Waiting until early 2008 would be necessary, of course, to get a bead on who the Democrats and Republicans were inclined to nominate. But delaying is desirable for other reasons, too. “In any third-party effort, you want to start late,” says McKinnon. “You gotta catch lightning in a bottle, not let yourself get stale. If Perot had waited to start his campaign until after his daughter’s wedding, he would probably have been president.”
Perot’s implosion, to be sure, was largely self-inflicted. But it was also a result of Bill Clinton’s maneuvers to co-opt his issues—talking up the deficit, in particular—before the 1992 Democratic convention. “If the major-party candidates have time to move in on your turf,” says Al From, “then you get squeezed and there’s not a lot you can do.”
The biggest downside to starting late is that it makes it harder to get on the ballot in all 50 states. But here the putative Bloomberg campaign has been blessed by fate with a ready-made solution: Unity08, a grassroots outfit in Washington that intends to field a centrist presidential ticket (selected via an online convention in June 2008) and handle the ballot-access hassles. Though the group may sound a little sketchy, two of its prime movers are Doug Bailey, the Republican consultant who nearly engineered an upset win for Gerald Ford in 1976, and Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s White House chief of staff. Sheekey, it turns out, has already met with Jordan. And Bailey is openly courting the mayor. “It’s in both our interests for him to seek the Unity08 nomination,” he says, audibly salivating.
What kind of campaign would Sheekey run? He isn’t saying. But judging from the one he devised for Bloomberg in 2005, it would be extremely sophisticated. Schoen points out that Bloomberg’s operation in 2001 was ahead of the Bush team’s now-famous use in 2004 of microtargeting—the new political science of combining consumer-database information with voter rolls to target people likely to be receptive to your message. And in 2005, Sheekey cranked up the tactic up another notch. In both elections, the Bloomberg campaign applied new technology, plus a boatload of cash, to the task of identifying and turning out independent and unenrolled voters. Hence the model that Sheekey would surely try to duplicate on a national scale.
For all of Sheekey’s imputed brilliance, though, the reasons to be skeptical about Bloomberg’s prospects in a presidential contest are many. “There are things about Mike that do not add to the comfort level of your support,” Garth says. “He really is a self-made man, which is terrific in one sense but also raises questions”—meaning that his business dealings and personal wealth would come under close scrutiny. “Also,” Garth notes, “he is Jewish, which you have deal with because people are going to raise it.”
Nor is it clear that Bloomberg’s blend of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism is the electorally ideal admixture. Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster who advised Perot, tells me that Bloomberg’s showing in a recent survey he conducted—in the mid-twenties versus Clinton and a non- McCain, non-Giuliani Republican—meant the mayor was “ahead of where Perot was at this point in the 1992 cycle.” But though Perot’s voters still exist, Bloomberg’s stances on trade and immigration aren’t likely to entrance them. Then there’s Bloomberg’s total lack of national-security bona fides, not a trivial weakness in an age of terror.
Maybe most problematic is the very quality that makes Bloomberg appealing to, well, many readers of this magazine: his brass-tacks managerialism. “Being able to get people into a room and work together is a wonderful thing when you’re governing,” says From. “But presidential campaigns tend to be ideological campaigns. Not necessarily in the gross sense of ideology, but you have to have ideas that cut with voters—they want to be inspired.” After all, the last presidential candidate who campaigned on “competence, not ideology” was Michael Dukakis. And we all know how that turned out.
But other national political professionals give a Bloomberg run more credence. “Given his resources, it’s all sitting there for him,” says Joe Trippi, the Internet-savvy operative behind Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “People are so sick of the polarization of politics that he could make the case that it’s time to move beyond the two parties and that he’s the one to lead us.”
Thus does Sheekey keep the fires burning. If the results of the 2006 election carried any lesson, he says, it was one temporarily obscured by Rove & Co.’s base-courting strategy in 2002 and 2004: Independents are at once the fastest-growing and most-frustrated segment of the electorate. “The whole discussion has been built on the idea that the country is changing, heading in a certain direction,” Sheekey notes. “If that change occurs, people will be in the market for independent leadership. And when you’re in the market for independent leadership—for someone who has a record, can run, can win, and then can lead—in my view, you’ll only come back with one answer.”