New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg could be the first modern independent candidate to break the stranglehold the two major parties have on the White House, two-time candidate Ralph Nader said Thursday.
Nader predicted in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball” that Bloomberg would join the race and would immediately start out with the support of at least 15 percent of voters.
“He’s running,” Nader told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, but he said Bloomberg, a billionaire media magnate, probably wouldn’t announce for several months because “when you have that kind of money, you can start late.”
But even for a candidate as well-financed as Bloomberg — whose personal fortune has been estimated at more than $5 billion — ballot eligibility rules and the difficulty of qualifying for debates can make it almost impossible to gain traction, said Nader, who knows firsthand about the legal and political obstacles faced by third-party candidates.
“We’ve got a two-party elected dictatorship,” Nader said. “They’ve got the whole thing stacked in one state after another.”
Bloomberg could open up the system
At first blush, Nader said, Bloomberg looks pretty good, marrying traditional Democratic positions with hard-headed Republican-style problem-solving.
“I think he’s offering a case-by-case judgment,” Nader said. “That’s the one thing about Bloomberg I like. He doesn’t prejudge everything ideologically. He’s very problem-oriented. Post-Katrina I don’t think would have happened if he was in charge.”
But Bloomberg isn’t sensitive enough to free speech and economic justice, said Nader, who said that if no candidate emerged to address his progressive, labor-first ideals, he would jump into the race himself. He said he would make a decision “in the fall.”
The real appeal of a Bloomberg campaign, he said, was the prospect that it could forever transform American politics by smashing the major parties’ monopoly, even if he doesn’t win.
It all depends on whether Bloomberg can demonstrate enough support to force his way into the general election debates organized by a private commission, which has been loath to include independent candidates, including Nader in 2000 and 2004, he said.
“He’ll turn it into a three-way race,” Nader predicted. “He can really highlight these discriminations against third-party candidates.”
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Bloomberg plays coy
Speculation that he would run reached fever pitch this week when Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who switched to the Republican Party to run for mayor in 2001, renounced his Republican affiliation and said he was now an independent.
Since then, Bloomberg has spent his time issuing the standard non-denial denial of interest that nearly all prospective presidential candidates rely on while they consider their options. He told NBC News’ Brian Williams that he had “no intention” of running, adding: “I’ve got a job. I just want to be a good mayor.”
But as Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., proved, saying that doesn’t mean he can’t, or won’t, change his mind.
Asked in January 2006 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” whether he would run for president in 2008, Obama replied, “I will not.” Today, he is running second on most Democratic presidential polls.
Bloomberg himself is doing nothing to discourage speculation. In a news conference Wednesday, he told reporters: “The more people that run for office, the better.”
And he is seizing every opportunity to grab a toehold on national issues.
“I feel very strongly that we are in danger of losing our lead in many parts of science and medicine and education,” he said. “I think there’s a great challenge ahead. We have international challenges; we have domestic challenges. And as I said out in California two nights ago, I don’t think that we are addressing those issues.
“I’m particularly upset that the big issues of the time keep getting pushed to the back and we focus on small things that probably only inside the Beltway are important.”
Poor track record for outsiders
History is not on Bloomberg’s side, however, as Nader learned in 2000, when he won less than 3 percent of the vote across the country. Many Democrats believe most of his votes in Florida would otherwise have gone to Vice President Al Gore, giving Gore a victory in Florida over George W. Bush and handing Gore the White House.
In 1968, former Democratic Gov. George Wallace of Alabama formed his own party with the mission to be a spoiler, hoping to throw the election to the Electoral College and expand his political clout. He won five Southern states, siphoning Southern Democratic votes from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, giving Richard Nixon a small but decisive win.
As an independent in 1992, businessman H. Ross Perot won almost 20 percent of the vote — not enough to win the presidency, but more than enough to allow Bill Clinton to oust President George H.W. Bush in a three-way race.
In 1996, Perot ran again, as the nominee of the Reform Party, picking up less than half as many votes but allowing Clinton to win reelection without a majority.
Ed Rollins, who managed Perot’s 1992 campaign, said Bloomberg had special advantages: name recognition and billions of dollars. Associates told MSNBC that Bloomberg would be prepared to spend at least a half-billion dollars if he decides to press forward with a campaign.
“With his kind of resources and his ability and willingness to spend, he can sort of set an agenda that other candidates may have to deal with,” Rollins said Wednesday on “Hardball.”
Moreover, he added, “Bloomberg has built a gigantic media outlet, and he understands the game better than anybody.”
Bloomberg has said he is not interested in being a spoiler, telling associates that if he runs, it will be only because he expects to have a solid chance to win. But the political stars would have to line up just right for him to have even a sliver of a chance, said Larry Sabato, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia.
“Bloomberg has to be willing to spend a half-billion, probably a billion, dollars of his own money, and the two parties have to nominate candidates who are probably polarizing and unacceptable to millions of Americans,” Sabato told NBC News’ David Gregory.
Nader loyalist welcomes Bloomberg
Nader’s campaign manager in 2000 and 2004, Theresa Amato, encouraged Bloomberg to join the race, saying the more the merrier.
“We’re not a two-party system. The word ‘party’ doesn’t show up in the Constitution,” she said Wednesday on “Hardball.” “Everybody should be able to run for president in the United States.”
But she agreed that Bloomberg would have a tough time of it, saying the deck was stacked against independent and thirf-party candidates.
“The problem here is not with third parties. The problem is that two parties have made it difficult the for third parties to compete,” said Amato, who is now executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonprofit political reform group.
“There are structural barriers to entry, from the ballot access laws [to] the commission on presidential debates,” which she said “makes it very hard for anybody else, except for the two parties, because it is a private corporation that allows the Democrats and Republicans to talk to tens of millions of voters.”
MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and David Shuster and NBC’s Chuck Todd, Brian Williams, David Gregory, Brooke Hart and Steve Handelsman contributed to this report.