The Mike Bloomberg presidential boomlet has become politics' longest tease. It started more than two years ago. Less than 48 hours after the New York mayor's landslide 2005 re-election, his campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, went on TV to raise the possibility of a 2008 run for the White House. Since then, Mr. Sheekey, a Democrat who once worked for the late Sen. Pat Moynihan, has worked almost full-time on exploring a Bloomberg bid.
In recent days, the teasing has intensified. This week Doug Bailey, a former consultant to moderate Republicans, and Gerald Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's media adviser in the 1970s, will announce the formation of a committee to "recruit" Mr. Bloomberg into a race. Next month Bloomberg confidant and pollster Doug Shoen will publish a book on how an independent can win the White House. He no doubt thinks Mr. Bloomberg is just the man who can snap up votes from middle-of-the-roaders in both parties attracted to his technocratic style.
Many reporters are convinced it won't take much to convince the mayor to enter the race and start spending from his $11.5 billion fortune. He has already sifted through mountains of polls and information from focus groups Mr. Sheekey has commissioned to evaluate his viability. The Associated Press reports that "Bloomberg operatives believe they could recruit a million volunteers within a month of launching a campaign, aided by information gleaned from [their] voter database." That's not a misprint the Bloomberg people believe his deep-pocket advertising and fawning mainstream media coverage will net him more volunteers than even Barack Obama could hope for.
It's time for someone to burst this bubble. I don't believe Mr. Bloomberg will even enter the race. No matter how well known the mayor is to elite journalists and the political community, he is largely unknown to many Americans and would be a hard sell once they learned more about him.
Consider the voters who know him best. A Marist poll last week of New York state voters found that only 27% wanted him to run for president, and only 12% wanted him to win. A new Quinnipiac University poll found that even in his home base of New York City, only a third of voters would cast their presidential ballots for him.
But Bloomberg boosters are convinced the times are even riper for an independent candidate than they were in 1992, when a diminutive Texas billionaire name Ross Perot won 19% of the national vote and helped Bill Clinton defeat the first President Bush. Team Bloomberg says their man has many more advantages than Mr. Perot did, staring with much greater personal wealth and two successful rough-and-tumble campaigns under his belt. He would be unlikely to make the bizarre mistakes that tripped up Mr. Perot and limited his appeal.
On the other hand, Mr. Bloomberg's stances on issues aren't nearly as appealing as Mr. Perot's were to the broad middle of American politics. "All of his political instincts on national issues are very, well, New York," notes Ben Smith of Politico.com. He favors gun control, opposed the death penalty for 9/11 terrorist plotter Zacharias Moussaoui, won't back a ban on partial-birth abortion, failed to trim generous public-employee union contracts, and favors same-sex marriage. He raised taxes dramatically during his first term and last week announced the slowing economy may require yet another hike during his second term. Rudy Giuliani has been accused of having been permissive on illegal immigration as mayor. Mr. Bloomberg will be accused of wanting to throw the welcome mat out to them.
As an internationalist who built a global financial-media empire, he has little to say to disgruntled heartland voters who are suspicious of their government the usual fertile territory for an independent. American Demographics magazine reported that Ross Perot drew 20% of his votes from self-described liberals, 27% from self-described conservatives, and 53% from self-described moderates. "There's an awful lot in [Mr. Bloomberg's] record and issue positions that would turn off conservatives and many moderates," says Peter Brown, deputy director of the Quinnipiac Poll.
This all makes a Bloomberg candidacy very daunting. David Morris, who was formerly chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and knows the man well, agrees. "There is zero chance he will run, even though he very much wants to," he told a Washington forum sponsored by National Journal's Hotline last Thursday. He pointed out that for his candidacy to make any sense, Mr. Bloomberg would need a truly polarizing major-party mach-up say, Hillary Clinton vs. Mitt Romney. Either Barack Obama or John McCain heading a national ticket upsets that calculation, because both appeal to independent voters and can plausibly claim they represent change.
Mr. Bloomberg also must know that the odds are against him: No modern third-party candidate has come close to winning. Even if one managed the unprecedented feat of polling close to 40% of the popular vote, 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 is selected by a vote in the House, with each state's delegations casting one vote and a majority needed to prevail. Given that every House member is a Democrat or Republican, an independent's chances of victory there are slim.
At the height of Perotmania in 1992, when the Texan was outpolling Bill Clinton for second place, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call surveyed 301 House members as to how they would vote for president in the absence of an Electoral College majority. "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 rules and obstacles that stack presidential politics against independent or third-party candidacies aren't fair, but they are real.
So in the end, the 65-year-old mayor will reluctantly be satisfied with the enormous publicity and attention he's vacuumed up while he played with being a candidate.
But that doesn't mean all that attention has to go to waste. The same Quinnipiac University poll that found few New Yorkers wanting Mr. Bloomberg to run for president found that a much larger number 47% would like him to run for governor in 2010 against Democratic incumbent Eliot Spitzer. Since there is no Electoral College requirement for a winner at the state level, Mr. Bloomberg could easily win with a plurality of the votes as an independent or switch back to the GOP and seek its nomination.
So there could be another executive position in Mr. Bloomberg's future, if he wants it and if he doesn't mind going to Albany.