Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently dusted off his political ambitions, releasing an internal poll showing how he’d fare if he decided to run for president. While his initial support hovers around 12-13% nationally, and the winner-take-all electoral system in this nation usually renders such independent bids illusory, it cannot be ignored that conditions in 2016 are shaping up to be unlike any since the rise of the last legitimate independent candidate—Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. (Yes, I just called both Ralph Nader’s and Ross Perot’s electoral chances not legitimate. Sorry, not sorry.) In 2016 however, a confluence of general societal trends could occur, which could translate to electoral success for a centrist third-party candidate such as Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Independent, represents the near middle of the American political spectrum. Which isn’t to say he is a centrist as to each individual issue; for example, he lies to the left of many in the Democratic party, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, on gun control. An avowed capitalist, he also favors market-based reforms for our nation’s woes—including aforementioned gun control and related reforms as a means of racial justice, and a robust freedom for women’s bodily autonomy and increased access to reproductive health as a means of closing the gender (and race) wage gap(s), and addressing child poverty. He views all issues as economically connected, including climate change, which he sees as the number one threat to our world’s economy and the survival of its cities going forward. As such, he is also in support of as low a tax rate as needed to run government efficiently.
What distinguishes him from any third-party candidate for President since Roosevelt is that he is an overall moderate. And if both Donald Trump (or even possibly Ted Cruz) from the far-right, as well as Bernie Sanders from the far-left, win their parties’ respective nominations, he would indeed be running as the only even arguably centrist candidate in the 2016 election. This factor would distinguish 2016 from 1912, in that 1912 had two avowed center-left candidates—albeit with different visions of progressivism—from which the electorate could choose: former President Roosevelt and the eventual winner, President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.
The political landscape in 1912 featured a battle for the soul of the Republican party, between a “progressive” wing led by Teddy Roosevelt, with a platform focusing on “political justice and economic opportunity” and the increasingly more conservative wing, led by President William Howard Taft. Despite voters being offered both Wilson’s alternative view of progressivism, and a far-left Socialist candidate in Eugene Debs, Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party bid still garnered 27.4% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, well more than official GOP nominee President Taft’s 8. (Despite getting 23.1% of the popular vote, Taft did not win many states outright.) The results eviscerated the conservative wing of the GOP, leaving it in disarray well through Wilson’s reelection in 1916.
In effect, due to his now aisle-crossing policy stances Roosevelt was able to take votes from both Taft on his right and Wilson on his left. Wilson managed only a 41.9% plurality of the popular vote in that election but due to the winner-take-all nature of the electorate in most states, he won in a landslide with 435 electoral votes. Moreover, even after his election, Pres. Wilson did implement much of Teddy Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” as part of his own administration, thus solidifying an implantation of the platform of the otherwise short-lived Progressive Party into our national policy.
Flash forward to 2016 and a different confluence of societal and political trends is hinting at creating the necessary topography for another centrist third-party run. These modern trends include the possibility of hyper-partisan candidates/platforms, a reactionary and disengaged primary electorate, and a feckless political media.
It is no secret that cable “news” networks like Fox News, MSNBC and CNN have ratings as their main goal (and thus profits for the corporations that own them). Unfortunately where ratings are concerned, neutral, in-depth policy-based discussions don’t compare with pundits making hyperbolic statements with dog-whistle language. Soon-to-be-defunct Al Jazeera America has learned this lesson the hard way about the modern American TV market. Worse, the removal of the equal-time rule for public network news has allowed (or forced, depending on one’s view) those once venerable institutions to chase the lowest common denominator of “whatever drives ratings/profits” as well, leaving shows such as Meet the Press, or Nightline, shills of their former investigative selves. The coverage-that-sells is less about analyzing policies or actual societal benefits of said policies, and more about analyzing horserace politics.
Furthermore, the oversimplification of complex issues renders the news, with a few exceptions, nothing more than play-by-play coverage without the benefit of any constructive color commentary. For example, the President of the United States actually spends over half his or her time dealing in foreign policy and with diplomacy, the area where the Executive Branch’s power is at its apex, and yet modern voters consistently zone out and find foreign policy discussion boring, instead choosing to focus on a legislative agenda that is entirely dependent upon the two bodies’ of Congress, and in fact where the President’s power is the weakest, by design.
Our media reinforces this mistaken view of our government’s structure daily, because it sells, just as controversy and unilateral promises sell over clarity and nuance, and most candidates know this as well. Donald Trump has cleverly trolled the media into countless hours of free publicity for months now, and Bernie Sanders’ first national television ad garnered massive praise and attention despite the fact that it was essentially a music video of a Simon and Garfunkel song, uplifting to be sure, but with no mention of actual policy points. The television and related media’s knack for reducing everything to an easily digestible sound bite has removed the nourishment needed to help develop a well-informed voter.
