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Will Bloomberg Run--and Can He Win?

By Larry Sabato

The news media are a-twitter about the possibility of an all-New York race for the White House in 2008. Hillary Clinton (D) versus Rudy Giuliani (R) versus Michael Bloomberg (I) would somehow validate the Empire State (and the media's headquarters city). After all, it's been 64 years since New York could claim the major contenders (Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt and GOP New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey in 1944). Since '44, New Yorkers have been bust in the presidential process, including Dewey again in 1948, Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 and 1964, Bobby Kennedy in 1968 (only because of an assassin's bullet), John Lindsay in 1972 and Mario Cuomo in 1992. Note to observant readers: we're not including minor candidates here, nor do we count Eisenhower as a New Yorker in 1952 or Nixon as one in 1968. Yes, Ike's last U.S. address before the Presidency was New York-he had served as President of Columbia University before becoming Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe--but Ike was born in Texas and reared in Kansas; he was no New Yorker. Similarly, Nixon was technically a NYC resident, where he had practiced law since losing the California Governorship in 1962; still, Nixon was a Californian through and through.

Well, your Crystal Ball will just say flatly that the odds are heavily against such an all-New York contest. Not only might Clinton and Giuliani lose their respective party nods, but it is far from certain that Bloomberg is running. Antipathy to New York--once at a fever pitch because of its left-wing politics and ungovernable nature--has faded greatly in the wake of September 11th. Yet there isn't a torrid love affair with the city and state raging across the country either.

As for Mayor Bloomberg, he's understandably enjoying the beginning of what will be a prolonged strip-tease. A week ago he showed a little ankle out in California at a conference with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and one would have thought the press corps was sex-starved. Despite nearly a couple dozen other candidates already wooing the press, Bloomberg was given the political equivalent of free money stuffed in his expensively tailored suit by dewy-eyed journalists who showered him with front page coverage. All Bloomberg did was change his party registration from Republican to Unaffiliated, which he had earlier transformed from Democrat to Republican so that he could find a way to become Mayor in 2001. Party has never meant much to Bloomberg; for him, choosing one is the equivalent of selecting a team in a pick-up game, where you scout the prospects and try to side with the eventual winners.

The reality is that the press and a good deal of the public are already bored with the announced 2008 players. It's easy to see why: the debates so far have mainly been yawners, with the candidates in each party falling all over themselves to be inoffensive and (with a few notable exceptions) unwilling to challenge party orthodoxy.

Enter Michael Bloomberg. He's a sane Ross Perot, an Independent that many could see serving a term in the White House without constant angst. He's got significant executive experience. Governing New York City is no picnic, and by many accounts he's done it better than Rudy Giuliani in some respects. He's extra-filthy-stinking rich in an era that worships excess, and unlike Perot--who was actually quite stingy with his billionaire wallet--Bloomberg would almost certainly spend between a half billion and a billion dollars on any presidential race he ran.

Perhaps most of all, there is a quiet desperation among many thinking members of the press and public about the divisive polarization that exists in the nation, and has existed throughout the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Almost everyone who follows politics closely can easily see the major parties nominating candidates who will continue and perhaps deepen that polarization (Hillary Clinton and the current incarnation of liberal-turned moderate-turned conservative Mitt Romney jump immediately to mind). Bloomberg is perceived as a possible way out.

So will he run? Nobody gets to be a billionaire by making bad business decisions. Bloomberg will naturally wait and see what the Democrats and the Republicans do. If the parties pick polarizing candidates--say, by February--and the voters sour on them once the afterglow of their nominating victory fades, Bloomberg will have plenty of time to get in, put together a top-flight campaign organization and prepare for the fall election battle. He can even afford to wait until the summer. For all we know, voters appalled at their November choices will draft him, or maybe Larry King or some other talk show host will capitalize on his popularity. (Veterans of 1992 remember that King gave Perot a free national TV platform night after night, sparking the "draft Perot" movement.)

