With polls showing a surge by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in early-voting states, billionaire Michael Bloomberg is weighing a presidential bid as an independent, third-party candidate, the New York Times reported Saturday. Bloomberg, the popular former mayor of New York City, has sent up trial balloons before. But this time he seems concerned enough about the rise of candidates on the fringes of both parties – and Hillary Clinton's weakness in Iowa and New Hampshire – to assemble advisers and set down plans.
In fact, Bloomberg is reportedly even studying up on past third-party runs by H. Ross Perot and the granddaddy of them all, Teddy Roosevelt. Although Perot and Roosevelt garnered their share of the popular vote (19 percent for Perot in 1992, and 27 percent for Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in 1912), they ultimately lost out to more established candidates – including another named Clinton.
Globe Opinion checked in by phone with Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, to get his take on the newest twist in a hotly contested race. Below is an edited excerpt.
Q. What does this proposed run by Michael Bloomberg say about his confidence that Hillary Clinton can win in New Hampshire or Iowa?
A. Clearly, Bloomberg is thinking that there's an opportunity here, but I also think that he has the same concerns that a lot of other Americans do. Almost half the Republican electorate and half the Democratic electorate are not voting for either Sanders or Trump.
Q. What's the mood of the New Hampshire electorate?
A. It's pretty simple. About 32 percent of voters are committed to Donald Trump, straight on through controversial statements, negative ads, and people taking him on. They're interested in voting for Donald Trump, and Donald Trump alone. There's no second place.
You also have this crowd of four more establishment Republicans — Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie — who are commanding about 40-plus percent of the electorate right now. But they're splitting it. If you boil it down, taken altogether, those four candidates would beat Donald Trump. But because they are splitting it, Trump is in a very good position. At this point, after 30 weeks, with many different polling outfits all showing Trump with that double-digit lead, the facts are the facts.
Q. Why is this coming out now if Bloomberg doesn't plan to make up his mind until March? What's the game plan?
A. Michael Bloomberg realizes that he could be in the best position to become the first independent elected candidate, going all the way back to 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose and won 27 percent. Bloomberg is a nationally known figure, and he has financial resources — he doesn't need the financial support and structure of a party.
Both sides will say that Bloomberg is running to help the other side — that's always the way it is with a third-party candidate. But Bloomberg does not like Bernie Sanders's social democratic philosophy at all. And I don't think he likes Donald Trump's statements on deporting people who are here illegally. Bloomberg has very good political instincts, and he is sensing that a lot of Americans are probably concerned, too.
Q. Do the differences between the Republicans running this year seem particularly pronounced? What does that signify?
A. The positions of the GOP establishment four — the Fab Four — are very similar, generally speaking. They've governed before; they are governors, former governors, or members of the US Senate. Trump is a very different person. The reason voters like him is that he is, with great force, standing up and denouncing the feeling that President Obama has brought to America. That's the number one issue for Republican primary voters in this election.
Whether it's the political correctness, the responses to terrorism, or the Iranian deal — you can't really put your finger on one thing, but Trump's motto of "Make America Great Again" matches the frustration of Republican primary voters.
Q. Given the electorate's mood on the Republican side, and Bloomberg's profile as a liberal Republican, where would his votes come from nationally?
A. Bloomberg would have the financial resources to campaign in states like Florida and Ohio, appeal to this sort of middle area, and garner votes. Roosevelt is the most famous example: He had already been president, he had a national reputation, and 12 governors endorsed him. If Bloomberg were to run, he might get endorsements from some major figures across the country.
Q. Trump, Clinton, and Bloomberg — all three candidates are from New York. How will that play out?
A. Sanders might make a fourth: If you listen to him, although he is from Vermont, he sounds like a New Yorker. It's more that they're all well-known figures. There's another factor: In today's politics, a wealthy, well-known figure is able to say things that others can't. Trump definitely has that label: People think, "The guy is so rich he can't be bought, and I trust him."
Q. Does this put pressure on Clinton to win in early states?
A. For Clinton, this is very similar to the George W. Bush vs. John McCain race in 2000. Karl Rove did not want to take on McCain being a war hero directly in New Hampshire. So he didn't, and Bush lost big here. Then they went to South Carolina, where they took the gloves off.
But if Clinton goes negative on Sanders, he may raise money and deflect it pretty well. But sometimes when you start to lead a little bit, the press starts to examine exactly what you mean by free college tuition, free this, and free that, and who pays for that. Sanders is starting to get more scrutiny than he did before.
I do not believe that Bloomberg will run if it looks like Clinton is the nominee. The way he has signaled it is that he would run if a Cruz/Trump-Sanders race developed.
And there's always the possibility that she would have more problems with emails. Two weeks ago, the FBI announced that they were expanding the scope of the investigation — then we had four days of Joe Biden doing national television interviews. Any time Biden emerges doing television interviews, you know something is going on. There are always conspiracy theories in politics. Usually it doesn't happen, but this race may bring out some very quirky situations.