The possibility of a Mike Bloomberg tilt at the White House raises the two questions that always buzz around independent candidacies: Can he win, and if he can’t, could he be a spoiler?
The cautious answers are that anything’s possible. But with both history and current data as our guides, neither looks likely.
Polls generally find a decent level of support for the idea of third-party or independent candidates running for president – inclusivity is a good thing, options are nice, it’s a free country and all that. Actually voting for one is another matter; you have to be really disaffected with the major-party nominees, and have a compelling alternative. Relatively few people ever get there.
Spoiling can be easier than winning, but that requires an independent to suck votes disproportionately from one of the major party candidates, and to take enough support to tilt the race. It’s tougher than it sounds, probably requiring, among other things, a very close contest in the first place.
It’s also tough to pin down. Some would say Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the state of Florida, and thus the 2000 election. Others can say no, it was David McReynolds. (The Socialist candidate got 622 votes in Florida – more than Bush’s 537-vote margin.) Yet others might say it was Gore who cost Gore the election. It’s a debater’s game.
In this cycle, Bloomberg has not been polling impressively, nor has he been taking votes disproportionately. Tested against Hillary Clinton and either Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, Bloomberg had seven to nine percent support in a Fox News poll early this month and in an RT Strategies/Cook poll in April. Both surveys, moreover, suggested that he drew support equally from the major-party candidates in those match-ups.
Bloomberg aside, the public is hardly issuing a full-throated cry for an independent candidate. In an NBC/WSJ poll last October, just under half (48 percent) said they’d favor "building a new independent political party to run a credible candidate for president," but fewer, 30 percent, "strongly" favored it. In a Marist poll last November, 41 percent said they’d be "likely" to vote for an independent – but with fewer still, just 10 percent, "very" likely to do so. In a CNN poll last May, just 31 percent said they’d even consider an independent, and only 16 percent were "very" likely to do so.
Part of the excitement about independent candidates harkens to May and June 1992, when Ross Perot briefly led both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in pre-election polls, with 36 percent support in a pair of our own ABC/Post surveys. That was largely an expression of the public’s deep economic discontent, broad dissatisfaction with Bush and unfamiliarity with Clinton – plus Perot’s initial apparent charm.
It didn’t last. As the race unfolded, Clinton seized the contest at his convention and never let go – while the more people learned about Perot, the less they liked him. He ended with 19 percent – the second-best showing for any independent in modern times, but still a distant third. And exit poling does not support the notion that he altered the outcome, either in 1992 or when he tried again in ’96.
We’d seen it before: Independent candidates John Anderson and George Wallace also did better in pre-election polling than their ultimate support in the fall election. Anderson hit 24 percent support in a June 1976 poll, but ended up with seven percent. Wallace had 20 percent support in an October 1968 Gallup poll; he wound up with 14 percent.
The best showing by a third-party candidate in the last century was in 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt, trying for a comeback, drew 27 percent of the vote. Woodrow Wilson won. Just behind Perot’s 19 percent was Robert ("Fighting Bob") La Follette, the Progressive, with 17 percent in 1924. Calvin Coolidge won.
New York’s mayor might look hard at that history – and to recognize that it takes deep public discontent, highly unsatisfactory major-party candidates and a broadly appealing alternative for an independent candidacy even to begin to look serious.
Then again, politics, like poker, is a beautiful game, for the simples reason: Given the right cards, anything’s possible.