Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a news conference at a gun control advocacy event, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, in Las Vegas.

AP Photo/John Locher

2020

History Says Bloomberg 2020 Would Be a Sure Loser

Almost every four years, there’s a last-minute panic candidate for the presidency. They never win.

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Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.

If Michael Bloomberg is looking for evidence that a late entrant can win a presidential nomination, all he has to do is look back. About seven decades.

It happened in 1952, when Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson—after repeatedly refusing President Harry Truman's requests to jump into the race as Truman's Democratic successor—waited until the convention began to declare himself a candidate. Stevenson gave an acclaimed welcoming speech to delegates in Chicago, changed his mind, and won the nomination on the third ballot.

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Bloomberg's surprise late entry into the 2020 race is a familiar story: The candidate who casts himself in the role of The Savior Who Is Waiting in the Wings is a quadrennial feature of presidential campaigns. For decades, Democrats and Republicans alike have persisted in looking beyond the field of those desperate few who have spent months, if not years, racking up frequent flier miles; eating indigestible food; begging for money; and crowding into coffee shops, union halls and living rooms trying to build a constituency. Right around this time of the cycle, these voters and pundits and party operatives reliably hit the panic button, certain that somewhere above the fray stands a candidate free of the now-obvious flaws that burden the rest of the field. It’s a yearning that invites comparison to the Groucho Marx quip about refusing to join any club that would have him as a member: “I refuse to support any candidate who overtly is seeking my vote.”

There’s one pesky fact about these late-entry candidacies: They never succeed. Only once have they even materially affected the outcome of a fight for the nomination.

Stevenson's success—and he didn't even win the presidency—came at a radically different time in American politics. In 1952, virtually no delegates were chosen in primaries; the party’s power brokers and bosses came to conventions with the ability to actually decide who the candidate would be—in a smoke-filled room, if necessary. We are in a different political universe today, and have been for the better part of 50 years.

Once primaries became the path to the nomination, a Stevenson-like delay stopped being a plausible strategy for victory. No late entrant has won a nomination since 1952. The most any latecomer has accomplished is to deliver victory to another contender. Campaign after campaign, these Mighty Mouse-like champions proclaim, “Here I come to save the day!” only to discover that their party doesn’t seem to want their rescue skills after all. The bracing tonic they seem to offer turns out to be a sugar rush.

In 1960, back when conventions were more than a televised public-relations performance, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson dithered for months about joining the campaign, fearing the humiliation of possible defeat, according to biographer Robert Caro. It was not until the convention began that LBJ announced his candidacy. By then, the relentless yearslong efforts of John F. Kennedy and his campaign proved too powerful to stop. Given the support Johnson had in the South and West, and the fears of some Northerners about a Catholic on the ticket, it’s plausible that a campaign by LBJ could have succeeded, had it gotten off to an earlier start.

Eight years later, LBJ was actually president, and this time it was the Republican Party’s turn to yearn for a savior. In 1968, California Gov. Ronald Reagan embarked on a 7,000-mile speaking tour, met regularly with Southern Republican leaders, and permitted his name to stay on the ballot in several states—while refusing to formally enter the race. By the time Reagan declared, on the opening day of the GOP convention, it was too late. Richard Nixon had already sewn up enough delegates for a first-ballot victory.

Next time around in 1972, primaries began to assume a decisive role. That year, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had earlier declined to run, came into the campaign in January, as cracks began appearing in the campaign of the consensus favorite, Senator Ed Muskie. Yet Humphrey’s entry came too late to compete against Muskie in New Hampshire and other early primaries. Instead, he wound up being George McGovern’s principal opponent, finishing only 5 points behind McGovern in the winner-take-all California primary. In doing so, Humphrey inflicted significant damage on McGovern, charging in a debate that his defense plan would cut “the muscle,” not the fat, from the Pentagon.

In 1976, California Gov. Jerry Brown didn't announce his candidacy until March, and campaigned with virtually no staff and no entourage, flying commercial. His campaign was taken up in several states by political power brokers looking to stop Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Brown won Maryland, Nevada and his home state of California, but it was too late: By then Democratic leaders like Chicago’s Richard Daley had already embraced Carter. Brown demonstrated that a late entrant can do well in the primaries while having no significant effect on the outcome of the race.

One candidate managed to be both an early entrant and a latecomer. Gary Hart began his second run for the president almost as soon as the 1984 election was over. He formally announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s 1988 presidential nomination in April 1987. Less than a month later, in the wake of storms about an alleged affair, he suspended his campaign. Then in December, Hart appeared on the steps of the New Hampshire Statehouse to announce he was back in the race. Within days, he was at or near the top of national polls. The excitement didn’t last. After single-digit results in New Hampshire and the Super Tuesday states, Hart was out of the race for good.

More recently, in 2004, unhappy with the Democratic lineup, associates of former President Bill Clinton encouraged retired General Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander, to join the race. Clark delayed announcing until September 2003—months after other candidates—and his answers to questions ranging from the Iraq War to abortion demonstrated his political inexperience. By mid-February, he was out of the race.

Measured by effect on the outcome, the most significant late entrant of all was Fred Thompson in 2008. The former Tennessee senator, with a résumé that included work on the Senate Watergate Committee and a stint as Manhattan’s district attorney on “Law and Order,” had a laid-back folksy approach to politics that translated into a laid-back, “what’s the rush?” approach to a Republican presidential campaign. He formed an exploratory committee in June 2007, but backed off making any formal declaration, much less traveling to Iowa or appearing on Jay Leno. Thompson’s casual, if not indolent, schedule soon became the default description of his campaign.

Yet Thompson played a crucial role in the 2008 campaign. His last stand was in South Carolina. He placed third with 16 percent of the vote. By taking a significant chunk of conservative votes, Thompson enabled John McCain to win the South Carolina primary with a 3-point margin over Mike Huckabee, who had won the Iowa caucuses and drawn evangelicals to his campaign. That win, in a state where McCain had suffered a crippling loss to George W. Bush eight years earlier, ended questions about McCain’s support among Christian conservatives and set him up to win the Florida primary and effectively clinch his party’s presidential nomination.

If Bloomberg is concerned about the rise of Elizabeth Warren, the Thompson campaign should prompt him to think very hard about the ramifications of getting into the 2020 race. By splitting the moderate vote with Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, a Bloomberg candidacy might wind up delivering key states to Warren or Bernie Sanders.

Granted, none of the other latecomers has brought a fleet of Brinks trucks into a campaign. And the sheer volatility of primaries, along with the unpredictability of politics, warns against putting too much stock in history. Still, if Bloomberg or anyone else is seriously thinking of launching a campaign, it’s worth remembering that when it comes to a presidential run, the last has never been first.

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