I hear from sources close to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that he will almost certainly run for president as an independent if Republicans nominate Donald Trump and Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders. With Hillary Clinton’s victory in the Nevada caucuses, the latter is increasingly unlikely but still plausible, as is Bloomberg’s election. I’m not predicting that the following will occur, but it could:
Jan. 20, 2017
We knew the 2016 campaign was going to be nuts, but an old Jewish guy who’s not Bernie Sanders—and a billionaire who’s not Donald Trump— taking the oath of office today as the first independent president of the United States?
Michael Bloomberg’s path to the presidency in 2016 marked a strange climax to an insane election year. It wouldn’t have been possible without both political parties falling prey to deeply unpresidential nominees. By the time Bloomberg prevailed last month in a nail-biting test of arcane provisions in the U.S. Constitution, 2016 had taken its place with the elections of 1800, 1824, and 1876 as the only presidential contests in American history resolved by the House of Representatives.
Bloomberg decided to run back in March of 2016 only when he saw that Trump and Sanders were on track to be nominated by the Republicans and Democrats. He viewed both as dangerous men who would wreck the country. And Bloomberg saw a path. He thought voters would eventually see that he had been a highly successful mayor of a city larger than all but a handful of states and was far more fit for high office than either of them. He would run as an unprecedented blend of insider and outsider—representing elites but smashing the two-party status quo that voters despised.
The journey began in mid-winter. After Trump plastered the field in New Hampshire on Feb. 9 and won by double digits on Feb. 20 in South Carolina, Republicans proved powerless to resist his hostile takeover of their party. With his opposition divided, Trump edged Ted Cruz in home state Texas on March 1, and then, on March 15, Marco Rubio in home state Florida and John Kasich in Ohio, all but eliminating all three. By then the die was cast on the Republican side, though Americans and millions watching around the world still had to slap themselves to prove they weren’t dreaming.
Democrats suddenly had to do the same in their party. Sanders won 60 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, romping not just with young liberals but even older moderate women who were supposed to be Hillary’s base. Clinton prevailed in the Nevada caucuses by five points on Feb. 20, but Sanders showed surprising strength outside his base with Latino voters. When Hillary won by a much smaller margin than expected in South Carolina on Feb. 27, it showed that Bernie would also avoid being overwhelmed by pro-Hillary African-American voters in the big industrial states.
After Nevada and South Carolina, party leaders breathed a sigh of relief thinking Hillary was home safe, but that’s always the moment with the Clintons when new voter doubts about them set in. Hillary is best when she’s in trouble and worst when sitting on a lead. She underperformed badly on Super Tuesday, losing Massachusetts by a big margin (she had trailed there in the polls for weeks) and, shockingly, Texas, where the state’s longstanding populist tradition returned with a vengeance. On March 8, Sanders carried Michigan, which had gone for Jesse Jackson in 1988. That gave him momentum the following week to come close in Hillary’s home state of Illinois and to carry Ohio, where he reminded Democrats of their populist senator, Sherrod Brown, though Brown supported Hillary.
Hillary’s campaign began to crumble in delegate-rich states for the same reasons it did in Iowa and New Hampshire. Her themes of experience and incremental change were weak tea for increasingly left-wing Democratic primary voters who resented her ties to Wall Street and didn’t care what label Sanders used to describe himself as long as he was speaking to their problems. These voters proved to be as fatigued by the Clintons as Republicans were by the Bushes.
Over time, Sanders’s righteous anger and indisputable authenticity proved a better match for the mood of Democrats than the Hillary camp’s claims about “electability” (especially because polls going back to December of 2015 showed Sanders also trouncing Trump in the general). Plus, he kept raising millions online from small donors, while Hillary’s big donors were tapped out.
While it looked in March as if Hillary was romping with super delegates, in truth most stayed uncommitted until their states voted, at which point scores felt obliged to hold their noses and back Sanders.
When Clinton and her increasingly strident surrogates turned their fire on Sanders’s character, it sent her numbers even lower. And when Sanders broadened his themes, he moved beyond a liberal insurgency to connect with more mainstream Democrats who didn’t trust Hillary.
