On February 6, 2008, the mayor of New York will wake up to a country that will likely have settled on its Republican and Democratic nominees for president. Like many independent-minded Americans disillusioned with the two-party system, he will probably wish there were some other choice.
But like no other American, Michael Bloomberg will be able to do something about it.
Over the last quarter century in the private sector, Bloomberg has built an estimated $12-billion fortune largely on his media and marketing savvy. That should prove enough to put in motion a now-secret plan, fashioned and fine-tuned by his political mastermind, Kevin Sheekey, leading directly to Bloomberg’s election as the first third-party president since Whig Party candidate Zachary Taylor won the White House in 1848.
To all outward appearances, the Bloomberg plan seems to be running exactly according to schedule. Here’s what happens next.
According to several experienced campaign observers, Bloomberg has a few months to continue laying low, periodically bursting into the news and then issuing his presidential denials. He cannot be coy, and he cannot let the anticipation morph into expectation. There is much he can learn—though he probably does not need to be taught—from the experience of Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator and “Law & Order” district attorney, who toyed with the idea for so long that the story had already become stale by the time he declared.
Bloomberg and his advisers know something about marketing. If he does run and intends to win, he will need to sell himself as the fresh alternative. Products cannot be sold as new for 12 months. Bloomberg and those around him with their marketing expertise would understand this. Even if Bloomberg has definitively made up his mind to run—as many who have watched him closely believe he has—part of the way to win would be to keep things under wraps for now.
By the beginning of next year, if they are planning to sell a Bloomberg campaign, his stance on some major presidential campaign issues which he has not yet addressed will need to be clear. With his record in office, he has well-established stances on education, guns, immigration, fiscal policy, environmental sustainability and, to an extent, homeland security. If he wants his potential as a credible independent presidential candidate to remain high, he will need to fill in the gaps—especially on foreign policy, particularly on the Iraq War.
He already made motions in this direction when speaking with former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw at Cooper Union September 25.
“There’s no good choices here,” Bloomberg said, when considering what to do about Iraq. “I find it distasteful that everyone always talks about how we got here when you ask them what we should do.”
Though he mused aloud on the importance of the United Nations and the imperative to repair America’s reputation in the international community, and reflected on how the Iraqi insurgency paralleled the American Revolution, he did not make any specific proposals for addressing the situation in Baghdad. As we approach the end of year five of American involvement in Iraq, this is a topic that Bloomberg the prospective presidential candidate will need to tackle more directly.If Bloomberg is running for president, there will be more speeches on this and other topics he has stayed away from as mayor, like universal health care, a proposal he all but endorsed in another portion of the Cooper Union discussion.
With a full seven months until Election Day, Americans will have two people whose presidential ambitions they will have already heard about for at least a year. With voter turnout always low in primaries, realistically, most people in the states which have weighed in by February 5 will not have voted, and none of the residents of the remaining 23 states will have voted at all.
Bloomberg may have an opening, especially if the candidates are particularly polarizing figures with high negative ratings and they have been through bruising primaries.
Angus King hopes so. An independent elected to two terms as governor of Maine in the 1990s, King is a member of the board of directors of Unity08, the movement to transcend the two-party system. The site has, at last count, attracted about 113,000 people to register as members.“Come January or February of ’08, when the primary system has almost already run its course, the people are going to be saying, ‘Look, isn’t there another choice? I didn’t really have any say in this.’ And I think that’s where you’re going to see Unity08 take off,” King says. “In one sense, the parties have played into our hands by starting this process so early.”
And if the moment is right, Sheekey believes, none of Bloomberg’s denials will matter.
“The thing about running for president is: It makes sense if it makes sense,” he says. “If there’s a reason to run, and there’s a constituency calling for you, and you have real ideas, then people will support you. And if not, they won’t. I have not heard anyone in six months run around talking about Barack Obama saying, ‘You know, he swore he wasn’t going to run.’ Because no one cares. They care about what he’s going to do for the country.”
If that constituency calls and Bloomberg chooses to run, the first and largest issue will be ballot access. Each of the 50 states has a different and convoluted process for putting candidates on the presidential ballot, and finding lawyers and activists in each state familiar with the rules will be no small task.
However, for a candidate of Bloomberg’s financial resources, this will not be an insurmountable one, explained Micah Sifry, the author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America.
“It’s really a combination of money and people power,” Sifry says. “But certainly for somebody with a checkbook as big as Bloomberg’s, getting on the ballot in all 50 states is basically just an expensive irritation.”
Coming off the first-ever national Independence Party convention, chairman Frank MacKay says that members from all across the country are excited by the prospect of a Bloomberg bid, and are committed to taking the steps toward getting an independent 2008 presidential candidate onto all 50 states’ ballots.
“If Mayor Bloomberg chooses not to run, we feel that there are other choices out there that may emerge. But we’d be lying if we said there’s someone more popular than Mayor Bloomberg in the party,” he says. “Michael Bloomberg is the dream candidate for the independent movement.”
