Bloomberg's impact on presidential race in doubt
Posted January 29, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — According to recent news reports, Michael Bloomberg might run as an independent candidate for president in 2016. If you don't know, Bloomberg is the former mayor of New York City and a billionaire who ranks as the seventh-richest person in America.
Bloomberg could finance his own campaign if he wanted to, and the press is arguably ecstatic about the idea. The possibility of having both Donald Trump and Bloomberg on the ballot sets up a potential "billionaire battle."
How would Bloomberg's entry really affect the race?
Some people, including Nate Silver at his 538 website, judge electoral viability by examining a candidate's issue positions. In that analysis, Silver believes Bloomberg can attract the most voters if Sanders and Trump were the nominees. Of course, Silver and political scientists such as Brendan Nyhan note that structural barriers – such as getting on the ballot in all 50 states – make it difficult for any third-party candidates to win electoral votes.
The first poll I'm aware of that tests Bloomberg's viability supports my skepticism about it. A "Morning Consult” survey conducted Jan. 21-24 reveals not just low numbers for Bloomberg, but also the absence of strong support from any obvious demographic groups. It finds, regardless of the eventual Democratic and Republican candidates, Bloomberg can barely muster double-digit support.
When Bloomberg was offered as a choice in a hypothetical general election matchup between Sanders and Trump, for example, just 12 percent of registered voters say they would vote for him. Replace "Sanders" with "Clinton," and Bloomberg is backed by just 13 percent.
Why does Bloomberg poll so poorly?
Well, most Americans aren't yet paying close attention to the election, and they probably don't know who he is. But these results are surprising to some journalists.
In other polls, a majority of Americans say we need a third political party. Also, a record high percentage of Americans recently said they don't consider themselves to be a Democrat or a Republican. Finally, Americans are disgusted with Congress and rate the parties poorly. Thus, many journalists suspect there is a large untapped percentage of Americans longing for a third-party candidate.
There isn't a huge demand for a centrist third party, though.
U.S. party affiliation
Credit: The Monkey Cage
The mistake many political observers make is that almost all people who initially claim to be free of party allegiance are really just "closeted" partisans. When asked a follow-up question, if they lean towards identifying with a party, nearly all supposedly independent respondents choose one, and those that do behave just like those who initially identified with a party but not strongly.
Don't forget, Ross Perot in 1992 once ran as the type of centrist candidate Bloomberg supporters believe he might be. He once polled better than Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. In the end, while Perot captured an impressive 19 percent of the vote, he did not win a single electoral vote, and his support was basically cut in half from what pre-election polls suggested it might be.
Third-party candidates often poll better than the actual votes they will receive, especially earlier in the campaign, because voters come to recognize they would be "wasting" their vote on a candidate who can't win and possibly causing their second-most-preferred candidate to lose.
Partisan versus true independents
Credit: The Monkey Cage
That brings me to the last question: Could Bloomberg's entry into the race somehow upset the chances of either the Democratic or the Republican nominee? Speculation about spoiler effects has a long history, in part because of the myth that Perot's candidacy helped Clinton defeat Bush. I say myth because it isn't true. Perot took votes away from both candidates about equally.
Using the same Morning Consult poll, Bloomberg's lack of support from particular kinds of people suggests he wouldn't take votes away from either major party candidate. Of course, a lot could change between now and November, but Bloomberg doesn't appear overly attractive to anyone. The poll finds it doesn't matter much if the respondent is white, black, old, young, rich or poor. Bloomberg fails to crack 20 percent with any sub-group of registered voters.
If Bloomberg were really a threat to either party's candidate, we should see his support much higher among some important group of voters. Instead, his level of support hardly varies at all.