For many voters, one billionaire in the 2016 presidential race was too many, but two would have suited them just fine.
Indeed, as it began to dawn on the political world that the Donald Trump phenomenon would not dissipate as predicted, those alarmed by Trump's populist revolt and the lack of acceptable options in the center began to look for a white knight to conduct an independent bid for the White House. That would take deep pockets to counter the massive funding of both political parties, credibility as an executive, and some kind of reputation on the national stage that would allow him or her to compete against Trump and Hillary Clinton. One man in particular fit that bill, and raised centrists' hopes for weeks by polling on the question and openly mulling an independent presidential bid.
Unfortunately for those potential supporters, Michael Bloomberg doesn't want the job — or at least not the headaches that attempting to win it would produce. And the biggest beneficiary of that decision — as Bloomberg writes in his valediction — is Hillary Clinton.
Bloomberg starts off his essay, published by his own news service, by paying homage to the political center, claiming that "extremism is on the march" in both parties. He notes that both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan found ways to work with their political opponents, "and both moved the country forward in important ways" while doing so. Bloomberg accuses candidates in this cycle of "doubling down on dysfunction" and refusing to explain "how they will break the fever of partisanship." Worse, they have spent the cycle "promising results that they can't possibly deliver."
However, Bloomberg offers an implicit partisanship when it comes to calling out those who worry him the most. His reference to Bill Clinton's trade policies getting trashed in this cycle implicitly indicts Bernie Sanders, but Bloomberg doesn't call Sanders out by name. Instead, he focuses his ire on Trump and Ted Cruz for extremism, especially on immigration. "Trump appeals to our worst impulses" in his proclaimed desire to deport "millions of Mexicans" and to start trade wars with China and Japan; Cruz, meanwhile, is "no less extreme … no less divisive" for failing to denounce Trump's policies.
That, Bloomberg explains, is why he decided not to launch a bid for the presidency. He sees no path to 270 Electoral College votes, but thinks he could "win a number of diverse states" that would block anyone from reaching that majority. The election would then go to the House of Representatives, where Republicans control a large majority of state delegations. "There is a good chance," he writes, "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."
The problem, highlighted by Bloomberg's own polling, is that Bloomberg can't generate enough support to win any states, except maybe his home state of New York — and even that would be a huge lift, especially with Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Just to get on the ballots in "a number of diverse states" would cost a significant amount of money, let alone the necessary get-out-the-vote effort it would take to seriously compete for votes. Thanks to Bloomberg's activist track record as mayor of New York City and of the gun-control group Everytown, most of the support he would muster would come from the center-left, draining the Democratic Party of voters. The risk isn't that Bloomberg would throw the election to the House; it's that he'd kneecap Clinton by splitting the Democrats and produce a Republican landslide.
In the short run, Bloomberg bowing out clearly helps Clinton, especially if Bloomberg now decides to commit his resources to propping her up in the general election. That prompts another question, though, which is whether any Republican candidate can reach 270 in a two-person race in November. At the moment, that seems murky, especially if the other billionaire makes it to the general election.
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.