Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he would not be pursuing an independent bid for the presidency, ending many months of speculation to the contrary. Bloomberg had hoped that the earlier trends in campaigning would hold, back when Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney seemed likely to be nominated.
The billionaire Democrat, turned Republican, turned Independent had hoped to run a centrist's race, putting together a coalition of economic conservatives, conservative Democrats, and a significant majority of Independents. He had hoped that Hillary, who has consistently had trouble courting Independents, would win the nomination and give him an opening. But that scenario has become mathematically implausible. Bloomberg may also have been able to eat into Mitt Romney's support among economic conservatives, many of whom would prefer a superstar businessman without the socially conservative worldview.
Instead, Bloomberg's presidential aspirations were dashed by the presence of a maverick Republican and the likely nomination of a paradigm-shifting Democrat. Bloomberg needed a wide opening in the political center that could only have been the product of dysfunctional candidates, neither able to connect with crucial swing voters. But the success of Barack Obama and John McCain during the primary season occurred largely on the battlefield Bloomberg hoped would be vacant, among voters who decline to state party allegiance. Without a path to victory, Michael Bloomberg wisely stepped aside.
But even in Bloomberg's best-case scenario, a race between Clinton and Huckabee, it is difficult to imagine what his constituency would actually be. After all, Bloomberg supported the Iraq war, opposed timetables for withdrawal, endorsed Bush in 2004, and is an ardent free trader. Yet he favors gay marriage and gun control, wants amnesty and has raised taxes, and is adamantly pro-choice. He has no national security experience, no foreign policy experience, and when giving a speech, he sounds more like a tax attorney than a president.
For conservatives, his stances on taxes, guns, gays, and abortion disqualify him. For progressives, his stance on the war and strong support of Bush disqualify him. And among independents, there are very few who subscribe to his unusual issue profile. Had he run, even in the best of circumstances, he would have done so without providing the voters with a clear rationale.
And even if he could muster a loyal constituency, the rules of the game are particularly disadvantageous for a third party candidate. In a winner-take-all electoral college system, Bloomberg would have to drum up winning coalitions in a of broad base of states, an exceptionally difficult thing to do without party infrastructure or an Obama-like charisma. The stringency of the rules means a strong second place showing in a state is no different than being defeated in a landslide. In 1992, Ross Perot garnered nearly twenty million votes nationwide, yet yielded a total of zero electoral votes.
Still, had Bloomberg somehow overcome all of those obstacles, leveraging his personal fortune to build enough strength and popularity to win a large number of electoral votes, his presidency would still have been denied. The Constitution requires the president to have won a majority of electoral votes, an extremely difficult feat in a highly competitive three-way race. If, after election day, no candidate receives a clear majority, the House of Representatives selects the president. Currently under Democratic control, it is truly inconceivable that the House would select an independent if forced to choose.
Bloomberg seemed to revel in the media attention his presidential speculation caused. Whether dining with Barack Obama at an ever-so-private window table or giving speeches about the national agenda, the mayor has consistently shown a desire to play a role in what happens next. Even after withdrawing from consideration, his endorsement will be highly coveted. His name may even make a vice presidential short list.
But while his aides would love to join a national campaign, the number two slot will not go to him. Obama cannot choose a man who favors the war, and McCain cannot choose a man who favors abortion. In the end, despite his hope to the contrary, 2008 will not be Mike Bloomberg's year.