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Take the Bloom off Michael's Rose

By Thurlow Weed

Le Monde Politique is all atwitter with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's announcement that he is no longer a Republican. Will the billionaire businessman-turned-politician run for President? Perhaps, but observers ought not to get too excited. Recent poll data and political history suggest that not only is it highly unlikely Bloomberg will win, but that he is highly unlikely to get even ten percent of the vote.

Let's look first at recent poll data. Michael Bloomberg does not start as an unknown. A recent Pew Research poll found that 65 percent of registered voters had heard of him - and of those, 56 percent said there was "no chance" they would vote for him. Only 9 percent said they would vote for him - about 6 percent of the vote.

This is not that far off poll results from last December. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll included Bloomberg in a hypothetical matchup between Hillary Clinton and then-GOP frontrunner John McCain. Bloomberg received only 10% of the vote.

But, Bloomberg hypsters would argue, look at other poll data. The most recent WSJ/NBC poll found that only 19 percent of Americans think the country is "on the right track", only five points higher than the all-time low (recorded in July of 1992). The number of people who claim they are political independents is rising, topping 40 percent in some polls. Combine that with large negative poll numbers for the Democrats' presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton, the almost record low unpopularity of President Bush, and largely negative numbers for the Republican Party in general, and one can easily imagine a scenario where voters hunger for a centrist candidate who is neither donkey nor elephant. Add in Bloomberg's possible self-financing - he spent $85 million of his own money on his recent re-election, and pundits and consultants alike drool over the possibility he will drop up to a billion on a Presidential run - you have comments like that of noted pollster provocateur Frank Luntz, who was recently quoted as saying Bloomberg could get over 30% of the popular vote.

Well, to paraphrase the tag line from the movie Absence of Malice, all of this is accurate, but none of it is true. No third party candidate in American history has received over 30 percent of the vote since John C. Fremont garnered a shade over 33 percent in 1856 - a time when the national political party structure was breaking up in prelude to the Civil War. The second highest total was reached in 1912, when former two-term President Teddy Roosevelt got 27 percent on the Bull Moose/Progressive ticket. This too was a time of ferment - 1912 also marked the high water mark for the Socialist Party nominee, Eugene Debs, as he received 6 percent of the vote. Forgive me if I don't quite see our nation on the verge of civil war or how Michael Bloomberg compares to T.R.

The historical evidence is even stronger when one closely examines what types of third party nominees do well. Only four third party candidates have broken ten percent in the 20th Century: T.R., Ross Perot (19 percent in 1992), Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette (1924) and George Wallace (1968). Each of these men had vibrant, outsized personalities and railed against the establishments of their day. Roosevelt and LaFollette employed openly anti-corporate themes, and Perot was perhaps best known for his opposition to the big-business-backed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Compare this to Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg is, charitably, charisma free. He has a droll wit, but is not given to bombastic pronouncements or dramatic rhetoric. And it is clear that Bloomberg will not run as an anti-corporate, us versus them candidate. (It would be rather hard for the self-made financial genius, a man who flies away on his private jet for weekends without scrutiny from the normally rambunctious New York press, to do so even if he were so inclined.) Instead, if he runs, he will be the mild mannered, can-do guy of the center, the man whose management experience will make the American trains run on time. In short, he will be a competent Clark Kent, not a populist Superman.

History has something to say about this type of candidate, too. In recent times, John Anderson has tried to claim the middle man mantle. He ran in an election against a President nearly as unpopular as Bush and against a conservative Republican when such a species was considered obsolete and antique. It was also a time when people were as depressed about the American future as today, if not more so. Despite these advantages, he could not even garner 7 percent. Other candidates with a more urban personal style, such as Ralph Nader (2000) and Henry Wallace (1948) did not even break three percent.

To recap the historical bidding, aggressive, us versus them, populist candidates do relatively well. Mild mannered, urban-styled ones do not.

Bloomberg's cash could change things, but an American Presidential campaign is probably the one type of election money can't buy. Free media scrutiny of the candidates is relentless, as cameras, scribes, and the digerati of the blogosphere follow every word and gesture a candidate makes. Bloomberg and Giuliani may think they have played in the big leagues in the Big Apple, but they haven't seen anything yet. Throw in the traditional candidate debates, which Bloomberg is certain to be included in if his campaign comes anywhere close to meeting his partisans' hype, and I am certain this campaign will be decided like all others, based more on what a candidate says and does than what he buys.

Bloomberg's six percent may end up being a crucial six percent, depending on what groups or in which states he runs strongest. But you heard it here first - the bloom is off this rose even before it has flowered.

Thurlow Weed is the pen name of a Washington D.C.-based political analyst.

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