Sure he might be running for president in 2016. He threatened he would in 2007, and again, in 2010-2011, and each time had the national press corps salivating. Three-time New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the kind of political candidate the mainstream news media loves. He’s urbane, witty, no-nonsense, and largely devoid of cant. At a time when the two parties have shifted ever more radically toward their respective extremes, he comes down squarely in the center, and prides himself on his pragmatism. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a multi-billionaire who can’t be bought, and a dedicated philanthropist, even while holding office. He’s actually far wealthier than Donald Trump, but disdains the reality TV star’s bombast and jingoism. Even his ownership of a major media empire somehow makes Bloomberg seem – to reporters, at least — like part of the “club.”
But here’s the rub: Bloomberg is a man without a party, a former-Democrat-turned-Republican-turned independent who is far too fiscally responsible for most Democrats — but whose staunch support for abortion, gay rights, and immigration is complete anathema to most conservatives. And for all his presence in the sprawling New York media market, he remains a Northeastern politician with uncertain national name recognition. Despite some polls showing Bloomberg running competitively in 2016, it’s unclear whether he can do more than marginally influence the final outcome.
So why do it? For one thing the country seems ripe for it – as ripe as it was in 1992 when Texas businessman H. Ross Perot ran a quirky and improbable third-party bid that soon took the country by storm. Perot ran neck-and-neck or better with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush for nearly six months, which terrified the establishment in both parties, much as Trump and Bernie Sanders are beginning to do now. But Perot eventually wilted under the intense glare of media scrutiny. Under fire for his past business practices, and accused of being temperamentally unfit for high office, he pulled out of the race, and endorsed Clinton, but then jumped back in when his dejected supporters demanded that he return. He ended up with nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, a modern record.
Like Perot, Bloomberg probably has no chance of capturing a single state — not even his native New York, were he to run. But the same political energy that is driving voters in the two parties to embrace unconventional candidates might well have them taking a serious look at Bloomberg, too. Gallup has regularly polled Americans on the question of a third-party campaign and has found a significant shift in recent years. From just 40 percent of voters supporting the idea in 2004, now 60 percent do – and the sentiment cuts across Democrats and Republicans equally.
Whom would a Bloomberg bid favor? Much could depend on the candidate each party nominates, but the more extreme the choices the heavier Bloomberg’s impact is likely to be. A recent Quinnipiac poll compared Sanders running against Trump and Ted Cruz — with and without Bloomberg in the race. Without Bloomberg running, Sanders beat Cruz by 4 points and Trump by 10 – to some, a growing sign of the Vermont senator’s potential electability. But with Bloomberg in the race, Sanders and his Republican opponents were dead even, with Bloomberg polling roughly 15 percent. That may give the GOP the edge — for now, at least.
And remember, this is 15 percent support for Bloomberg without an active campaign or even a national media presence that rivals that of Sanders, Cruz or Trump. How high might Bloomberg go, with a real field operation? Some polls, including one conducted by Frank Luntz suggest that he could claim nearly 30 percent of the vote – on par with Perot’s high water mark in 1992.
Of course, successful political candidates aren’t just made in the abstract – they are forged in battle. Bloomberg has none of Perot’s pluck or populist appeal. In fact, like Democrat Jim Webb, who’s contemplating a third-party bid of his own, his public delivery often seems nasal and flat, as “low-energy” as Jeb Bush. And with Trump and Sanders already in the race, firing up legions of angry voters that seem destined to dominate this election cycle, it may be hard for the more soft-spoken and reasoned Bloomberg to be heard above the din or to establish a distinctive cachet.
Still, with the two parties now running so close to each other and the presidential race decided by outcomes in just a handful of contests, it may not take much of a showing by Bloomberg to make a real difference. He’s shamelessly flirted with a run for nearly a decade, and at age 69, has nowhere else to go politically now. And with so many in the media egging him on, he may just decide to finally take the plunge. If so, a 2016 race that has defied so many political conventions may well take another unexpected and unpredictable turn.