Bloomberg for Prez? Only If Hill Rebounds

MANCHESTER, N.H.—One big casualty of the way this election has been going: Michael Bloomberg’s hopes—whatever they may have been—of being president.

The mayor may not have been among the competitors in Iowa, but the outcome still inflicted a potentially mortal wound on the rationale for the entrance into the presidential race of any independent candidate. New Hampshire promises to do the same.

The problem for Mr. Bloomberg, who stoked yet more presidential chatter with his appearance at a lavish bipartisan conference in Oklahoma on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, is that Barack Obama, with his victory in Iowa, is stealing his thunder. The Bloomberg scenario—and the scenario for the emergence of any credible independent candidacy—depends on both parties nominating candidates who are deemed either too conventional and uninspiring or too extreme and unlikable by the masses who consider themselves political independents. Then, with Americans bemoaning that yet again they’ve been forced to choose between the lesser of two evils, the stage would be set for a fresh face to step forward.

That’s the formula that paved the way for Ross Perot in the spring of 1992, back when the public was tuning out President George H.W. Bush but saw Bill Clinton as little more than a used car salesman. By June of that year, Mr. Perot’s support was nearing 40 percent in national polls—several points ahead of Mr. Bush and nearly double that of Mr. Clinton.

For the longest time, it seemed that Mr. Bloomberg, who, despite his public denials, has plainly considered the possibility of running under the right circumstances in ’08, would find himself with a similar opportunity. For all of 2007, Hillary Clinton seemed a lock to secure the Democratic nomination. And in the run-up to Iowa, Mitt Romney had emerged as the tentative G.O.P. favorite. Neither Mrs. Clinton, with her polarizing reputation, nor Mr. Romney, with his well-chronicled shiftiness and the burden of wearing the Republican label in 2008, would do much for the average voter.

But Mr. Obama’s Iowa victory changed all of that. Mr. Obama, unlike any other major party candidate, appeals to and energizes the same apathetic voters that a Bloomberg candidacy would depend on.

The way that Mr. Obama won Iowa is particularly revealing. First, overall participation in the Democratic primary nearly doubled from 2004—and the ’04 turnout had been a record high. Twenty percent of the Iowa Democratic electorate were independents, a high figure in a caucus environment that tends to attract hardened party loyalists. Almost 25 percent of Democratic caucus-goers were under 30—again, nearly twice the ’04 figure. Both independents and young voters overwhelmingly favored Mr. Obama. Overall, 51 percent of caucus-goers who said that “change” was their top priority sided with Mr. Obama.

Afterward, stupefied Clinton strategists noted that their machinery would have produced a victory had turnout been consistent with past figures. It was the unprecedented influx of new and previously apathetic caucus-goers that lifted Mr. Obama to his eight-point win.

Polls also confirm Mr. Obama’s unique appeal to independent voters among the major party candidates. For instance, in a prospective head-to-head matchup, Mrs. Clinton led Mr. Romney by six points in a Gallup poll three weeks ago. Mr. Obama’s edge was 18 points—thanks entirely to independents.

The best case for an independent candidacy would be if the Democratic primaries were to turn out the way the Republican contest did in 2000.

That was the year when America’s independents—and the press and a good chunk of Democrats—fell in love with John McCain. His personal charm and cross-partisan appeal led him to a staggering victory in the New Hampshire primary. Soon, polls showed him leading Al Gore by 25 points in a general election matchup, while George W. Bush, his Republican rival, ran even with Mr. Gore.

And yet Republicans still rejected Mr. McCain, handing the nomination to Mr. Bush. Had Mr. Bloomberg been in position to run back then, the setting would have been perfect for him to jump in, just as it will be if Mrs. Clinton capitalizes on her strong showing in New Hampshire and emerges on the Democratic side now. But if she doesn’t, then there just won’t be room for Hizzoner in the fall.

Bloomberg for Prez? Only If Hill Rebounds