Just when it seemed as if the presidential race couldn't get any stranger, billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg revealed that he may run for the White House as an independent if the two major parties nominate their least mainstream candidates. Having more choices on the ballot is usually a good thing, and if the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, a Bloomberg candidacy would at least give voters a wider selection of billionaires from whom to choose. Yet at the same time, it's unnerving to think that the major parties could conceivably choose nominees so far outside the mainstream that the public might actually welcome the idea of an extraordinarily wealthy man trying to buy his way into the White House, instead of shuddering at it.
At this point in the race, it's far too late for a new candidate to enter the party primaries — the filing deadlines for nominating petitions have already passed in about half the states. The deadlines for an independent candidate are still months away, but the obstacles facing a third-party candidate are enormous. It would take a nearly bottomless bank account — like Bloomberg's — to pay for the requisite army of signature gatherers in all 50 states, as well as the army of lawyers to fend off the inevitable legal challenges.
Another issue is the potential for the major parties to obstruct a third-party bid. For example, the person interpreting and applying ballot-access rules in most states is an elected official, typically a Republican or a Democrat. And the process of judging signatures is subjective to a degree; that's why there are so many lawsuits over the issue.
The difficulties in mounting a run for the White House may help weed out candidates who are well-known but not serious. But the process should be fair and insulated from the major parties, which have a parochial interest in limiting third-party challengers. Although Bloomberg has the resources to fight such obstructions in court, candidates shouldn't have to face such obstacles in the first place.
The irony here is that third-party candidates used to be the ones railing against corruption and incompetence in the political establishment. Now that message is being delivered by some of the leaders in the Republican and Democratic races, including Trump, cage-rattling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). If Sanders and Trump or Cruz are the nominees, it will leave a huge gap in the political center for someone to fill — a role that Bloomberg, who's conservative on fiscal issues but liberal on social ones — thinks he can swoop in and play. After all, that's how he entered politics in the first place, using his well-endowed checkbook to take over New York's City Hall. By moving further away from the center, the major parties are inviting the billionaire to do it again.