Political pundits and historians always like to analogize the current election cycle to a past election cycle, though I think a case can be made that each cycle is unique and non-repeatable. On the surface, it might look like we might be heading for a repeat of 1912, when a Republican split led to the independent candidacy of Teddy Roosevelt and handed the White House to Woodrow Wilson. That, I am sure most sensible people will agree, was a blunder.
But at least the main party candidates in 1912 were from within the mainstream of their parties. The prospect that a Trump-Sanders matchup is reviving talk that Michael Bloomberg might run as an independent, and on paper one could easily imagine him winning a popular vote plurality and an electoral college majority. According to the New York Times this morning, he might still do it even if Hillary wins the nomination:
Michael R. Bloomberg has instructed advisers to draw up plans for a potential independent campaign in this year’s presidential race. His advisers and associates said he was galled by Donald J. Trump’s dominance of the Republican field, and troubled by Hillary Clinton’s stumbles and the rise of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the Democratic side.
Voila! 1912 all over again. But I wonder whether we might have four major candidates in the event of a Trump-Sanders or Trump-Clinton matchup—Bloomberg plus an “independent” Republican candidate (I’d guess it might be Romney)? Then the election we’d most resemble was 1824, when there were four major candidates running. That election was settled in the House of Representatives in favor of John Quincy Adams, even though Andrew Jackson won the most popular votes. One could imagine this happening again, with Trump, Clinton, or Bloomberg getting the most votes, but a Republican dominated House picking the “independent” Republican candidate. (Let’s hope to God it isn’t Jeb Bush.) One can imagine today’s Jacksonian candidate (Mr. T) being just as outraged as Jackson was at such an outcome. If you think things were bitter after the messy outcome of the 2000 election between Bush and Gore, just wait.
Cast your mind back to Bloomberg for a moment. Why did he run for mayor of New York as a Republican, even though he’s a much better fit in the Democratic Party? Or for that matter, if he wants to be president, why didn’t he run as a Democrat this year? (He dumped his Republican affiliation in New York as fast as he could, remember.) The obvious answer is that he had no opening in the Democratic Party in New York, where the party hierarchy operates much like a closed-shop union. And New York City Republicans have a bare cupboard.
Likewise, why is Donald Trump running as a Republican, after a lifetime of mostly liberal positions, and his occasional declarations that he leans toward Democrats? I still haven’t heard Trump give an account of why, suddenly, he’s changed his mind on so many positions. Like Bloomberg, it seems to be opportunism rather than conviction; he couldn’t win the Democratic nomination these days, but the open and scattered Republican field gives him an opening to win with a mere plurality of primary votes.
Opportunism isn’t always a bad thing; I like to suggest from time to time that opportunists might well sell out to us instead of liberals. But can we trust Trump to sell out to us? One of his big selling points is that he’s so rich (ditto Bloomberg) that he wouldn’t be in thrall to special interests. Maybe, but it might also mean he’d feel no allegiance at all to conservatives or conservative causes. He wants very very badly to be president, and his campaign-as-performance-art is sheer genius. But as this video notes, do we really know what he thinks?
PAUL adds: I have reason to believe we should take seriously the possibility of a Bloomberg entry.
As for analogous elections, we shouldn’t discount 1968. That year, in which there was a third party candidate (George Wallace) albeit of a very different sort than Bloomberg, the Republican (Richard Nixon) prevailed thanks to turmoil among the Democrats. The turmoil resulted from a bitter race between a leftist insurgent (Gene McCarthy) and the establishment favorite (Hubert Humphrey), following the unexpected exit of the original favorite for the nomination (President Lyndon Johnson) and the assassination of a candidate (Robert Kennedy) who might have bridged the left and the establishment.
Nixon was a hard sell to the electorate, just as I believe Donald Trump or Ted Cruz would be. But the Democrats couldn’t get their act together.
I suspect that, one way or another, they will get it together this time. However, this remains to be seen.