The alternative-billionaire dream has crashed and burned in an unexpected nod to reality. For several weeks, and perhaps months, Michael Bloomberg toyed publicly with the idea of running for president in an independent bid, taking polls and discussing the idea with media outlets. Yesterday, his Hamletesque vacillations finally came to an end, writing at his own media platform that it was not to be.
What finally convinced Bloomberg? He astutely observed that the most likely outcome of a billion-dollar Bloomberg bid would be to elect a Republican … although his assertion of how that would work seems a bit self-indulgent:
But when I look at the data, it’s clear to me that if I entered the race, I could not win. I believe I could win a number of diverse states — but not enough to win the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to win the presidency.
In a three-way race, it’s unlikely any candidate would win a majority of electoral votes, and then the power to choose the president would be taken out of the hands of the American people and thrown to Congress. The fact is, even if I were to receive the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, victory would be highly unlikely, because most members of Congress would vote for their party’s nominee. Party loyalists in Congress — not the American people or the Electoral College — would determine the next president.
As the race stands now, with Republicans in charge of both Houses, there is a good chance that my candidacy could lead to the election of Donald Trump or Senator Ted Cruz. That is not a risk I can take in good conscience.
Actually, there are a couple of faults with the logic steps in Bloomberg’s argument, but they don’t impact the conclusion much. First, it only matters that Republicans have a majority of state delegations in the House, not necessarily control of the chamber (although that would usually follow), and control of the Senate is irrelevant in a presidential election. The 12th Amendment makes that explicitly clear. The House chooses the President based on state delegations getting one vote each, and the Senate chooses the Vice President with a straight-up floor vote, in the case where no ticket reaches 270 votes in the Electoral College.
The other part of Bloomberg’s argument seems suspect, too. He claims he could “win a number of diverse states,” but there is no evidence on hand to suspect that he’d even come in second anywhere. We have a precedent for this in the form of H. Ross Perot, who spent a fortune building up the Reform Party to get on the ballot in all 50 states and organizing for voter turnout. Perot ended up with 19% of the popular vote in 1992, but won no Electoral College votes. The best Perot got was 30.44% in Maine, good enough for a narrow second place over George H. W. Bush, but eight points behind Bill Clinton. Perot got another narrow second-place finish in Utah with 27.3% of the vote but finished sixteen points behind Bush.
Perot ran a campaign based on fiscal conservatism and a loosely libertarian social-policy stance, and that drew voters away from both candidates but likely slightly more from Bush. Bloomberg has a track record of nanny-statism and gun control activism that would seriously limit his appeal to Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, on top of which he’d be competing against the GOTV organization of Hillary. He’s right that he would disrupt the Electoral College, but only by splitting the vote in states that Democrats expect to carry and throwing them to the GOP.
That eliminates what might have been the GOP’s margin of error in selecting a nominee. As I write in my column at The Week, the GOP has two general paths to getting to 270 — and may have trouble with both:
The Republican Party has two general paths to get to 270 Electoral College votes. The first is to win in the swing states they used to win regularly but lost to Obama in the past two elections, the path I cover in my upcoming book Going Red. Swing states like Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and North Carolina have had significant demographic changes that would require the GOP candidate to expand the Republican reach into communities they have typically ignored or underserved. That would take a candidate with appeal in those demos and organizational strength to connect at the neighborhood level in these purple states. Marco Rubio and John Kasich, for instance, have track records of that appeal in underserved demographics in two key swing states in the past; Ted Cruz has demonstrated the organizational ability in these primaries and caucuses.
Trump has demonstrated neither, at least so far, but has shown an ability to drive turnout in the primaries. And that brings us to the second path to 270: Win states with higher concentrations of blue-collar white voters away from Democrats. The problem is there just aren’t enough of those in serious play. Ohio and Wisconsin might qualify, and Pennsylvania in particular might respond to Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, but most of the states where Trump’s messaging plays well are already in the GOP column. States like California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts might vote for Trump in Republican primaries, but they’d be far out of reach in a general election, especially given the light footprint of Trump’s ground organization. Flipping Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania while leaving the other swing states in the Democratic column only gives 254 Electoral College votes to the GOP, and only if Trump could keep North Carolina and its 15 electors in the fold from 2012.
Of course, that all assumes that Trump won’t change his persona and strategy once the nomination is in hand. If he does, then he might have an opportunity to open up new markets for his brand. We just don’t have any data points to predict what that would look like, nor have we seen any indication that Trump is inclined to run that kind of campaign.
Bloomberg might have provided the GOP with a handy fail-safe in the general election — which Bloomberg himself belatedly realized. Republicans who derided Bloomberg’s nanny-state instincts and gun-control activism have the most to lose from his absence in the race, and their margin of error in the nomination has entirely evaporated.
My friend Myra Adams is also looking at the path to 270:
So it’s back to Donald Trump, who if nominated has a tremendous uphill battle to reach 270. To do so he must win at least 64 percent of the white vote spread across just the right combination of electoral states. This is a nearly impossible feat and not achieved since 1984 when Ronald Reagan won 66 percent of the white vote — when the white vote was 86 percent of the electorate!
By comparison, Romney in 2012 won 59 percent of the white vote, which comprised 72 percent of the electorate. (Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote.)
Moreover, if Trump did manage to garner a record white vote, a turn-out calculatorindicates that he must still win 30 percent of the total non-white vote in order to win 270 electoral votes and the White House.
The problem again is whether the campaign Trump has run can get those percentages in either demographic. Bloomberg’s presence on the ticket and the split it would have caused on the Left might have alleviated those pressures. His decision to bail out gives Hillary her best boost possible in the general election.