With the ballot issue resolved, the single greatest obstacle to an independent presidential candidacy is off the table. If Bloomberg began running shortly after the February 5 primary glut, he could probably have the whole question of access wrapped up by Leap Day. Along the way, the petitioning effort could help kick off the actual campaigning, organizational structuring and voter outreach.
By March he could be firmly in the race, propelled by the tremendous amount of media coverage a serious independent presidential candidate—especially Bloomberg—would inevitably attract. A clearly articulated message about Bloomberg’s vision for the country and mission to do something different would help keep this kind of coverage coming.
Although seasoned observers still debate whether Bloomberg will actually get in to the race, they agree that he won’t run unless he’s determined to win. To do that, he would need to quickly propel himself to equal standing with the major party candidates.
Fortunately for Bloomberg, said political consultant Ed Rollins, the mayor has the resources and method to be able to do just that. Rollins has some experience in this area. In addition to managing Ronald Reagan’s unprecedented Electoral College blowout in 1984, he was, for a time, Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign manager—Perot having been the last serious independent presidential candidate in American history.
Rollins suggested Bloomberg adopt a tactic employed red to be willing to commit to a presidential campaign—and most expect he would spend—he could buy a lot more airtime than Perot ever did. Bloomberg blanketed the airwaves in New York City in 2005, as an incumbent mayor. Within a few short months, he went from having an approval rating in the 40s to winning 59 percent of the vote.
Sheekey acknowledged that the money made victory possible in both the 2001 and 2005 mayor’s races, and that only through massive spending would Bloomberg have a chance to win a presidential election—should he decide to run.
“I don’t kid myself and tell you that if Mike Bloomberg wasn’t a billionaire, he was going to get far in the mayor’s race,” Sheekey says. “Mike Bloomberg had to break in. And he had to break past politics. And he did it with money.”
If employed correctly, Rollins believes Bloomberg’s money could take advantage of the compressed election cycle to establish his candidacy by the fall.
“Because of the idiocy of the calendar this year, you’ve got this big six-month period where you can run up the middle and really dominate the airwaves,” Rollins says. “Once you come into September, then you’re in a three-way race, and you’re being compared equally to the other two.”
Back in 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry spent, and had spent on their behalf, about $500 million each. In his 2001 race for mayor, Bloomberg took no donations and spent $74 million of his own money to win. He spent $77.8 million on his re-election, giving him the record for spending the most personal money on a race in American history.
He is estimated to be worth about $12 billion these days. Dropping a billion of that to get elected president of the United States, especially after spending almost a tenth as much to get elected mayor, does not seem so far-fetched.
But as much money as he has, the mayor has never been known to toss dollars nonchalantly into the wind. Even his charitable donations tend to be directed toward established organizations, making for safe philanthropic investments with a more likely return.
He has since said repeatedly that he intends to follow up his time in City Hall with a career in giving away his fortune. If he feels he can make more of an impact by being in the White House, maybe he would put $1 billion toward a campaign rather than his foundation.
If he is performing well by October, the Democrats and Republicans will have no choice but to include him in the debates, giving him a forum to discuss his management competence and record, while letting the two other nominees jab at each other for partisan points. Two or three televised debates, coupled with his ongoing barrage of advertising and outreach, and Bloomberg will no longer be the outsider. He will be one of three viable candidates for president. And, at that point, he will be a candidate who can win going into Election Day, and a man who may have changed the course of American politics along the way.
The unique circumstances surrounding Bloomberg mean that he needs only to keep doing the job of New York City mayor to stay very much in the public spotlight and needs only to make sure nothing significantly depletes his enormous fortune. And, of course, he will need to keep consulting with Sheekey, his political mastermind, to make sure the plan is progressing as expected.
Hank Sheinkopf, the political consultant who ran Democrat Mark Green’s losing campaign to Bloomberg in the 2001 mayor’s race, says there is every reason to take the prospect seriously.
“He is in complete control of his destiny,” Sheinkopf says. “He’s got all the time in the world.”
Sheekey and Bloomberg, along with First Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris and the others in the inner circle who helped make him mayor, have the skills to make a real presidential race, Sheinkopf said, and Bloomberg’s billions have the power to make the candidacy possible.
“We have never experienced the kind of campaign that Michael Bloomberg could run if he decides to participate,” Sheinkopf said. “We have never experienced the kind of resources a Michael Bloomberg could bring to the campaign.”
As for whether the campaign could be politically viable across the country, attracting enough support to earn Bloomberg the minimum 35 percent plurality in enough states he would need to come out on top in the Electoral College, Sheinkopf said the idea is just crazy enough to work.
“Who else but a billionaire could go to the working class and tell them he can help them? Nixon went to China. Sadat went to Jerusalem. Bloomberg,” he said, “could go to Detroit.”