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Letting go of the Bloomberg fantasy

There has been some speculation lately that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may run as an independent, third-party candidate for president — and succeed. Many have noted that Bloomberg's ascendancy to the presidency is unlikely, and some have sought to challenge those assumptions.

This week Jonathan Chait joined the chorus of third-party speculation, making the case that Bloomberg might not be such an impossible choice after all. His arguments have been warmly received. But the arguments he uses to make this case — that third-party candidates have been elected governor, that a Sanders-Trump election would leave an ideological void, and that the impossible seems to be possible in 2016 — all fail to stand up to scrutiny.

Comparisons between governors and presidents can be useful sometimes. Third-party election victories are generally not good examples of that. Chait cites the victories of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, Lowell Weicker in Connecticut, and Angus King in Maine. In addition to the fact that these are three examples among hundreds of governors (rough calculation suggests between 800 and 1,000 governors have been elected in the past 150 years), the election process just isn't comparable.

Governors can generally win by picking up a plurality of the vote anywhere in the state. This means that a candidate can win — especially in a three-person race — by dominating a few big cities or picking up all the rural votes, for example. The presidency doesn't work that way — it's selected by a majority of Electoral College votes, not a plurality of the electorate. The Electoral College is a controversial institution, but it ensures that presidents have to be electorally competitive throughout the country, not just able to piece together a third of the country by (for example) doing really, really well in a few areas.

The political geography of third-party presidential candidacies bears spelling out. The current era has featured a couple of centrist third-party candidates whose candidacies were not tied to any particular geographic regions of the country, and whose national support was thus diffuse. For Ross Perot, who won nearly 20 percent of the vote in 1992, this translated into exactly zero Electoral College votes. John Anderson's independent candidacy in 1980 never became the sensation that Perot's did, but he similarly won no states. Anderson's overall vote share about half of what George Wallace won in 1968, but while Wallace won five states in the South (45 EC votes), Anderson, like Perot, failed to take a single state.

Theodore Roosevelt is probably the closest we've seen in the 20th century to a nationally competitive third-party candidate who won EC votes, and even in this case, there was a geographic pattern to his support in the North and West.

It's telling that since the beginning of the party convention era in the 1830s, the only "third party" (or at least emergent party) candidate to win the White House has been Abraham Lincoln in 1860 — at a time when geographic factors drove politics like nothing before and nothing since. The example of Lincoln and the early Republican Party also provides clues about how the foundations of the party system transform. It's not how Chait's piece suggests.

The Bloomberg argument goes that if Trump and Sanders are the nominees, there will be an ideological void in the electorate. Drawing on studies like this one from the Cato Institute, Chait argues that because of the common combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism, "A candidate who is neither a socialist nor a racist would have a large niche." The suggestion is that Trump is a fiscal and social conservative and Sanders is a fiscal and social liberal, leaving open unmet demand for the ideological candidate that is similar to most Americans.

The problem with this argument is that there are currently candidates leading in many polls, who occupy the upper-left quadrant space that Chait suggests is the void for Bloomberg to fill. Arguably, Hillary Clinton is near that space, and Marco Rubio may be near it (if you consider his immigration position to make him more socially liberal).

Issue combinations like this don't tend to be how American party politics changes, though. Although the socially liberal, economically conservative position would seem to be consistent — and in line with how many people understand American political culture — political science research actually suggests that ideology and issue combinations are the products of elite strategy.

Major party shifts in the past, such as the emergence of the Republicans in the 1850s or the formation of the "New Deal" coalition in the 1930s, happen because of a major, pressing policy issue that the party system, as it is, cannot address. Without signing on to either agenda, we could actually hypothesize that this dynamic underlies the support for Trump and Sanders. Their respective stances on immigration and economic inequality speak to policy issues that have eluded the parties in recent years.

Chait asserts that the 2016 race has defied expectations, so thus perhaps the old laws no longer hold. But extrapolating a strong Bloomberg candidacy from the success enjoyed by Trump and Sanders makes no sense. As a successful businessman and the former mayor of New York, Bloomberg represents the financial and political establishment. It's going to be difficult for him to piggyback on the outsider movement.

However, one of Chait's premises warrants further consideration. If Trump and Sanders continue to do well, it's possible that our current process is heading toward the nomination of candidates who cannot unite their parties and compete in the general election. The informal system of endorsements described in The Party Decides was created to combat this problem. If that solution has truly broken down, and the primary and general election constituencies are irreconcilable, then that's a big deal. We ought to think about how to address such a problem — not paper over it with third-party fantasies.