Pundits are abuzz with speculation that former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg may mount a third party bid for the presidency. The question arises: Could such a bid be something other than a quixotic endeavor?
Presidential election history suggests the task is daunting. There have only been three credible third party bids in the last century, 1912, 1968 and 1992. As an iconic former president and noted progressive, TR ate into Wilson’s progressive support and Taft’s establishment support. Yet at that he only managed to poll 27% (to Wilson’s 42% and Taft’s 23%).
George Wallace in ’68 hoped for an enormous backlash to the counterculture of the sixties, but in the end managed only 13.5%.
Ross Perot in 1992 used his populist platform to eat into the established party candidates (George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton) to propel himself to a 19% showing. Note, Perot’s poll numbers were higher before he bizarrely dropped out of the race, only to re-enter later.
The common thread in the above three elections was that neither of the major party candidates rose from the fringe elements of the political spectrum. Wilson-Taft, Nixon-Humphrey and Bush-Clinton may have been somewhat to the right or left, but all were essentially centrist candidates. In such a case, there is relatively little room for a third party to flower. Conversely, there may be opportunities when the major party nominee hails from the fringe wing of his (her) party. Barry Goldwater on the right in ’64 and George McGovern on the left in ’72 were viewed as extremists and polled a poor approximately 38%.
An equally instructive look is to specific state races where independent candidacies were successful. Consider the following four.
1969 NYC Mayor—Incumbent John Lindsay lost the GOP primary and ran as a fourth party candidate with Liberal Party endorsement. His opponents, Democratic Mario Proccacino and Republican John Marchi were viewed as the conservatives in the race, and liberal Lindsay squeaked through (42%-35%-23%).
1970 NYS Senate—Third party conservative James Buckley managed a 39%-37%-24% victory over Democrat Richard Ottinger and Republican Charles Goodell, both of whom were perceived as liberal. The split in the progressive vote made the difference.
1990 Connecticut Governor—Independent Lowell Weicker (40%), viewed as a progressive, outlasted conservative Republican John Rowland (38%) and Democrat Bruce Morrison (21%) who ran an incredibly inept campaign and failed to hoist the liberal banner. In addition, as a former senator with a reputation for being a political maverick, Weicker was able to capture the voters’ imagination in a way his unknown opponents could not.
1998 Minnesota Governor—Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura (37%) defeated Republican Norm Coleman (34%) and Hubert Humphrey III (28%), by seizing on his populist appeal, his celebrity status and by portraying his rivals as unduly rightist (Coleman) or leftist (Humphrey).
What does this mean for Bloomberg? If both parties nominate candidates hailing from the same political persuasion (e.g., Goodell and Ottinger divvying the progressive vote, allowing conservative Buckley to score) then there is ripe opportunity. However in 2016 it is unlikely the Republicans generally to the right will have anything in common with the Democratic candidates who hail from the left side of the divide. If both major party candidates generally hew to the center of the political spectrum, there is little opportunity. In 2016, a number of GOP hopefuls and at least one Democrat (Hillary) may shift right or left but they are at the core mainstream candidates.