Who Does Mayor Mike Hurt?

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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has changed his party registration from Republican to Independent, which everyone is taking as a step toward running as a third-party candidate for president. Bloomberg, whose income is said to be about $500 million a year, is capable of self-financing a campaign, and he has very good job ratings as mayor of New York. A mayor or former mayor of New York has not been a serious candidate for president since DeWitt Clinton in 1812. Now we may have two of them in the 2008 race.

How serious is a Bloomberg candidacy? And who does he take votes away from? Speculation about these questions is interesting, but I think the answers depend on who the Republican and Democratic parties nominate.

Fox News has a national poll showing that in a three-way New Yorker race (a real subway series!), Bloomberg would get just 7 percent of the vote, to 41 percent for Rudy Giuliani and 39 percent for Hillary Clinton. With Bloomberg out of the race, Giuliani leads Clinton 45 percent to 42 percent. In a Quinnipiac poll of New York State released yesterday, in a three-way race Clinton gets 43 percent, Giuliani 29 percent, and Bloomberg 16 percent; in a two-way race, Clinton beats Giuliani 52 percent to 37 percent. In other words, both polls show Bloomberg taking about equal percentages from Clinton and Giuliani. Where Bloomberg is best known, in New York City and its suburbs, he gets 22 percent and 21 percent.

What these polls tell me is that Bloomberg would start off well below the critical mass of support that he needs to be competitive with the major parties—or at least with the candidates who are currently leading in all or almost all national polls of Democratic and Republican primary voters. It also tells me that Bloomberg votes tend to come about equally from Clinton and Giuliani both nationally, where he gets only a few votes, and in the state where all three are most well known.

But of course Bloomberg could become much better known: Money can do that. And a Bloomberg candidacy could become viable if the two major parties nominate winger candidates; indeed, a key Bloomberg adviser has hinted that Bloomberg will decide to run only if one or both major party candidates show significant weakness. This is, after all, what Ross Perot did in 1992. He announced he might run on the then No 1 cable news network, CNN, in February 1992, when he knew that the Republican nominee would be incumbent George H. W. Bush and that the Democratic nominee would most likely be Bill Clinton. Perot, who had quite an animus toward Bush, suspected that he was weaker than generally thought and believed, accurately, that as a successful entrepreneur and a retired military officer he would have credibility in attacking Bush. He knew that Clinton’s remaining rivals in the Democratic race, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown, had serious weaknesses and that Clinton had serious vulnerabilities—Gennifer Flowers had been all over the airwaves the month before—as well.

Bloomberg, like Perot, doesn’t have to decide to run until he sees who the nominees are. It seems to me—and, I gather from news accounts, it seems to his chief political advisers—that his candidacy can be viable only if one or both parties nominate candidates identified as wingers. As the New York numbers referenced above suggest, Bloomberg is probably not a viable candidate if Giuliani and Clinton are the nominees. And probably not with Barack Obama or John McCain. A closer case comes if the culturally conservative Fred Thompson or the increasingly shrilly left-wing John Edwards is a nominee. And a Bloomberg candidacy might seem quite viable if the Republicans nominate a cultural conservative like Mike Huckabee or Sam Brownback or the Democrats nominate a seeming left-winger like Bill Richardson or Christopher Dodd. All those candidates have records that would allow them to argue that they are in one way or another mainstream. But it would be an uphill argument.

In that context, which party would a Bloomberg candidacy hurt most? His now abandoned affiliation as a Republican doesn’t tell us much; he enrolled as a Republican only because it enabled him to get elected mayor without going through a Democratic primary dominated by a relatively small, left-wing electorate heavily influenced by public-employee unions. His positions on cultural issues are well to the left, even to the left of most or all the Democratic presidential candidates. As Opinion Journal’s James Taranto points out, Bloomberg favors same-sex marriage, a very aggressive form of gun control, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, and abortion rights; he opposed the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts. On foreign policy, his views are less well known and certainly not tested; presumably he would run as a competent executive who could make dispassionate decisions.

Bloomberg’s liberal stands on cultural issues suggest he would take more votes from the Democrat than the Republican. Veteran Democratic speechwriter and campaign consultant Bob Shrum thinks that Bloomberg, with his liberal stands on cultural issues and his willingness to raise taxes rather than cut spending, will take more votes away from the Democratic nominee and asks, a bit plaintively I think, “Does the pro-choice, socially liberal Bloomberg really want to be responsible for electing another Supreme Court-packing, gay-bashing, gun-loving, domestic-program-slashing President?” Conservative public relations guy Greg Mueller has a similar analysis. He E-mails that what he’s telling conservatives is: "If Bloomberg gets in the race, he will take more votes from the Democrat nominee, certainly if it is Senator Clinton or Senator Obama -- than a conservative GOP candidate. There are many, many independents, and some Democrats, who will simply not vote for Senator Clinton under any circumstances. And, there are still others who feel Senator Obama is too inexperienced. Bloomberg gives these voters a place to go, dividing the Democrat vote. Bloomberg could be to Senator Clinton or Senator Obama in ’08 what Ross Perot was to President George H.W. Bush in ’92."

But there’s countervailing evidence that a Bloomberg candidacy might take more votes from the Republican than the Democratic nominee. SurveyUSA pollster Jay Leve presents the following results from statewide polling, showing that a Bloomberg candidacy flips several Bush 2004 states with 43 electoral votes to Democrats against a couple of other Republicans (Iowa, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio) and, if Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee, several that everyone has assumed are safe Republican (Alabama, Kansas, Texas). (Here are Survey USA's numbers in the two-way races in these states and in three-way races, which deserve some further analysis.) But he also has numbers that show that if Giuliani is the Republican nominee, California and New York, with 86 electoral votes, are flipped toward the Republicans. Note: In all of these, Bloomberg still comes in third. The support for a candidate who is clearly finishing third in every state, with no chance of winning any electoral votes, will probably tend to evaporate in the last weeks before Election Day—although Perot still got 19 percent in 1992—which means that he'll be taking fewer votes from either major party.

I think there's one other factor to be considered. Would a Bloomberg candidacy change the dynamic of the race? I have long thought that if Ross Perot had been run down by a bus in 1991, George H. W. Bush would have been re-elected by a small and uninspiring margin (which might have led to a successful Bill Clinton candidacy in 1996). I remember that at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, the late Paul Tully, then deputy Democratic national chairman, told me that in the spring of 1992 "Perot departisanized the critique of Bush." He was able to lower Bush’s numbers in a way that Bill Clinton at the time could not possibly have done. Bloomberg, in the spring or the fall, might be able to do the same thing. David Frum, blogging at National Review Online, a pessimistic conservative, sees the following scenario:

Bloomberg's numbers will dwindle (as Nader's did). He will then face a stark choice: accept that he's been made a monkey of—or up the ante. Nobody gets to be as rich as Bloomberg if he is not a fierce competitor. So—assuming he has followed the path thus far—he will double down. He will go negative, filling the airwaves with harsh attack ads.

Against whom will those ads be aimed? A lot will ride on that question. Attack ads are dangerous things, because they damage both the attacker and the attackee. Their main effect is not to change votes from D to R or R to D, but to depress turnout among potential supporters of the targeted candidate. Candidates refrain from excess negativity for fear of damaging their own image. But a Bloomberg in the polling basement will feel no such constraint.

The ads will be a free gift to the candidate Bloomberg dislikes less at the expense of the candidate he dislikes more.

And the candidate he dislikes more will almost certainly be the Republican.