The reports over the weekend that Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City and billionaire financial data entrepreneur, is considering a third party run for the presidency prompts a look back over the success of third party efforts for the past hundred years. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.
Some people have all the luck. Really. On a weekend when most of the nation’s political news in print, in broadcasts and online has been overwhelmed by the winter storm of a lifetime, the so-called “Snowzilla”, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg managed to let float the idea he is considering the idea of running for president in 2016 as an independent candidate. And pretty much every news outlet in the country picked up this rumour. For people forced inside and watching TV, or reading online, the choice was either Bloomberg’s musings or pictures of the blizzard conditions in downtown Washington and Manhattan, or a massive traffic jam in the snow on a Kentucky highway. Didn’t see that one coming now. did you?
In case readers have forgotten, Bloomberg was the successful and generally very popular mayor of New York City for 12 consecutive years, after first making a genuine fortune based on his own smarts (rather than daddy’s money, like some we could mention right about now) with that ubiquitous Bloomberg terminal and the financial and news network it spawned. Absolutely no one working in the financial sector now survives without making nearly-constant use of that system, and the data and terminals his ingenuity gave birth to earlier in Bloomberg’s life.
Over the years, the man has migrated from the moderate liberal wing of the Republican Party to the Democrats, and then, eventually, to become an independent politically. As the Big Apple’s mayor, he brought the city back from a rather deep financial hole, leaving the city with a budget surplus when he left office in 2013. Along the way, he espoused tight financial and managerial controls, and – more controversially – the stepped up police methods known as “stop and frisk”, as well as a more quixotic war on supersized soft drinks. With his extraordinary personal fortune, he has dedicated resources to improving media competence around the world, especially in financial, economic and business journalism, as well as things like underwriting live broadcasts of operas performed by the Metropolitan Opera of NYC into cinemas globally – including several in South Africa.
Bloomberg is now an unimaginably rich (and retired) 73 year-old. As a younger man, he had the kind of education and career really bright people could achieve in the go-go years, if they sorted things out right, and got a bit lucky along the way. Educated at Harvard University’s business school after Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Bloomberg joined the Salomon Brothers brokerage firm on Wall Street, where he had a meteoric rise in that firm, becoming a partner in only six years. When another rather bigger fish in the Wall Street sea swallowed Salomon Brothers, Bloomberg started his own company, revolutionising the way securities data was stored and delivered to clients. Bloomberg LP became so successful it moved aggressively into the media side of things as well, delivering a wide range of economic and financial reporting and analysis globally via online and broadcast channels.
In his career as a political figure, he has taken a strong pro-choice stance on abortion and on same sex marriage, and then there was the campaign against sugary, jumbo soft drinks and a more pro-active intervention against crime as well. One widely praised Bloomberg governance innovation was the creation of a special toll-free telephone number for NYC residents to report pretty much any city governance-related problem via one number.
But perhaps sitting around, enjoying the opera and watching all that money roll in while doing good works globally has begun to pale for Michael Bloomberg. And so, a story has been leaked that he and his closest aides are now seriously studying the political fate of third party presidential candidates in American elections, focusing especially on what the roadblocks are for success in getting onto the ballot in every state, should he decide to give the formal go-ahead. Those same anonymous sources – quoted pretty much everywhere over the weekend while the chattering class was barricaded inside their homes because of the snow – have described Bloomberg as being increasingly concerned about the possibility the American people will eventually be confronted with an invidious choice between either Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Or, as the New York Times reported over the weekend on the state of mind of the so-called “Mayor of the World”, Bloomberg “1) has become increasingly concerned about the tenor, tone and substance of both parties. 2) believes no one is articulating a results-oriented bipartisan vision for the country. No one is talking to the centre. 3) is engaged on two tracks: determine whether victory is possible — that work is ongoing — the second is to prepare a campaign-in-waiting that can be turned on if he decides to run…. If Republicans were to nominate Mr. Trump or … Cruz … and Democrats were to pick Mr. Sanders, Mr. Bloomberg … has told allies he would be likely to run. … In a three-way race featuring Mr. Sanders and Mr. Bloomberg, [Ed] Rendell [former Pennsylvania governor and DNC (Democratic National Committee) chair] said he might back the moderate former New York mayor….” Meanwhile, another leaker with an insight into Bloomberg’s inner thoughts told Politico that the former mayor “has set March as a deadline, … and his decision will likely be contingent on the results of early primaries.”
