Writing in the New York Sun, Jim Geraghty is the latest figure to feed the hype around a third-party presidential run by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The article begins with a remarkably credulous take:
The 2004 presidential race lacked a feature present in every campaign since 1992: a significant showing by a third-party candidate. Today, however, political strategists are coming to recognize that the presidential race in 2008 may be a threesome again. Mayor Bloomberg may have repeatedly denied that he is running, but after two terms as New York mayor, what else would he do with his money? "Half a billion dollars? Not a problem," he was reported to have said earlier this year when asked what he was willing to spend on a campaign.
The prospect of an independent forcing a three-way split is not appetizing to the mainstream candidates. "There's been discussion about Bloomberg, and no one likes the idea of a third party getting in the race with millions and millions of dollars," an adviser to one of the leading Republican contenders said. "If the Republican candidate ended up being a real firebrand like" Senator Brownback of Kansas, "I can see Bloomberg carving out some territory."
A veteran campaigner for President Bush and a current adviser to Senator McCain, Mark McKinnon, told New York magazine that if the primaries "squeeze out the moderates, you'll have an ideal situation for a third-party run."
The Internet guru credited with transforming Howard Dean from an unknown governor to a front-runner in 2004, Joseph Trippi, sounded almost enthusiastic. "Given his resources, it's all sitting there for him," Mr. Trippi said. "People are so sick of the polarization of politics that he could make the case that it's time to move beyond the two parties and that he's the one to lead us."
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said his most recent surveys show that in a match up against Senator Clinton and a non-McCain, non-Giuliani Republican, Mr. Bloomberg polls in the mid-20% range.
The next part of the article, however, provides the appropriate response from a "Bush campaign veteran":
Still, talk of a Bloomberg bid stirs laughter in some Republican circles in Washington.
"Is there a single American clamoring for a Bloomberg presidency? A single one?" a Bush campaign veteran, who is currently unaffiliated with any of the 2008 contenders, asks. "If he spends $500 million, they will piss it away. I'm not even sure if he gets 10%. And I have no idea who he hurts. ... It's not like Perot, who was a Texan and instinctively conservative."
That's the key question: who wants Bloomberg to run? Answer: No one -- except the operatives like McKinnon and Morris who are hyping his prospects. By doing so, they get press attention and increase their chances of making a fortune by working for him if he does run. Self-funding candidates like Jon Corzine and Bloomberg are a bonanza for consultants.
The Perot and Nader examples are not particularly relevant to Bloomberg either. Third-party candidates typically build their campaigns around an issue that cuts across party lines (as in Perot with the deficit or George Wallace and Strom Thurmond with civil rights) or an extreme ideological position (Nader's leftism). Bloomberg has no defining issue and he's a centrist.
A better point of comparison is John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman who ran in 1980. His experience (as described in the Wikipedia entry on Anderson) sounds like exactly what I think would happen to Bloomberg -- he'd enter with a splash and then trail off:
In the 1980 presidential election, Anderson entered the Republican primary for the U.S. presidential election, in a crowded field that included Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. That spring, he dropped out of the primary race to run as an independent candidate for the fall general election. His campaign manager was New York media strategist David Garth. Anderson started out very well in the polls — over 25%. But as a top advisor reported, "Instead of rising to something on the order of 30 percent, he fell, steadily, about one percentage point every week and a half, down to 22 percent, then 20 percent, then 18 percent, and progressively worse."
Most of Anderson's original support came from Rockefeller Republicans who were more liberal than Reagan, but it bled away. Many prominent intellectuals, including the author and activist Gore Vidal and the editors of the liberal magazine The New Republic, also endorsed the Anderson campaign. He also had the support of many independents. Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury ran several strips sympathetic to the Anderson campaign. The hope that Anderson would score when the Democrats split in their support of Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter faded when Kennedy endorsed Carter and the Democrats held together. Anderson's choice of little-known Democrat Patrick Joseph Lucey, a former Governor of Wisconsin, as his running mate signaled that Anderson was unable to win over any prominent Democrat. His poll numbers kept falling, despite a spirited debate with Reagan. He stayed in the race because he would receive federal election subsidies only if he received 5% of the vote, and millions of unpaid debts had been accumulated. In the end he received 7% of the vote in the election, with a total of about 6 million votes. He did not carry a single precinct in the country.
Unlike Bloomberg, however, Anderson did not have $500 million to spend. That alone could at least change the dynamic of the race. But will a businessman really choose to invest his money in a lost cause? I doubt it.