Imagining the potential effect of a Michael Bloomberg independent presidential campaign in 2008 is one of the most enjoyable pastimes in contemporary politics. As NEWSWEEK's cover story this week suggests, Bloomberg's ability to tap $1 billion of his fortune for a White House bid is a game-changing variable. While the New York City mayor continues to play off any presidential ambitions, his top aides suggest otherwise and have been busy mapping out the contingencies. If he does decide to join the race, how would he actually go about it? Some Bloomberg nuts and bolts:
When would he have to get in?
Not as soon as you might think. The conventional wisdom has been that Bloomberg would announce on Feb. 6, the day after 21 states hold their primaries. But Bloomberg's political adviser, Kevin Sheekey, has said he thinks the Republican contest may not be decided until Texas holds its primary on March 4. Bloomberg may be well advised to stay out as long as possible. "The first thing you do is you wait and see who the nominees are," says Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's White House chief of staff, who has done an analysis of the feasibility of a third-party presidential candidate running in 2008. "One thing I thought Mayor Bloomberg was doing in the spring [when he announced he was leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent] was I thought he was about to get out on the track early and prematurely and become overexposed. He seems to have pulled back since then." (Article continued below...)
How would he get on the ballot?
History suggests that should Bloomberg decide to run, he could get on the ballot reasonably quickly. "That's something that Ross Perot accomplished in three or four months," says Doug Bailey, Republican co-chair of Unity08, a group that is seeking to help a third-party centrist candidate compete in the presidential election. (Unity08 has yet to endorse a candidate, but its leadership has spoken well of Bloomberg in the past. The group plans to hold a nominating convention to select a consensus candidate in June 2008.) "A great many of the state laws have changed since those days; in most cases they're easier to meet now than they were before … My impression is that a candidate could get in as late as April and still do it."
Bloomberg is uniquely well positioned for a run outside the two-party system for one reason: money. Most independent campaigns fail because the candidates lack the resources to get on the ballot in most states. "In all likelihood, it's not going to happen without the funds for a professional signature-gathering organization," says Bailey. "You need lawyers in every state; you need troops on the ground in every state."
But while the process of getting on the ballot may have gotten easier since Perot's 1992 run, it's still tricky—even for a billionaire. An independent candidate has to go state by state and decide whether it's better to run on a third-party ticket (like Unity08's) or to run as an independent candidate. In most states one option is more attractive than the other. California, for example, would be a very hard state to run in as a third-party candidate. To appear on the ballot in 2008 a third party would have to have registered 75,000 members by the end of this year. But an independent candidate, running without a party, could get on the ballot as late as next August and would simply need to get 150,000 petition signatories—a much lower bar than recruiting all those new party members. Similarly, in Minnesota candidates need 100,000 signatures to get on the ballot carrying the banner of a third party—but only 2,000 signatures to get equal billing as an independent candidate. But in other states it's much easier to have the backing of a party like Unity 08, which has already been out doing the legwork needed to insure they'll have a place on the ballot. In all cases independent candidates need to be prepared for legal challenges in every state.
Could he actually win?
It all depends on whom he's running against. Jordan, the former Carter aide, thinks that if Bloomberg were running against Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani—like him, socially moderate New Yorkers—he could be competitive throughout the Sunbelt. "I would think Hillary and Rudy would be somewhere to start," he says. "All of a sudden you negate the so-called social issues that would theoretically make it difficult to sell a New York mayor in south Georgia. If they're muted, I think people in the Sunbelt would be more likely to look at where a centrist candidate is on other issues."
That scenario, of course, depends on Bloomberg's ability to sell himself to voters as a centrist. "The main thing you'd have to do is you'd have to address how you were going to govern," says Jordan. "You might begin to talk in the campaign about who would be in your cabinet, and give a sense that they're people on both sides of the aisle, people from business you would bring in. You'd have to make a case that you could bring in people who reflect the values in the center."
Bailey thinks such a centrist candidacy could have tremendous appeal, considering the large swath of Americans who say they are not wedded to the idea of voting for the candidate of one party or the other. "You have the capacity nationally for an independent candidacy, if it is considered viable, to pull from a group of voters totaling about 60 percent," says Bailey. "I'm not saying he or she would get 60 percent of the vote. I'm saying that's the pool he or she would be drawing from. It's possible to pull that kind of level to win a plurality of the vote in each state. That's really what's interesting: it can happen in every state. You may think of Kansas as a solid red state in a presidential race. But Kansas is as wide open as California, as Maine, or any other state that you could name in a three-way race."
Jordan agrees. "Look at what Perot did with his crazy campaign," says Jordan. "Nobody ever him saw beyond the summer as a viable candidate. If you had a Bloomberg-Nunn ticket that had 25 to 28 percent of the vote on Oct. 15, and the other candidates were all grouped in the 20s, people would say, 'Hell, these candidates could do it'."
What if he ran and won a plurality, but not a majority, of electoral votes?
This is where things get interesting—and confusing. Under the 12th Amendment, in the event that no presidential candidate wins a majority of electoral votes (currently candidates need 270 electoral votes to claim a majority), the House of Representatives is "immediately" required to elect the president, choosing from the top three vote-getting candidates. But what does "immediately" mean? And which House selects the president? The one newly elected that November, or the one that's a part of the outgoing Congress? By law, each state's electors cast their votes for president and vice president in mid-December. But their ballots are then sealed, not to be opened again until they are certified by the president of the Senate (the sitting vice president) on Jan. 6 of the new year. It is only then that the electoral college can officially be judged to have reached a majority in favor of one candidate or not. By that point the new Congress, which is sworn in on Jan. 3, would be in session; it would be that newly elected Congress that had the "immediate" responsibility to vote for the new president of the United States.
This calendar has some dramatic implications when considered in the current political context. Should an independent candidacy prove viable in the final stages of the campaign, the fate of the presidency could well rest with the Congressional elections. Democrats cannot count on Nancy Pelosi's House selecting a Democratic president in the event that the election is referred to the Congress. Nor could they count on electing their candidate even if they were to retain control of the Congress in November 2008. After all, in the event of an electoral college runoff, each state is granted one vote in the House, with each state's vote being determined by a majority of its congressional delegation. (So if a state has 10 Democratic congressmen and nine Republicans, the state would vote Democratic.) It is conceivable that should the size of the Democratic majority shrink in 2008, the party could retain control of the Congress but lose the comfortable majority of delegations it currently holds. Imagine that bizarre scenario: an independent candidate wins the most electoral votes, the Democrats win control Congress, and the Republicans select the president.
That doesn't mean Bloomberg is ready to run. Despite his popularity in New York City's five boroughs, he is little-known elsewhere. And even Bloomberg, who has never been stingy in estimating his own virtues, may think the odds of winning are just too long. Indeed, yesterday the New York Post reported that Sheekey has been testing the waters for a potential Bloomberg run for governor of New York at the same time that he's been talking up the mayor's third-party presidential chances (Bloomberg has denied being interested in seeking the New York statehouse.) At the end of the day Bloomberg may decide that a multibillionaire has better things to do with his time than beg for signatures. In the meantime, trust that he's keeping track of exactly how much begging he'd have to do.