But seriously, now, would a Bloomberg candidacy actually appeal to Americans across the country – in place of the pie-in-the-sky socialism of Bernie Sanders, the wild-eyed, arrogant, intolerant, nativist, populism of Donald Trump, or the mean-spirited, acrid, conservative rancour of Ted Cruz? One Washington-based, political analyst friend, as he sat watching how the Bloomberg story moved along during the coverage of the great Northeastern US blizzard, wrote to this writer over the weekend to say, “I mean, in an age of rampant nativism (on the right) and rampant Wall Street-bashing (on the right and left), whose going to vote for a Jewish billionaire from New York who has close ties to Wall Street, supports gun control, promoted stop-and-frisk policing policies, and wants to ban sugary soft drinks? Bloomberg would be an ideal candidate for well-to-do centrist voters who are happy with the status quo, but that’s a fairly small group of people. Everyone else would find something to hate about him. I suspect that his consultants will take some polls and conclude that he’d be wasting his money if he got into the race.” And we should probably add that he would – if he actually won – be the oldest president in history. Of course Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are hardly spring chickens either, so maybe this could be the final play of the baby boom generation?
And so the question naturally must be asked, what are the real possibilities Bloomberg could win – or, at the minimum, throw the election results into a contested state after the election? Most people see the American political system as one that is naturally designed as a two-party, binary system, although there actually is no constitutional or legal requirement that makes it so. The current two-party system only evolved in full after the 1860 election. In that election, the more venerable Democratic Party split into two factions – a pro-South-leave-slavery-alone half and a Northern half that had publicly argued for the status quo of a nation divided into slave and free halves, but no further expansion of indentured servitude. The Whig Party, now renamed the Constitutional Union Party, had called for postponing discussions on the most contentious issue in the nation and focusing instead on infrastructure development, while a new Republican Party, first formed to contest the 1856 ballot, proved triumphant in the election, even though Abraham Lincoln had been elected with a minority share of the total popular vote, albeit with a majority of the electoral count. After their win, Lincoln and the Republicans’ presumed sentiments to abolish slavery in toto, encouraged eleven Southern states to declare their independence from the union, thus creating the Civil War.
In fact, the Constitution never mentions political parties at all. The constitutional arrangement had been that a special body – the Electoral College – was to be elected at each quadrennial vote that would, among themselves, actually select the president and vice president. Over time, these electors came to represent the specific winners of the presidential election, state by state, and that, eventually, their voting largely became a formality of ratifying the actual popular voting, state by state. To clarify, the electoral vote of any state is the total of its congressional districts apportioned according to population, plus each state’s two senate seats, thereby providing a rough and ready apportionment according to population. Now Washington, DC gets three electoral votes as well. To win an electoral majority, a candidate must gain a majority from among 538 electoral votes, or at least 270 electoral votes. Save for Maine and Nebraska, a popular vote win in a given state gives that candidate the totality of the electoral votes for that state.
In spite of the presumed dominance of the two-party system, the 20th century saw several serious third party challengers in 1912, 1948, 1968, 1980 and 1992, as well as in the 2000 election. The anonymous sources touting Bloomberg’s meditation are said to be focusing their analysis especially on 1912, 1980 and 1992 for guidance in going forward.
In 1912, for example, Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, who had not stood for re-election in 1908 (after his own win in 1904 and his inheriting the job in 1901 while he was vice president when President William McKinley had been assassinated), came out of retirement to oppose his own personally selected successor, William Howard Taft, the man who had been Roosevelt’s own vice president. Strongly imbued with the progressive reform ideology for government, Roosevelt had become increasingly disillusioned over Taft’s much more conservative bent as president. The resulting 1912 race became a three-way struggle with Roosevelt, Taft and the Democrats’ Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was similarly a progressive in many ways (but who retained his strong segregationist leanings by virtue of a childhood in Virginia). In the end, Wilson won a majority of the electoral votes, even though he had a minority of the total popular vote. Roosevelt came in second, and Taft was rather thoroughly trounced.
Then, in 1948, Harry Truman had been nominated to run for his own term as president (after inheriting his first term as vice president when Franklin Roosevelt died early in his own fourth term). Truman refused to endorse segregationist policies and with that, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond broke from the party and ran as a strong segregationist. Meanwhile, former Vice President and former Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace, angered by Truman’s largely centrist positions and his foreign policy positions vis-a-vis the USSR, similarly bolted and ran as the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party. In spite of this three-way split among Democrats, Truman persevered to defeat both Democratic factions as well as the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey.
