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.
As voters learned more about Mr. Perot – for instance, his penchant for siccing private investigators on employees of EDS, his Dallas-based company, came to light – his standing began to slide. Similarly, Mr. Clinton skillfully reintroduced himself to the public – remember the sax-and-shades bit on “Arsenio” in June ‘92? – and picked up the slack. At the same time, confidence in Mr. Bush’s stewardship of the U.S. economy continued to flag amid discouraging news stories about U.S. unemployment and supposedly looming bank failures.
By the middle of July, top campaign aides were abandoning Mr. Perot. He slipped from first place as his temperament became a profound liability, and on the eve of Mr. Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, the Texan abruptly withdrew from the race. (In the process, you may recall, he seemed to stick it just a bit to Mr. Bush, his old nemesis, arguing that one of the factors that compelled him to withdraw was the “revitalized” Democratic Party.”) Mr. Clinton, after his speech, surged to leads as high as 30 points in national polls, with former Perot supporters favoring the Arkansan by a three-to-two margin.
From that point through the November election, Mr. Clinton never once relinquished his lead. After the August GOP convention, Mr. Bush closed to the gap to six points, but by early September, the Democratic advantage had again swelled to double-digits. (For instance, a September 14 ABC/Washington Post survey gave Mr. Clinton a 54 to 39 percent edge.) Mr. Perot re-entered the race at the end of September, though his polls numbers were initially low, and didn’t take off until after his strong showings in the presidential debates. But through it all, Mr. Clinton maintained a solid lead, which dropped only in the last week of the campaign (as voters went through their final doubts about throwing an incumbent out) and promptly leveled off when Lawrence Walsh, the Iran-Contra independent counsel, indicted Casper Weinberger the Friday before the election, calling into question Mr. Bush’s “out of the loop” assertions about the scandal.
There is simply no evidence that the bulk of Mr. Perot’s voters were ever inclined to support a second term for Bush. The core of his constituency – those who stuck with him long after the ’92 election – may have been more conservative, but his broad appeal owed to Americans who were deeply insecure about the economic standing of their families and their country. All of the data suggests a two-way Clinton-Bush race would have turned out about the same: A six or so point popular vote win for the Arkansan, accompanied by a robust electoral majority. Mr. Perot did not spoil the race for the GOP.
And therein is the hope for Mr. Bloomberg in 2008. Mr. Perot proved in ’92 that, under certain circumstances, there is a broad, frustrated audience – one that cuts into both parties – ready to ignore partisan tendencies in order to shake up the system. Indeed, what is most noteworthy about Mr. Perot’s campaign is not that he scored the highest vote total for an independent since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 – it’s that he could have done so much better.
Consider, again, those springtime polls, which had Mr. Perot edging over 40 percent and nearly doubling up the then-hapless Governor Clinton. It was inevitable that his standing would be challenged as his personality and platform were fleshed out and as Mr. Clinton’s sunny optimism registered with the masses, but the precipitous drop that ensued was mainly a function of the severity of Mr. Perot’s liabilities, most notably his evident paranoia. In other words, a more stable and grounded independent in the same spot would have held up better under the scrutiny.
Mr. Bloomberg’s ’08 timetable is fairly similar to Mr. Perot’s in ’92. Like the diminutive Texan, the five-foot-seven New Yorker probably won’t admit any interest until February, as it becomes clear who the Democratic and Republican nominees will be. If, as was the case in ’92, both major party candidates are initially unsatisfactory and uninspiring to most Americans, then Mr. Bloomberg could play the same white knight Mr. Perot did. Early polls gave Mr. Perot modest support, which steadily grew. Similarly, Mr. Bloomberg would be expected to enter at about 10 to 15 percent in polls, but if the white knight game works, those numbers will also grow dramatically and Mr. Bloomberg could conceivably find himself in the same late Spring catbird seat that Mr. Perot occupied in ’92.
The difference, though, is that Mr. Bloomberg has the reassuring manner that Mr. Perot so obviously lacked. Sure, the mayor’s standing would come under attack on multiple fronts – his personal life would be scrutinized like never before, ideologues would warn their flocks of his spoiler-potential, and the parties would both have some (perhaps much) success at using their conventions to close ranks – but it’s infinitely easier to see him holding up than it was Mr. Perot. And, obviously, he’d have the money to build a real organization and to stay on the air throughout the fall. (Another reason Mr. Perot faltered in the spring of ’92 was his refusal to dip into his pockets to fund an initial wave of positive ads, which could have off-set the damaging news stories about his personality).
Take his most glaring faults (and his suicidal decision to leave the race for two months), and Ross Perot would have fared much better than the nearly 20 percent of the vote he won in 1992. And that bodes rather well for Mr. Bloomberg as he looks to next year.