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Parsing the Polls: Bloomberg's Impact?

Anyone who has picked up a newspaper or watched television in the last week is well aware of the speculation surrounding a possible presidential run by New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

After announcing his departure from the Republican Party last week, Bloomberg is now the country's most famous independent politician. He also happens to be the lone billionaire considering a run for president in 2008.

As a political observer, we've tried to balance the excitement generated by Bloomberg's bolting from the GOP with the cold, hard facts about the difficulty of a third party bid for president. For all the hoopla surrounding Ross Perot in 1992, he wound up with 19 percent of the vote nationwide.

When we're in a pinch, we usually turn to the polls, seeking answers in the raw data. What do the numbers tell us about Bloomberg's chances?

Let's Parse the Polls!

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll provides a nice look at the political environment Bloomberg would face if he ran for president.

Asked "how likely is it that you would consider voting for an independent candidate," 21 percent said "very likely," while 12 percent said "fairly likely." Thirty percent said "only somewhat likely." Thirty-three percent said "not very likely."

Those numbers are essentially unchanged from a CNN survey done before the Bloomberg boomlet. That early May survey showed 16 percent very likely to back an independent and 15 percent fairly likely; a combined 62 percent were either only somewhat or not at all likely to support an independent presidential bid.

A look at past CNN polls taken in the midst of other third party candidacies provides some useful context. In a July 2000 poll just 21 percent of those tested said it was very (13 percent) or fairly (eight percent) likely they would back an independent. That might explain the fact that Ralph Nader received less than three percent of the vote nationally.

Go back to 1992 and it's clear from the CNN poll that American voters were ready to shakeup the political system. In a June 1992 survey, fully one-third of the sample said they were very likely to back an independent candidate, while 14 percent said it was fairly likely. That level of dissatisfaction with the major party nominees and a willingness to look elsewhere for a president fit nicely with Perot's outsider populism. Had he run a slightly more normal campaign -- he dropped out of the race and then rejoined it -- it's possible Perot could have capitalized on the level of unhappiness with the parties clearly at play in the country at that time.

A Newsweek survey conducted last week offers slightly better news for a Bloomberg candidacy. Just 37 percent of the sample agreed with the statement that the "two-party system does a pretty good job of addressing the issues that are most important to people like you," while 57 percent disagreed. That's a marked turnaround from an October 1999 Newsweek survey that showed 54 percent thought the two party system addressed their concerns, while 39 percent said it did not.

Going from the macro political environment to the micro head-to-head matchups, polling suggests Bloomberg would immediately be a factor in a general election but would not seriously threaten the most likely nominees for the two parties.

In the CNN survey, Bloomberg received 17 percent of the vote in a three-way hypothetical race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (41 percent) and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani (38 percent). In a three way race with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) Bloomberg performs slightly better -- taking 21 percent; Obama leads the way with 40 percent to McCain's 34 percent.

The Newsweek survey included Bloomberg in matchups with various combinations of Clinton, Obama, McCain and Giuliani; his support fluctuated between 11 and 13 percent. For what it's worth, the 13 percent came in a Clinton (46 percent) / McCain (35 percent) / Bloomberg matchup.

Despite the flood of numbers that followed Bloomberg's disaffiliation from the Republican party, it's still tough to know whether he could play anything more than a spoiler role.

The challenges of divining Bloomberg's appeal are two fold: what would voter attitudes truly be to an independent candidacy and what sort of candidate would Bloomberg be?

On the first question, most people do not think of themselves as strict partisan voters and when asked about the prospect of a third party candidate they are generally receptive. But, when the rubber hits the road, when you get down to brass tacks, and any number of other clichés, these voters tend to be what is called in the political business "soft partisans." That is, they identify themselves as independents but tend to regularly side with one party; they entertain the prospect of voting for an independent candidate but don't do so at the ballot box for fear of throwing their vote away.

On the second question, the sort of campaign Bloomberg would run is anyone's guess. By his own admission, he is far from the most charismatic candidate and it isn't clear that a single, divorced man whose lone political experience is as the mayor of New York City is the ideal vessel to represent voters' frustration with the political process. Then again, maybe he is. And, will Bloomberg really consider writing a $500 million check? If he decides to go in for a $100 million rather than $500 million, his candidacy looks totally different.

Since Bloomberg isn't planning on announcing anything about his future political plans until 2008, we should have ample time to answer these questions over the coming months. If you've got answers to any/all of them, feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.

By Chris Cillizza  |  June 27, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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