Without nuanced public debate, and through carefully crafted gerrymandering to avoid “swing” districts where actual compromise occurs and centrist candidates are required, our political parties have continually drifted towards their own extremes in rhetoric, particularly during primaries, where due to closed-primary contests and other factors, lower turnout and more extreme left/right voters can be expected than in general elections. Until 2016, however, despite the bombastic primary rhetoric, at least one party has done the politically smart thing and nominated at least a semi-centrist. Almost without exception, the party nominating the more broadly palatable candidate has won the Presidency. If either the GOP or the Democrats were to nominate a non-extremist candidate, history dictates that person would win the Presidency over the more extreme nominee from the other party. See, Pres. Johnson’s triumph over hyper-dogmatic Barry Goldwater in 1964 or Pres. Bush’s over hyper-idealistic Michael Dukakis in 1988.
However, what happens if an increasingly uninformed, sporadically engaged electorate rises up in the 2016 primaries, eviscerating the chance for either party to nominate a candidate with a broadly palatable platform?
I would argue that in that still-unlikely event that both major political parties become factionalized as our Framers’ feared—nominating candidates such as Trump and Sanders, both of whom are former Independents, and only recently even fully immersed into their respective current political parties—the center-left and center-right silent majority of this country would not remain unspoken for through November. I believe that a centrist such as Michael Bloomberg would fill that gap and enter the race. I believe this because our Framers knew precisely what Parliamentary faction-parties and litmus tests for party affiliation were from their former ruling nation of England. Our Framers knew, and detested, what such factions meant for legislative compromise and peaceful transition, and they purposely chose to try to prevent such factions from ever dominating in the system they so carefully crafted. One example would be the institution of a winner-take-all-electorate. Such structures are designed to pull us to the middle and to force compromise in order to achieve lasting, even if halting, progress. They are also designed to preserve stability and avoid sweeping government overhauls brought on by disaffected, angry or frustrated waves of mobocracy. The myriad of governmental iterations and continued upheaval brought on by the French Revolution still serves to illustrate this point. Such structural brake levers protecting against full systematic change via the outcome of only one election is also why we maintain the oldest written Constitution in the world, and are now the oldest successful democratic-republic in the world. If both major parties resort to factionary platforms, common sense dictates that the middle will rise, just as the Framers intended. The only question is what kind of impact could such a candidate have?
I think if it were the right candidate, one who touched a well-needed chord of return-to-compromise-as-revolutionary, more impact than people would expect. Polls consistently show that most Americans want compromise and they want the parties to work together. Polls consistently show that most Americans want more gun control legislation. Polls consistently show that most Americans support the right to choose. Polls consistently show that most Americans want to address climate change, and they do in fact agree it is man-made. More, America has a time-honored tradition of not wanting to pay more taxes than are necessary for good governance. While one-issue-platform-dominant third-party candidates such as Perot or Nader intrigued voters who cared about their issue, a candidate such as Bloomberg would not be single issue. If both the GOP and the Democrats nominate party-extremists, he would not be pulling from the fringe of either side, he’d be pulling from the center–of both parties.
What has distinguished former Pres. Roosevelt from other electorally unsuccessful third-party candidates since, were his national stature as an already successful aisle-crossing government leader, and his status as a former political insider turned reformer and disrupter. Mayor Mike Bloomberg also possesses these two criteria. While three-term Mayor of the nation’s largest city is not the same as former President of the nation, Pres. Roosevelt didn’t have the benefit of the interconnected media-driven society that Mayor Bloomberg enjoys in terms of driving name recognition. More, Bloomberg has already demonstrated the cross-over ability to win over progressive New York voters with his market-based civil rights reforms, and simultaneously to convince economically motivated voters that reforms such as gun control and increased reproductive rights access are in fact, fiscally conservative in the long term. To wit, just winning his home state of New York—home of both stringent Rockefeller gun laws and tax-averse Wall Street—would net him 29 electoral votes, already more than any third-party candidate since Roosevelt. If he can harness the same frustrated-insider-turned-reformer vein that Roosevelt tapped in 1912, his candidacy could have a marked impact on the political landscape of America’s future—even by merely finishing second. The major party who finished third in such a hypothetical contest would likely have their 2016 national platform—at least where it differed from Bloomberg’s centrist vision—consigned to the dustbin of history.
Picture Credit: White House photographer Pete Souza, http://www.politico.com/gallery/2015/12/white-house-official-photographs-2015-pete-souza-best-002166?slide=7