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Bloomberg Bows to the (Seemingly) Inevitable

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made it official today: he's not running for president this fall.

"I listened carefully to those who encouraged me to run, but I am not -- and will not be -- a candidate for president," wrote Bloomberg in a New York Times op-ed this morning. "I have watched this campaign unfold, and I am hopeful that the current campaigns can rise to the challenge by offering truly independent leadership. The most productive role that I can serve is to push them forward, by using the means at my disposal to promote a real and honest debate."

Why did Bloomberg decide to opt out? And what does it mean (if anything) for the coming general election?

While Bloomberg paints the decision not to run as entirely his own, outside factors clearly intruded.

As we've written, a successful third party candidacy is dependent on two main elements: a fundraising source outside of the two-party system and a wide ideological gulf between the two nominees.

The first criteria was a no-brainer; Bloomberg is worth billions (with a "b") and showed in his two runs for mayor that he is more than willing to spend from his personal fortune to further his political prospects.

On the second criteria, however, the emergence of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as their respective party's likely nominees don't appear to leave the sort of major ideological opening that a match-up between, say, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and former governor Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) would have created.

Both McCain and Obama have demonstrated considerable appeal to moderate and independent voters during the primaries and caucuses to date, and each has made reaching across the partisan aisle a centerpiece of his campaign.

The emergence of McCain and Obama has coincided with a serious deflation of the Bloomberg boomlet over the past few months. It seems like a millennium ago that we devoted an entire Friday Line to the "Bloomberg Effect" -- even though it was only this past summer. As the primary season heated up, Bloomberg cooled off -- at least in the eyes of the voting public.

The most recent survey we could find that included Bloomberg in general election matchups revealed the extent of his challenge. Conducted by FD for The Hotline, the February survey showed Bloomberg as a single-digit afterthought. In a three-way race with Obama and McCain, Bloomberg took just six percent; the same was true when matched up with Clinton and McCain.

Quinnipiac University tested Bloomberg against the likely major party nominees in three likely general election battlegrounds -- Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- earlier this month and found similar results. In Florida, McCain took 37 percent to 35 percent for Obama and nine percent for Bloomberg; in Ohio McCain received 39 percent to 38 percent for Obama and six percent for Bloomberg; and, in Pennsylvania, McCain and Obama were knotted at 38 percent while Bloomberg took just seven percent.

Given that dynamic, it was increasingly difficult to see how Bloomberg could make a credible case that he could win in the fall. A businessman by nature, we always expected Bloomberg to make a relatively clear-eyed decision based on the race that essentially boiled down to this: is there a reasonable chance of success to justify a $500 million (or more) personal investment? A look at polling and at the profiles of the two candidates likely to be the Democratic and Republican nominees offers an obvious answer: No.

That doesn't mean, however, that Bloomberg doesn't have a role to play in the general election. As The Page's Mark Halperin speculated in the moments after the mayor's decision became public, Bloomberg is likely to be among the great-mentioned as a vice presidential pick for either of the major party candidates.

Our sense is that while Bloomberg will stay in the veepstakes mix for some time to come, it doesn't seem to make much sense for either Obama or McCain to pick him. The main voter concern about Obama is whether he has the foreign policy experience to serve as commander-in-chief, a worry that would not be assuaged by selecting a businessman and mayor with even less bona fides on world affairs. McCain continues to work to coalesce skeptical conservatives behind his candidacy and it's hard to imagine him poking members of that crucial voting bloc in the eye by picking a man who was, until 2001, a Democrat and disagrees with the GOP base on nearly every social issue.

Bloomberg's role then in the general election is likely to be an instigator/agitator for the issues -- global warming, gun control, educational accountability -- that have been the hallmarks of his two terms as mayor of the country's most populous city.

That profile will also make him a coveted endorser for either Obama or McCain -- a prospect he dangled in the Times op-ed. He writes: "While I have always said I am not running for president, the race is too important to sit on the sidelines, and so I have changed my mind in one area. If a candidate takes an independent, nonpartisan approach -- and embraces practical solutions that challenge party orthodoxy -- I'll join others in helping that candidate win the White House."

Stay tuned.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 28, 2008; 3:16 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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