In mid-March, as Bloomberg had to decide whether to file for ballot positions in all 50 states, Hillary’s campaign was rocked by fresh news on the fallout from her handling of highly classified emails. FBI leaks showed that a pair of career prosecutors had recommended an indictment. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, recognizing that other senior officials over the years had been similarly careless in emails, squelched a criminal prosecution. But in order to maintain its integrity, the Obama DOJ issued a stinging interim report that let Sanders re-open an issue he had closed in 2015.
After former Arkansas nursing home administrator Juanita Broaddrick appeared on 60 Minutes to tell her version of the alleged Bill Clinton rape story from back in 1978, many younger women in particular believed her. Hillary had trouble walking back a 2015 tweet saying that women should be believed in sexual assault cases. For weeks polls had showed women resentful of the arguments offered by feminists like Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Hillary deserved their support on gender solidarity grounds. Now the gender issue began to boomerang on Hillary among voters.
As he announced his candidacy, Bloomberg began spending some of the $1 billion he had promised in January of 2016 to devote to a race. He could afford it. Revised estimates of his net worth put his fortune at $40 billion, which trumped Trump’s pile and neutralized the Donald’s claim—central to his popularity—to being the only candidate who couldn’t be bought.
Many of Trump’s supporters mistakenly believed their man was self-made. When they learned through Bloomberg ads that Bloomberg had pulled himself up by his bootstraps while Trump inherited his fortune and stiffed working people during his three bankruptcies, it hurt Trump.
A February Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll had shown Sanders leading Trump 43 percent to 33 percent, with 16 percent for Bloomberg. But after Bloomberg began flooding the airwaves across the country while Sanders and Trump husbanded their resources for the fall, the numbers changed. The huge ad buys gave him a lead by summer, just as billionaire Ross Perot led in mid-1992 polls over both Gov. Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush. Unlike Perot, Bloomberg wouldn’t blow it with crazy stunts.
The Republican and Democratic conventions were both PR disasters, like management retreats after a corporate raider has just taken over the company. Surly super delegates in both parties forced to toe the line couldn’t hide their displeasure with the nominees and vented on national TV.
After Trump chose New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez as his running mate to lessen the damage of his immigration views, and Sanders kept a 2015 promise and doubled down by selecting Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bloomberg turned to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who helped draw African-Americans and mainstream Republicans.
The anger at the establishment that both Trump and Sanders touched didn’t dissipate but it also didn’t reflect the feelings of all 125 million Americans set to vote in a general election—nearly three times the total who vote in primaries. These general election voters are historically less angry, more middle-of-the-road and more concerned about which candidate seemed “presidential.”
Bloomberg was a famously plodding campaigner—he had to spend more than $100 million in 2009 to barely win a third term as New York mayor against a weak opponent—but once the campaign moved from the retail politics of early primary states to a national campaign, charisma and flesh-pressing became less important.
Even TV skills—where both Trump and Sanders had an advantage—became less significant than a campaign’s mastery of technology, the area where Bloomberg made his fortune and would lap his rivals in using analytics to micro-target voters.
The mayor’s technological advantage was based on a solid political foundation. While he lost support for his unpopular “nanny-state” initiatives in New York (like banning large sodas), his socially liberal and fiscally conservative pragmatic positions more often put him in closer tune with the broad electorate than either Trump or Sanders.
Many observers thought Bloomberg’s gun control positions would hurt him nationally, but that would only have been true had he run in Republican primaries. His views on guns, abortion, and gay rights—nearly indistinguishable from those of Sanders, Clinton, and other Democrats—hardly disqualified him in blue states and most swing states.
Bloomberg drew support from both parties, siphoning off moderate Obama-Clinton Democrats from Sanders and millions of college-educated Republicans from Trump. Some conservatives who found Trump too moderate and temperamentally unsuited for the presidency vowed to stay home, but many others swallowed hard and backed Bloomberg as the lesser of three evils. Strong support from Rupert Murdoch (who all but endorsed Bloomberg in January 2016) meant that Trump-hating Fox News would spend all year making the case for Bloomberg as a Mitt Romney-style president.
Bloomberg was running against history. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt couldn’t win in a three-way race in 1912, and Perot’s 19 percent in 1992 was still not enough to throw the election into the House.
