Michael Bloomberg and the Power of New York

A Bloomberg candidacy is unlikely but reveals something about New York’s role in American politics.

Madison Square Park New York
View of Madison Square Park in Manhattan, New York (Unsplash/Daryan Shamkhali)

Last month, a report in The New York Times suggested that Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City from 2002 until 2014, has been thinking about running for president of the United States as a third-party candidate and may be willing to spend as much as a billion dollars of his own money to do so.

Today, on the sole day between the end of football season and the start of ex-Iowa primary season, Bloomberg himself confirmed that report. According to MarketWatch, this is “the first time Bloomberg himself has said [he might run], though his surrogates have told other outlets the former New York City mayor and founder of Bloomberg LP was considering such a move.”

“I find the level of discourse and discussion distressingly banal and an outrage and an insult to the voters,” said Bloomberg.

The Bloomberg strategy is a fairly simple one: first you take Manhattan, then you take DC. The idea would be for him to secure the huge amounts of donor money and media support available in New York City, as well as the 5.4 percent of America’s Electoral College points that you get by winning New York state in the general election, and then use those assets in order to lure Republican-leaning Americans (particularly if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz wins the Republican nomination and if socialist Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination) and/or Democratic-leaning Americans outside New York to vote Bloomberg on election day too.

Constitutional quirk

While it still seems quite unlikely that Bloomberg would attempt to pull this off, it cannot be ruled out entirely, in particular because of the following constitutional catch: If none of the candidates in the general election wins more than 50 percent of the Electoral College votes, then the president of the United States is chosen instead by a state-majority vote in the House of Representatives wherein the congressmen (and congresswomen) representing each state vote among themselves to determine which presidential candidate their state desires. The candidate which has the backing of a majority of states then becomes president while the vice president is chosen by the Senate.

In such a vote, Alaska’s one congressman would have as much power as all of California’s dozens of congressmen put together. This vote would probably favor right-wing establishment candidates, since most states and congressional districts in the country tend to be relatively right-wing, Congress is currently controlled by a Republican majority and congressmen tend to be establishmentarians. If it ever came to this, a candidate like Bloomberg might have something of an advantage over one like Cruz, Trump, Sanders or, perhaps, Clinton.

Could it ever come to this? Well, it did in 1824, when four candidates ran for president. Andrew Jackson got a plurality of the popular and the electoral-college vote, but not a majority, so the race was turned over to the House of Representatives which picked John Quincy Adams instead.

Crucially, if Bloomberg could secure a victory in New York state in the general election, that alone might make it relatively difficult for one of the other two candidates to win an Electoral College majority.

If, for example, Jimmy Carter had lost New York in 1976 to a third-party candidate, Carter still would have gotten more votes than his Republican opponent, Gerald Ford, yet would have fallen short of the Electoral College majority needed to avoid turning the vote over to Congress. Had a third-party candidate won New York, Pennsylvania and Iowa instead of Barack Obama in 2012, he would not have won a majority in the Electoral College, which would have meant that the Congress would have been able to vote to select the president of the country instead.

Empire State’s power

What Bloomberg’s public presidential mulling over really indicates then is the enduring power of both the state and city of New York. This is actually not just a Bloombergnagian phenomenon: Hillary Clinton served as one New York state’s two senators from 2001 to 2009, Bernie Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn and Trump in Queens. (Even Chris Christie has influence over bridges that reach New York City.) For a while there was also some presidential buzz about New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose father Mario was also a longtime governor of New York and came relatively close to becoming president in 1988 and 1992.

At this point, in fact, the only leading candidates who do not have ties to New York are those who have ties to Florida: Marco Rubio is a Florida senator and son of Cuban immigrants, Jeb Bush used to be a Florida governor and is near-fluent in Spanish, Cruz’s father is from Cuba (though Cruz is himself a senator representing Texas) and Trump has usually lived in Florida when not living in Manhattan.

New York is also a somewhat peculiar state politically. Though on the one hand it is the heartland of liberal America (along with California, of course), on the other hand it has politics that are in some ways quite Republican-esque.

It has, for instance, groups that are strongly pro-finance (because a lot of its money and jobs come directly or indirectly from Wall Street), pro-Israel (because it is home to an estimated 26 percent of America’s approximately 6.8 million Jews, some of whom would also be happy to see Bloomberg or Sanders become the first Jewish president rather than see Hillary become the second Clinton president), and pro-security (because it has been the main terrorist target in America, not only on 9/11 but in many other cases as well).

New York also has a sizeable right-leaning upstate region in which potentially significant shale energy reserves are located. Unlike in nearby states, such as newly gas-rich Pennsylvania, New York has not yet been allowed to develop these resources. Some upstate New Yorkers may therefore be hoping for a president who will support the removal of the fracking moratorium in the state, so that they too can participate in the regional shale bonanza.

The last time New York voted for a non-Democratic candidate was in 1984 when, along with most of the other states in the country, it approved of a second term for Ronald Reagan. In the following election of 1988, however, New York was one of just nine states, and the only populous state, to vote against George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president.

Will New York vote against a candidate from the Democratic Party again in 2016? Probably not, but of course we will soon find out.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, February 9, 2016.