The arguments have already begun over which party’s White House hopes will be destroyed by Mike Bloomberg. And on one level, it’s a debate worth having, since third party efforts tend to appeal lopsidedly to one side of the political spectrum.
But the most direct precedent for Mr. Bloomberg’s prospective bid is actually the one independent campaign that drew about equally from both parties – Ross Perot’s in 1992. And the main difference between the two may be that Mr. Bloomberg is blessed with an infinitely more stable personality. In other words, the mayor has the potential to improve significantly on what was a history-making showing for Mr. Perot.
To be sure, there are plenty of independents who have played the spoiler or near-spoiler role.
John Anderson, for instance, ran on a platform of social liberalism and gas tax hikes in 1980, a recipe vastly more resonant with Jimmy Carter’s target voters than with Ronald Reagan’s – not that Mr. Anderson’s 6.6 percent of the final vote would have undone what was a 10-point loss for President Carter. Similarly, Richard Nixon’s one-point spread over Hubert Humphrey in 1968 would undoubtedly have been much larger without George Wallace snagging 13 percent of the vote, overwhelmingly in the Humphrey-phobic South.
And then there are the independent candidacies that the major parties blame their outright defeat at the polls.
Democrats, of course, still point their fingers at Ralph Nader, whose presence in the 2000 race may well have swung Florida and New Hampshire to George W. Bush, when a win in either state would have pushed Al Gore over 270 electoral votes.
Many Republicans, for their part, like to peg their loss of the White House in 1992 on Mr. Perot, the finicky Texas billionaire who corralled 18.8 percent of the vote, about three times the 5.8-point margin of Bill Clinton’s popular vote victory over George H.W. Bush.
But the Blame Nader case is fairly compelling (even as it lets Mr. Gore somewhat off the hook for his inspiration-less effort), while the Blame Perot argument is altogether specious. Not only is Mr. Perot’s ’92 bid a demonstration that not all third party candidacies are spoilers, it also suggests – despite his failure to win a single state – that the White House is not nearly as unwinnable for Mr. Bloomberg as conventional wisdom now holds.
First, the outcome of the ’92 race – a smashing 370 to 168 triumph for Bill Clinton in the Electoral College – would not have been measurably different without Mr. Perot’s presence. It is a myth that he “stole” votes from Mr. Bush.
Consider the trajectory of public opinion polling in ’92. Throughout the spring, Mr. Perot, who declared his willingness to run in a February 20 appearance on “Larry King Live,” led three-way trial heats, with Mr. Bush in second place and Mr. Clinton a distant third (sometimes barely cracking the 20 percent mark). Clearly, the initial interest in Mr. Perot came primarily at Mr. Clinton’s expense – an obvious sign that independent voters were dissatisfied with the incumbent President but had grave reservations about the Democratic challenger, who had been dogged by “character” questions in the Democratic primaries.