The 1968 election saw Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic Party’s candidate. Humphrey had replaced incumbent President Lyndon Johnson as the candidate in the wake of Johnson’s disappointing showing against anti-Vietnam War candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy’s in the New Hampshire primary. Humphrey’s candidacy came from an extraordinarily divisive nominating convention, and in the face of a revolt by many Southern Democrats against the growing pace of civil rights legislation. Capitalising on that disaffection, Alabama Governor George Wallace declared himself a candidate on a strongly segregationist platform for the newly formed American Independent Party. While Republican Richard Nixon won the election with his so-called secret plan to end the Vietnam War and his subliminal support from some disaffected Democrats distressed by civil rights and the counterculture, the popular vote totals between Humphrey and Nixon were close. Wallace ultimately claimed 45 electoral votes from six Southern states, however.
In the 1980 election, Republican Congressman John Anderson attempted to offer a more moderate Republican-style perspective as an independent candidate, after being defeated soundly in the party’s primaries, as former California Governor Ronald Reagan rose to the top of his party’s heap. In the end, Anderson’s crusade proved to be wildly insufficient to rally moderate Republicans in the face of a Reagan landslide over Democratic candidate and incumbent President Jimmy Carter.
Then, in 1992, computer services entrepreneur Ross Perot challenged the two major party candidates – President George HW Bush and Bill Clinton – as an alternative voice, promising tough business-like practices, a nearly libertarian fiscal and monetary approach, and a largely isolationist-style foreign policy. Because Clinton won with a minority of the total popular vote, it has been argued that if a majority of Perot’s 19 million votes had been added to Bush’s 39 million (with Perot not in the race), the resulting total would have significantly beaten the Clinton total of just under 45 million.
And, finally, the 2000 election pitted Vice President Al Gore against George W Bush from Texas. The result was extraordinarily close as the popular vote totals actually gave Gore a majority, even as the winning Florida electoral vote was finally awarded to Bush by virtue of Supreme Court decisions over recounts to give Bush an electoral vote win. However, if a major portion of veteran consumer rights activist Ralph Nader’s 2.8 million votes as a third party candidate had been added to Gore’s tally (most especially including Nader’s votes in Florida), Al Gore would have won that election.
What all of these examples point to, of course, and something that will be a close object of study by any potential Bloomberg candidacy, is the very steep hill any third party candidate must climb in the process of trying to achieve an actual electoral win. Instead, even given enormous success, a third party candidate’s most likely path would be to win enough electoral votes so as to stymie an outright win by one of the two major party candidates, thereby forcing the election into the House of Representatives where each state delegation casts one vote only. With no one candidate gaining a majority, a third party candidate could conceivably gain real wiggle room in exacting concessions from one or the other of the two candidates as the price for declaring for that individual. That, of course, had actually been George Wallace’s objective in 1968, and it has probably figured in the minds of most of the other third party challengers historically – aside from Teddy Roosevelt.
But beyond the unlikelihood of a third party challenger actually winning the election (or affecting a final House vote), the biggest challenge for a third party candidate is actually getting their name on the ballots of each state for the election. Unlike many nations, American elections are actually managed state-by-state, rather than by the national government. Each state sets the standards and regulations for a party being listed on a ballot. In some it is fairly straightforward and with a relatively low bar, but others require a major effort to obtain large numbers of registered voters to sign a petition and then in having each signature vetted to ensure that there was no hanky panky carried out. As a consequence, those anonymous Bloomberg advisors have concluded that mid-March is effectively the date by which a go/no go decision must be made in order to give operatives sufficient time to ensure all the requirements in every state are met, and that no court challenges would stand in the way of Bloomberg’s name appearing on the ballot countrywide.
As a result, Michael Bloomberg, a sober-minded man with that track record of accomplishment in business, politics and the philanthropic worlds must now weigh whether it is worth spending a billion dollars of his own money (the figure already given by those who apparently spoke for him to the nation’s media) to find out if his popularity and reputation are sufficient to take a chance on easing the 2016 election away from Sanders, Trump or Cruz. Of course, the actual candidates might well turn out to be people like Florida Senator Marco Rubio or Ohio Governor John Kasich on the one hand, and, still most likely, Hillary Rodham Clinton on the other. If that eventuality were to happen, Michael Bloomberg might well put that tantalizing dream of entering the White House on 20 January 2017 back in the box (except as a VIP guest) and go back to his global good works instead. And remember, not a single primary or caucus vote has yet been cast for either party, even as the commentariat has already kicked into overdrive over these rumblings. The actual voting, however, does begin shortly. The initial caucus takes place on February first in Iowa and then there is the first primary in New Hampshire on the ninth. So, let the games begin and let Bloomberg continue his reverie about what might just happen, at least for a little while longer. DM