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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Bloomberg Factor

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement earlier this week that he was changing his voter registration from “Republican” to “Undeclared” has revived simmering speculation that he may run for president in 2008 as an independent. And the New York and Washington media are eating it all up.
The questions about Bloomberg generally revolve around “Will He or Won’t He?” (a subject he seems to be fanning with calculated ambiguity), and “If He Does, Who Gets Hurt?” (Pew says Republicans; the New York Post, quoting anonymous GOP operatives, says Democrats; a batch of SurveyUSA state polls say it depends on the field).
To show how rapidly the Mike-o-Mania is spreading in the Big Apple, there’s actually a New York Observer article out today rating various prominent politicians as potential Bloomberg running-mates (including, to my amusement, my old boss Sam Nunn, who is more likely to enter the 2008 Olympics as a sprinter).
New York media provincialism aside, the legitimate reasons for this buzz include the much-discussed public disdain for Washington partisanship and gridlock; the exceptionally high “wrong track” numbers in every poll; the persistently high percentage of Americans self-identifying as Independents; the likelihood of a close two-party presidential race where a third force could tip the balance; and Bloomberg’s vast personal wealth, which he has certainly used generously in his New York political career (he spent upwards of $160 million of his own money in his two mayoral races, and spent untold millions more in pre- and post-election contributions to a variety of politically significant organizations and causes).
If the Bloomberg speculation continues, it may be a good idea for TDS to dust off and freshen up the existing research on third-party presidential candidacies. Our own co-editor, Stan Greenberg, after all, did the best research on Perot voters back in the early 1990s, in conjunction with the DLC.
But it’s not wise to assume that a Bloomberg candidacy in 2008 would necessarily follow the Perot model. Over at The New Republic’s site today, John Judis suggests the more likely model is John Anderson’s 1980 campaign, which started as a resolutely centrist enterprise and turned sharply left before the end, almost certainly taking more votes from Jimmy Carter than from Ronald Reagan. Judis is concerned about Bloomberg’s potential appeal to independents on whom Democrats increasingly rely for majorities, especially given Mike’s cultural liberalism (see yesterday’s post here about the revised Judis/Teixeira hypothesis on the Democratic coalition). And having done a post myself over at TPMCafe yesterday saying negative things about Bloomberg’s record, unleashing a surprisingly passionate number of comments defending him on that left-bent site, I wonder if some Democrats might be tempted to go third-party under the right circumstances. (Indeed, TPMCafe regular M.J. Rosenberg, whose main preoccupation is criticizing neocons and AIPAC, did a post entitled: “I Could Vote For Bloomberg.”)

Now it’s true that the exact circumstances that made former longtime Republican congressman John Anderson veer left in 1980 aren’t going to be repeated next year (i.e., the profound unhappiness of liberals with an unpopular Democratic incumbent). But veering is always an option once you are committed to a presidential campaign.
If you will allow me an Old Guy moment, I personally witnessed two John Anderson speeches in 1980 that illustrated how the dynamics of a campaign produce unexpected strategies. The first, in mid-summer, was at a National Governors’ Association meeting, where Anderson delivered the most anodyne, miles-above-the-fray speech imaginable. The only moment of excitement was when a member of the cultish, North Carolina-based Revolutionary Communist Party burst into the room and tossed eggs at Anderson and at Jim Hunt (I remember this vividly because I was standing near an exit, and got trampled by Secret Service agents hustling the candidate out of harm’s way). I caught Anderson’s act again in the waning days of the campaign, in San Francisco, where he made what was probably the first pro-gay-rights statement of any major national politician (in the argot of the day, he said he’d fight against descrimination based on “affectional preference.”).
Supposing Bloomberg runs next year, and really busts open the piggy bank, there’s no telling what kind of campaign, or what kind of impact, he might have.

3 comments on “The Bloomberg Factor

  1. demetri on

    How would Bloomberg’s personal wealth work in a presidential campaign? Haven’t finance laws about self-funding candidates changed since Perot’s run?

  2. edkilgore on

    Interesting perspective; thanks for commenting here, and hope you keep coming back.
    Maybe the word “veer” was too strong with respect to Anderson. I’m not suggesting he changed everything midcourse; it’s just where he campaigned and what he emphasized that changed when it became obvious his best source of votes was from the Carter column (he did particularly well in NY, as I recall).
    And one of the key moments of Anderson’s transformation had to be the day when, as one journalist said at the time, “Gary Trudeau fell in love with him.” For a while there, Doonesbury was practically an Anderson campaign site, right?
    One other random Anderson note: wasn’t his big domestic policy initiative a big gas tax increase, with the proceeds used to cut Social Security payroll taxes? Still not a bad idea.

  3. RT on

    Third-party candidacies inevitably succeed by poaching off someone else’s territory. It’s just a question of whose. Which is the relevance of the Anderson campaign. (Which I volunteered in, FWIW.)
    The ‘veer left’ was there while Anderson was still running in the GOP primaries. Remember what killed him in Illinois? Anderson said he’d rather have Ted Kennedy as President than Ronald Reagan. Everybody knew what they were getting from then on.
    After that, Anderson didn’t ‘veer left’ so much as the solidifying of support for the two major-party candidates veered right. When Anderson was polling at 20% in the late spring and early summer, he was drawing support from Dems dissatisfied with Carter and Republicans dissatisfied with Reagan. By the fall, though, Reagan started impressing GOP moderates (not yet an endangered species) and GOP-leaning independents as being a credible leader. (IMHO, the Reagan-Anderson debate in September was key here – while it also shored up Anderson’s support, Reagan looked very good too. Carter lost that debate by not showing up.)
    But this cycle, the Dems have firm support, and the GOP’s is weak. A centrist third-party candidacy will principally take GOP leaners, because that’s where the weakness is.


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