romney super-PACs, seeing an opportunity to grab the second district’s electoral vote, have started running ads. If a series of swing-state dominoes fall just so, that vote could deadlock the Electoral College at 269 to 269, leaving the election to be decided by the House of Representatives, which would almost certainly hand the White House to Romney (for this and other ways the campaign might go into overtime, see “The Zombie Election,”).
Here, finally, is where Bloomberg comes in. Maine happens to be the only state where the mayor is backing both a candidate and a ballot initiative. He has raised or donated more than $500,000 to support Angus King, an ex-governor running as an independent in a three-way race to replace retiring GOP senator Olympia Snowe. Bloomberg’s support has been instrumental in helping King stave off, so far, the barrage of ads from national Republicans. The mayor has also contributed $125,000 to a group pushing voters to answer yes to Question 1, which would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.
Maine’s second district has about 400,000 people on the voting rolls. Could Bloomberg’s efforts motivate a crucial few thousand of them to cast ballots for King, Question 1, and, while they’re at it, Obama, ensuring the district breaks in the president’s favor? Howard Wolfson, the strategist running Bloomberg’s super-PAC, is skeptical, noting that typically it’s the top of the ticket that drives what happens further down the ballot. “I guess it’s possible,” he says. “But it wouldn’t be by design.” True. But those chads in Florida weren’t designed to stay hanging either.