But 2016 was destined from the start to be a historic—and historically bizarre—election. With Trump hailing from Queens, Sanders from Brooklyn, and Bloomberg from Manhattan (by way of Massachusetts), it was the first all-New York general election since FDR beat Tom Dewey in 1944. This negated any campaign against “New York values” and leveled the playing field culturally.
As the fall campaign got underway, Trump seemed to have an advantage as the only Christian candidate, until it came out that Sanders and Bloomberg, both Jews, were more familiar with the tenets of Christianity than Trump.
Bloomberg easily won all three of the fall debates. He was far more knowledgeable than Trump, who continued his pattern of not preparing on issues. When Trump predictably tried to belittle Bloomberg, he failed badly. Bloomberg was no “loser” in the only way Trump ever kept score. And the fear arguments fell flat with a mayor who had rebuilt New York after the 9/11 attacks. Meanwhile, Bloomberg schooled Sanders on how to create jobs and make the economy grow, eviscerating his plans as unaffordable and leading to tax increases on the middle class.
Throughout, Bloomberg, “the non partisan candidate,” floated above the fray on divisive issues like the Supreme Court, and as the only free trader in the race, he sewed up the small business vote. Pundits later said that, boiled down, Trump was arguing that Americans want to be rich like him. Sanders was saying that voters only want to be fair. Bloomberg insisted that they want to be both.
Election Day brought a rough three-way split, with Trump winning “the Gun Belt” (Deep South, border states, small Western Republican states), Sanders carrying liberal Democrats and young people, and Bloomberg doing well enough in cities (just as he had won in liberal New York) and crucial swing-vote suburbs to win several large states and the popular vote. Trump finished second and Sanders third.
In Florida, for instance, Trump won the panhandle, but he underperformed among his Mar-a-Lago neighbors in South Florida and was crushed among Hispanics. Sanders—like recent liberals running statewide in Florida in three-way races—went nowhere. Bloomberg won the Jewish condo vote, entrepreneurial Latinos and the critical I-4 corridor, enough to carry the state.
The 2016 election was reminiscent of 2000—too close to call. With no candidate receiving the necessary 270 electoral votes, the first post-election test was whether “faithless electors” (electors who vote differently from their states, as allowed under the Constitution) would emerge to tip the balance. That didn’t happen, but in December enough electors did buck their states’ preference to set a precedent for members of the House to do so when the election went there.
In the House, each state under the Constitution gets one vote, for a total of 50 (Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia are not eligible, though the fate of D.C. was the source of an expedited Supreme Court challenge under the 23rd Amendment). The candidate with 26 votes becomes president.
At first, the constitutional requirements seemed to favor Trump because 33 eligible state delegations are majority Republican (15 are Democratic, and three are evenly split). But after it was clear Sanders couldn’t win, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi convinced all Democrats to vote for Bloomberg, which narrowed the margin in many state delegations to one member. That meant Bloomberg needed only one Republican House member in five states to defect to him—five votes total within state delegations to get to 26.
Beyond Bloomberg’s promise to lavishly fund the campaigns of targeted members (not matched by a petulant and cheap Trump), local political factors set off a flurry of intense deal-making, set against the members’ chances of reelection.
Just enough Republicans in swing districts in states that voted for Bloomberg (e.g., Pennsylvania, where his suburban strength carried him) succumbed to pressure that they vote the way their districts and states did.
Trump had no base to draw on. Ever since a January 2016 special issue of the National Review entitled “Against Trump,” conservatives had argued that the narcissistic billionaire wasn’t one of them. He trashed the Bushes, embraced Obamacare mandates, and refused to renounce Planned Parenthood—all before South Carolina. By the fall, he had galloped to the center, pandering all the way.
Enough conservatives decided that it would be better for their movement and party to render the Trump nomination a bad dream and try again with a real conservative in 2020. Otherwise, they feared, Trump would remake the GOP as a centrist party for good.
Thus did Michael Bloomberg become president of the United States. Under the Constitution, the vice-presidency is decided in the Senate, where Colin Powell was easily elected.
Bloomberg and Powell will launch their “non-partisan” administration today in a spirit of hope after the craziest election in American history.