Due to term limits, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands to be out of office come January 1, 2010, a thought he may not relish. Hence, while he continues to deny it, his aides keep sending out trial balloons alluding to an independent run at the presidency.
To make sure they are taken seriously, they’ve gone so far as to say the mayor, who ranks No. 25 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, is apparently willing to spend a cool billion dollars of his own money to capture the White House. Compared to that, the $60 million-plus spent by Ross Perot that helped him pull 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 election is mere chump change.
But can Bloomberg really win? Speculation has it that he would run a kind of “bring us together” campaign based on polling indications that the American people are sick and tired of the rancorous partisanship that has characterized our political discourse in recent years.
Still, that campaign theme, even combined with $1 billion, is most unlikely to be enough. Here’s why:
Never in American history has any third-party candidate come close to winning. The one who did best by far was Teddy Roosevelt in 1912, when the former president tried to make a comeback on the Progressive Party line and managed to win 27 percent of the popular vote along with 88 electoral votes. TR had been an exceptionally popular president, but after winning the 1904 election handily, he pledged he would not run again in 1908, and in those days politicians actually kept their word.
Displeased with the performance of his successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt tried to take the GOP nomination away from Taft. Though TR won nearly all the primaries (Taft even lost in his home state of Ohio), only 12 out of 48 states held primaries back then, and the Republican bosses stuck with Taft. Claiming fraud, TR and his supporters stormed out of the nominating convention and started their own party.
Despite his popularity, TR couldn’t possibly win because then, as now, each of the two major parties had a solid, core constituency – that is, people who remain loyal to the party they identify with regardless. In those days the Democrats’ core consisted of white southerners, immigrants, Catholics, supporters of big-city political machines, and populist-minded, anti-Wall Street rural people. They combined to give Woodrow Wilson close to 42 percent of the vote, which was more than enough to guarantee victory in a three-way race.
Today, both major parties still have their core groups, but with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans nationwide, the Democrats clearly have the larger of the two. Today’s Democratic core includes the majority of African-American, Hispanic and non-Orthodox Jewish voters, along with immigrants, academic intellectuals, union members and government employees, as well as those for whom the party is a family tradition, along with other groups. With that many significant groups loyally backing them, it is hard to imagine the Democratic tally in a national election falling below 40 percent no matter what.
Though it is smaller, the Republicans, too, have their core, which includes their traditionalists as well as the majority of religious conservatives, white southerners, entrepreneurs, and those for whom low taxes are a primary issue. All told, the GOP core is bound to amount to some 25-30 percent of the total vote, which means that in a typical two-person race, the candidates are left to fight for the remaining 30-35 percent of the voters whose views tend towards the middle.
Thus even if Bloomberg forks out the $1 billion, his chances of winning the election remain next to impossible. What he can do is what a number of third party candidates, including TR in 1912, Perot in 1992, and Ralph Nader in 2000, have done – namely, throw the election to the major candidate who would otherwise not have won. In the cases of those three, it is obvious TR and Perot took most of their votes away from the Republicans, whereas Nader hurt the Democrats.
In the case of Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent Bloomberg, it doesn’t appear quite as clear as to which side he stands to hurt more, all the more so since it is too early to tell who the major party candidates will be. Still, with the Democratic core larger and hence more dependable than the Republican, it is safe to assume a well-financed Bloomberg campaign that takes potential voters away from both sides will in the end serve to assure a Democratic victory.