Long-swirling rumors of a Michael Bloomberg presidential run gained fresh force over the weekend, with reports that the former New York mayor is weighing the odds and planning to make a final decision by early March.
Getting to the White House would seem an extremely remote possibility. No independent candidate has ever won, and those who came closest — like Teddy Roosevelt and Ross Perot — built their insurgent campaigns around big personalities and unorthodox policy ideas. That doesn't describe Bloomberg, whose appeal is built on managerial expertise, not big charisma.
But winning isn't everything. A Bloomberg candidacy could easily siphon votes from the major parties, throwing all electoral expectation into confusion.
Who is Michael Bloomberg?
New Yorkers know him well; he's the self-made billionaire turned three-term mayor who restored economic growth after 9/11, revitalized New York's waterfront, banned smoking in public places, seized control of the city's school system, and brought an ethos of executive competency to city agencies.
Yet outside his home region Bloomberg remains little-known. In a recent national poll, 43 percent of Americans didn't recognize his name.
Being a relative unknown has its upside: It gives Bloomberg a clean slate, a chance to craft his presidential image from scratch. Then again, it could be difficult for a mild-mannered politician like Bloomberg to break through when competing with master media manipulators like Donald Trump.
Is there a movement behind Bloomberg?
This has always been the question behind talk of a Bloomberg candidacy: Is there really a mass of voters eager for a bureaucrat-in-chief, a non-partisan candidate whose experience lends credence to the promise that he will make government work better?
That might leave a silent, sober majority feeling overlooked in the political center, but increasingly the research suggests that there isn't much of a center. Independent voters have all but disappeared from the political landscape, with most voters committed to one political tribe or the other.
A Bloomberg run would therefore be a test of if polarization had finally spread so far that a vacuum was beginning to open in the center.
From this angle, it makes sense that Bloomberg might be watching to see if Sanders gets the Democratic nod. Only a matchup between far-left and far-right creates a gap wide enough for a centrist candidate to pass. If Clinton gets through, or the Republicans suddenly reach for a mainstream candidate like Jeb Bush, that opening will disappear.
What else might trip up Bloomberg?
Bloomberg gets a lot of vocal support from big money insiders like media-mogul Rupert Murdoch and billionaire investor Bill Ackman. But being the favored candidate of Wall Street isn't exactly a political asset.
Another potential problem is Bloomberg's aggressive defense of New York's stop-and-frisk policing policy, which allowed officers to question, and potentially search, any pedestrians they deemed suspicious. The program disproportionately targeted African- Americans in New York and was declared unconstitutional by a federal court.
Put these together, and it's easy to paint Bloomberg as the big-money candidate who supported racist policing tactics. That could make him toxic in an election where Wall Street has few defenders and the Black Lives Matter movement has elevated police discrimination to a leading issue.
What if Bloomberg does run?
There are a lot of ifs here, but in the end it's possible a Bloomberg candidacy could transform the 2016 presidential race. Here's one scenario:
If Sanders wins the Democratic primary, and one of the more extreme candidates takes the Republican contest, Bloomberg might choose to run.
Then, if his message resonates with disaffected voters eager to see a business-savvy technocrat in the White House, he could attract a following.
Then, if that following gets big enough, he could win a few states (say, New York or New Jersey), and claim some votes in the electoral college.
Finally, if he earns enough electoral college votes, he could keep the other candidates from gaining an outright majority — in which case the House of Representatives would get to decide the election.
Trouble is, each of these things is unlikely, some wildly unlikely. As an example, think of Ross Perot. He connected with voters and won nearly 20 percent of the popular vote in 1992. But he still ended up with zero electoral votes, because for that you need a majority in some particular state.
Will Bloomberg really run?
Talk of a Bloomberg presidency is hardly new; it goes back at least as far as the 2008 contest. And over the years, Bloomberg has consistently said that he doesn't want to be a presidential spoiler. He would only run if he could win.
Assuming he still feels that way, it's hard to see him actually jumping into the 2016 election. The path to victory is so narrow as to be practically impassable.