New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s surprise endorsement of President Obama is the latest warm hug that the president has gotten from some famously independent Republican types in the closing days of the 2012 campaign, and it couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time for him.
Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney are in feverish competition for independent-minded voters, who surged toward Romney in several national polls during October. Though once a Republican (he endorsed George W. Bush in 2004), the independent Bloomberg’s policies and politics cut across party lines, and he has been a leading voice of nonaligned voters in his three terms as mayor of the nation’s financial and media capital.
Republican partisans have been citing Romney’s strength among unaffiliated voters in bullish stories about their candidate’s prospects in recent days. “The problem for the president is Romney’s strong and sustained lead among independent voters,” Jay Cost wrote in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard. “Despite four years of boasting from the Democrats that they were in the process of transforming the electorate, the fact remains that voters unaffiliated with either party determine the outcome of national elections.”
Jim Geraghty at National Review Online dug up some wisdom from one of this year's most quoted polling analysts, Nate Silver of The New York Times. “It’s independents who swing the vote, since they represent the overwhelming majority of the votes which are up for grabs,” Silver wrote in 2009. Geraghty then listed Romney’s big leads among independents in recent NPR, CBS/New York Times, Pew Research, and Fox News polls.
But there are signs that Obama has bounced back a bit, giving Democratic strategists cause for relief in battlegrounds like Colorado, where the independent vote can be determinant. In a CNN poll released on Thursday, the president was clinging to a 49 to 47 percent lead among independents in the state, where nine electoral votes are up for grabs.
Now comes Bloomberg -- close on the heels of former GOP Secretary of State Colin Powell and New Jersey’s notoriously gruff GOP Gov. Chris Christie -- with a bouquet for the Democratic president and a cuff for the Republican standard-bearer.
“In the past,” said Bloomberg, Romney has “taken sensible positions on immigration, illegal guns, abortion rights, and health care. But he has reversed course on all of them.”
As a sign of the import of this subset of voters, the Obama and Romney campaigns each made targeted appeals to independents on Thursday, claiming that their guy will be best at assembling bipartisan coalitions and getting things done in the years ahead.
In Virginia, Romney promised “to meet regularly with Democrat leaders and Republican leaders” if he is elected “because we’re going to have to work together.” In Iowa, Vice President Joe Biden hailed the salutary side effect of “this God-awful storm,” Hurricane Sandy, which demonstrated that Democrats and Republicans can still rally together in times of national peril. “It didn’t matter what the politics were in a moment of crisis,” said Biden.
Indeed, Bloomberg cited Obama’s work during the hurricane, and the “major steps” taken by the president to combat global warming and its effect on violent weather, in his unexpected endorsement. It came just days after the mayor declared that he would probably not declare a preference.
It’s difficult to say how much Bloomberg’s blessing will matter. The Northeast, of course, is already reliably Democratic. And in many rural areas of the country, the mayor is best known -- and not too fondly, either -- as the nation’s leading elected proponent of gun control, and as the man who’s waged war on Big Gulp sodas, cigarettes, and fattening food.
But for third-party types, environmentalists, Jewish voters in Florida, and undecided independents in the suburbs of states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the Bloomberg brand may shore up Obama’s support. At the very least, the mayor’s endorsement sent a message to business, and to business-minded voters worried about the economy, that at least this one pragmatic billionaire has confidence in Obama and harbors doubts about Romney’s character and capability.
The endorsement said something, as well, about Bloomberg. It is the second big step on the national stage the mayor has taken in the waning days of the 2012 election. Last month, he announced that his new super PAC, the “Independence USA PAC,” will spend up to $15 million on behalf of candidates who have the guts to support gun control, gay rights, education reform, and other tough issues.
“I like to take on those things that other people either are unwilling to take on for political reasons, or unwilling to take on because it’s just too complex, or they just don’t care,” Bloomberg told James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, in an interview in its latest issue.
“Leadership is about doing what you think is right, and then building a constituency behind it,” Bloomberg said. “It is not doing a poll and following from the back.”
Romney was “actually a pretty good governor of Massachusetts,” Bloomberg told Bennet, but “he walked away from everything he did.”