Geeks alive

Please don't treat this as a prediction, let alone a hope. It is an electoral geek playing with numbers.

While I suspect that Mike Huckabee has peaked in the Republican presidential race, and that Barack Obama is pulling ahead of John Edwards (and even, perhaps, of Hillary Clinton), this is speculation as to what might happen if both parties nominated a southern populist.

I think under those circumstances the next President of the US would be Mike Bloomberg. Bloomberg has kept his head down for a while. A year ago he provoked speculation of an independent run, but has let it die down. And why not? He doesn't need to win the support of a party. He doesn't need to decide until he knows who is running.

His ideal scenario would be two southern populists.

At first glance, Huckabee would be more vulnerable to a pro-business run by Bloomberg. Bloomberg was (officially at any rate) a Republican when he was elected Mayor of New York. The Democrats, while wisely nominating free traders for five successive presidential elections, have a much stronger undercurrent of anti-business populism than the Republicans do. The Republican party has been the party of free trade and low regulation for generations - and usually the party of lower taxes too. On that understanding of the terms, Huckabee is not a conservative or a Republican, or anything resembling either one.

The last time a socially conservative economic populist ran for President - Patrick Buchanan in 2000 - he got less than half a percent of the vote. The last time a more socially liberal populist ran - Ross Perot in 1996 - he got 8.5% of the vote. His more serious run in 1992 got 19%. Of course, Perot, like Bloomberg, had money.

All of this would suggest that Huckabee would be more vulnerable to a Bloomberg challenge than Edwards. But I don't think that is how it would work out.

In a battle for the Republican vote, neither Bloomberg nor Huckabee would strike a chord with most Republican voters. One is to the left on the economy and national security while supporting socially conservative stands such as opposing abortion and gay marriage. The other is socially liberal, and economically mainstream - free trade, and little change on taxes, while being undeclared on foreign and security issues. Neither represents conservatism as it has been understood since (at least) Reagan. Since both represent a part of conservatism, the choice would come down to which represents the part of conservatism that matters most tgo the individual voter.

Among, Democrats, however, Bloomberg is mainstream. Kerry, Gore, Clinton & Dukakis all stood for free trade and social liberalism. Gore experimented with populist themes in 2000, but was never a protectionist. There is a strong anti-business element in the Democratic Party, but it only represents about half their voters. Very few Republicans could cheerfully vote for either Bloomberg or Huckabee. It would be a choice between the lesser of two evils. But 50% of Democrats would regard Bloomberg as representing exactly the sort of platform they have voted for for years.

Then there is the matter of geography. With southerners running for both main parties, Bloomberg's most obvious appeal would be in the North East and on the West Coast. It would be potentially a strong appeal. Republicans could vote for him - even socially conservative ones - as the best chance to beat the Democrat. These are states Republicans rarely win at presidential level. Half of the Democrats in these states would actively prefer him to Edwards.

If Bloomberg opened an early lead in the tri-state area of NY, CT and NJ, Edwards would immediately be in trouble. It is almost impossible for a Democrat to win without these states. As Bloomberg's base is in New York City and its commuter belt, recruiting George Pataki to his team to help campaign with Republicans upstate would be a canny move.

If he were leading in those states, Democrats in other North Eastern states, as well as those on the West Coast, might abandon Edwards as a lost cause. People with support among moderate Republicans and independents - Joe Lieberman, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzeneggar spring to mind - could seal the deal in at least half the states John Kerry won in 2004.

To win, of course, Bloomberg would need to do better than Kerry did. He would need to make gains in the South, the Mid West, or the desert and mountain states.

Much of the South is very solidly Republican. Florida is famously close. One third of the vote could give him the state, and 40% would be likely to do so. It is also an atypical southern state. There are a lot of New Yorkers living there, including a substantial Jewish population. It is a state which depends a great deal on tourism, including international tourism, and a free trade a low taxes message would go down well there.

A clutch of inland Western states would also be necessary to seal the deal. Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico would all be winnable. If he looked like taking those states as well as the tri-state areas and California, Democrats in other states would be sure to jump ship and vote tactically.

John McCain would be his ideal running mate. That would allow him to run to the right of both Huckabee and Edwards on the War on Terror, while still promising a degree of moderation. He could promise to bring Colin Powell back to the State Department. It would be enough to reassure moderate Republicans without scaring off moderate Democrats. Bob Kerrey and Richard Lugar would seem strong contenders for a Bloomberg cabinet, as would John Breaux.

A platform of free trade and lower flatter taxes, while more or less supporting the status quo on abortion and gay issues, would have considerable appeal. With that platform, a handful of high profile mavericks endorsing him and, of course, $500 million, and he could pull it off.

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