Bloomberg will have to get admitted to the fall debates, and to do that he'll have to keep his poll numbers above 15 percent to satisfy the two-party-based Presidential Debate Commission. That won't be a snap. In the gauzy days of anything-is-possible spring and summer, the poll ratings of third-party candidates often soar. Perot was at 40 percent in a June 1992 Gallup Poll. John Anderson was at 24 percent in July 1980. George Wallace once hit 21 percent in September 1968 (Gallup and Harris).

But as the election nears, a different reality dawns. News coverage often turns from fawning to critical for third-party candidates. Bloomberg will be accused of buying the White House (as though the other candidates don't do the same thing). Also like some other contenders, Bloomberg has flipped and flopped his way across the political spectrum, and that will be exhaustively reviewed. There may be Pulitzer Prizes awaiting those who conduct the proctoscopic examination of Bloomberg's finances and messy personal life. Fair-minded observers will point out that Bloomberg may have trouble governing at the national level since he probably won't have a single member of Congress elected on his coattails. Two-thirds of Americans also still have mild to strong affiliations with the two major parties, and they tend to come home in the last month of the campaign, especially as leaders urge them not to "waste their vote" or "become spoilers" by diverting votes from one major-party candidate to elect the other. (The actual historical record here is mixed: Wallace drew his votes disproportionately from Nixon and almost threw the 1968 election to Hubert Humphrey. Anderson's 7 percent didn't affect the outcome in 1980. Perot may or may not have cost the senior Bush his reelection; studies differ on that one.)

If Bloomberg runs, he's likely to get a sizeable share of votes, drawn from both major parties, even if he loses. No one can say whether it would be the 7 percent of Anderson 1980 or the 8 percent of Perot 1996 or the 14 percent of Wallace 1968 or the 19 percent of Perot 1992. Yet there will be electoral effects. Which major party candidate would be hurt more? The Crystal Ball's early bet is that Bloomberg would draw more from the Democrat. His social issue positions are actually to the left of most of the Democratic Party (anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, pro-gay marriage), and he'll probably run best in the Blue Northeast and equally Blue Pacific Coast. Bloomberg has little appeal in the South (outside maybe Florida), the rural Midwest or the Rocky Mountain States--all Red Republican. Bloomberg is a natural parking place for moderate-to-liberal Independents and Republicans determined not to back another Bush Republican yet very unhappy with the prospect of another Clinton Presidency.

Other analysts make cogent counter-points. They say Bloomberg will take loads of disillusioned Bush voters who would otherwise vote Republican in a two-way race in order to stop Hillary. He will attract almost no minority voters to his standard, so the giant Democratic bloc of African-Americans and Hispanics will remain untouched, while he will split off some white voters from their modern GOP home. And the incumbent White House party usually, though not always, is hurt more by a strong third-party or independent candidacy (as in 1912, 1948, 1980, 1992, and 2000--though not in 1968 and 1996).

The truth is, no one knows the precise effect Bloomberg will have, should he run. We need to see the identity of the major-party nominees and have some sense of the climate in fall 2008 before guesses grounded in fact and not mere speculation are offered.

Almost all nonpartisan journalists and analysts will admit to one bias: They favor political chaos. It makes a much better story and there's more to chew over. So expect everyone in the system with this bias to milk the Bloomberg phenomenon for all it is worth.

If Bloomberg jumps in, let's be honest. The election will be much more interesting and fun. The consequences may well be bad, though. Bloomberg will probably create another minority President (a la Richard Nixon in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1992, with their meager 43 percent victories, an indisputable electoral fact that weakened their first terms). And if he should somehow win, American history will be rewritten and the two-party system will never be the same. The Irish could not have had the diminutive 5'6" Mayor Bloomberg in mind when they constructed their age-old proverb, but it may apply nonetheless: "Even the little people cast great shadows when the sun is setting."

Dr. Sabato, the Robert Kent Gooch Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, founded the Center for Politics in 1998.

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