Does Palinmania Really Help Bloomberg?

Over at The Daily Beast today, political strategist Mark McKinnon makes a compelling argument for why the 2012 election could be tailor-made for NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. McKinnon is one of the sharpest minds around when it comes to understanding the mood of the electorate. McKinnon knows how to sell winning candidates, which is why I think the case he builds for Bloomberg is a serious one. Bloomberg is a true centrist who has racked up a swag of political achievements in New York—and he has a ton of cash. Dropping $1 billion on a presidential campaign would barely cause a ripple in his ocean of Benjamins. And he appeals to the growing bloc of independent voters. But, after reading McKinnon's analysis, I've got a couple of lingering questions.

First, how will his background in financial services play to an electorate weary of Wall Street misadventures? To be sure, it's been a very long time since Bloomberg was directly involved in trading and banking. Most of his cash piled up when he started offering IT and media services to the financial sector. But Wall Street is already enough of a myth to most voters. They may not have the patience to distinguish between the greedy bankers who broke the economy and the folks that provided the information that helped them carry out the devastating deeds. They may just see a really, really, ridiculously rich guy who made his money on Wall Street.

That may not be as much of a burden in New York, where there are plenty of ridiculously rich people, as well as loads of people who move among the obscenely wealthy hoping one day to be that rich themselves. But outside the city, the electoral map just doesn't work to Bloomberg's advantage. I can't imagine Bloomberg's appeal translating well in the red states he would have to win to wrest the presidency from Obama (and to scuttle the Palin vote): Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, you know the list. He'd need to pick up all the purple states and nearly all the red ones to be viable, and for many predominantly Republican voters in those parts of the country, Manhattan might as well be a different country. And then there are the poorer rural areas that have long voted Republican. I just don't think Bloomberg's urban fairy tale will resonate with people who can't get even broadband in their homes, or who can barely afford their electricity bill let alone think about buying a Mac.

Second, I'm unconvinced of Bloomberg's ability to excite and inspire, as evidenced by the paltry turnout in November's mayoral election. Of course turnout was low because his opponent was a pretty ordinary candidate who nobody thought would win, but it still didn't seem like Bloomberg's supporters were particularly passionate about him. People who like Bloomberg often like him in a very levelheaded fashion. In my experience they tend to offer buttoned-up report-card like assessments of his political career. "He's a wonderfully proficient administrator." "He's managed the city very well." "New York feels much safer under Bloomberg. I'll take sugar with my tea." You get the picture. 

I don't think that rationally expressed appreciation of management skills wins presidential elections. Just ask Mitt Romney. As our current president definitively illustrates, voters want to be excited and inspired by presidential candidates. Effective turnout operations are critical, and they require passionate, committed field workers to herd voters into polling booths. Maybe I've misread things, but I don't see swathes of voters fired up about Bloomberg, nor can I imagine armies of enthusiastic volunteers. (They certainly didn't in New York, according to The New York Times: "But the turnout appeared to be on track to be among the lowest in modern New York history as the mayor’s vaunted campaign machinery failed to deliver the surge of supporters his aides had predicted.")

Yes, Bloomberg could capture the imagination of many an independent voter (and has in the past), but independents can't be your base. Mostly, they're independent for a reason: they're fickle, picky, and non-committal. And that means they're rarely inclined to spend their Saturdays handing out your literature at Wal-Mart or cheerfully standing on street corners brandishing pro-Bloomberg signs. (I guess Bloomberg could just pay folks to do that.) Independent voters are ripe to be courted, but they're not renowned for reliability. 

McKinnon's argument shouldn't be discounted, and my quibbles aren't insurmountable hurdles for someone like Bloomberg. But I'm going to need some more convincing before I believe he's viable in 2012.