Galled by Donald J. Trump’s dominance of the Republican field, and troubled by Hillary Clinton’s stumbles and the rise of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont on the Democratic side, Michael R. Bloomberg has instructed advisers to draw up plans for an independent campaign in this year’s presidential race.
Mr. Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has in the past contemplated running for the White House on a third-party ticket, but always concluded he could not win. A confluence of unlikely events in the 2016 election, however, has given new impetus to his presidential aspirations.
Mr. Bloomberg, 73, has already taken concrete steps toward a possible campaign, and has indicated to friends and allies that he would be willing to spend at least $1 billion of his fortune on it, according to people briefed on his deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss his plans. He has set a deadline for making a final decision in early March, the latest point at which advisers believe Mr. Bloomberg could enter the race and still qualify to appear as an independent candidate on the ballot in all 50 states.
He has retained a consultant to help him explore getting his name on those ballots, and his aides have done a detailed study of past third-party bids. Mr. Bloomberg commissioned a poll in December to see how he might fare against Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, and he intends to conduct another round of polling after the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 to gauge whether there is indeed an opening for him, according to two people familiar with his intentions.
Mr. Bloomberg’s aides have sketched out one version of a campaign plan that would have the former mayor, a low-key and cerebral personality, deliver a series of detailed policy speeches, backed by an intense television advertising campaign that would introduce him to voters around the country as a technocratic problem-solver and self-made businessman who understands the economy and who built a bipartisan administration in New York.
Mr. Bloomberg would face daunting and perhaps insurmountable obstacles in a presidential campaign: No independent candidate has ever been elected to the White House, and Mr. Bloomberg’s close Wall Street ties and liberal social views, including his strong support for abortion rights and gun control, could repel voters on the left and right.
But his possible candidacy also underscores the volatility of a presidential race that could be thrown into further turmoil by a wild-card candidate like Mr. Bloomberg.
If Republicans were to nominate Mr. Trump or Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a hard-line conservative, and Democrats were to pick Mr. Sanders, Mr. Bloomberg — who changed his party affiliation to independent in 2007 — has told allies he would be likely to run.
Edward G. Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a past Democratic National Committee chairman, said he believed Mr. Bloomberg could compete in the race if activist candidates on the left and right prevailed in the party primaries.
“Mike Bloomberg for president rests on the not-impossible but somewhat unlikely circumstance of either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz versus Bernie Sanders,” said Mr. Rendell, a close ally of Mrs. Clinton’s who is also a friend of Mr. Bloomberg’s. “If Hillary wins the nomination, Hillary is mainstream enough that Mike would have no chance, and Mike’s not going to go on a suicide mission.”
In a three-way race featuring Mr. Sanders and Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Rendell said he might back the moderate former New York mayor.
“As a lifelong Democrat, as a former party chairman, it would be very hard for me to do that,” he said. “But I would certainly take a look at it — absolutely.”
Mr. Bloomberg declined to comment on his interest in the 2016 race, and most of his associates would speak only on the condition that they not be named. Mr. Bloomberg is irked by the perception that he has toyed too often with running for national office, according to several associates, and is said to be wary of another public flirtation.
At the same time, these associates said, he has grown more frustrated with what he sees a race gone haywire. A longtime critic of partisan primary elections, Mr. Bloomberg has lamented what he considers Mrs. Clinton’s lurch to the left in her contest against Mr. Sanders, especially her criticism of charter schools and other education reforms that he pushed as mayor and has continued to support since leaving office.
At a dinner party late last fall at the home of Roger C. Altman, an investment banker and former deputy Treasury secretary, Mr. Bloomberg delivered a piquant assessment of Mrs. Clinton as a presidential candidate.
The outcome of that investigation, Mr. Bloomberg said, was anyone’s guess.
Setting a March deadline for making a decision allows Mr. Bloomberg to see how Mrs. Clinton and the more mainstream Republican candidates fare in the early primaries. And because of his vast wealth, there is no downside in laying the groundwork for a possible campaign, even if he ultimately decides against it.
Even a victory by Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic primaries might not preclude a bid by Mr. Bloomberg, his associates said, if he believed she had been gravely weakened by the contest.
Mr. Bloomberg has maintained a constructive relationship with the Clintons over the years, working closely with Mrs. Clinton during her tenure in the Senate and at one point even suggesting that she run to succeed him as mayor.
One adviser said that Mr. Bloomberg’s preparations reflected the unsettled state of the race, and the perception that Mrs. Clinton was flagging against Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Bloomberg, this adviser said, believes voters want “a nonideological, bipartisan, results-oriented vision” that the early primary favorites have not presented.
“This isn’t about Hillary Clinton,” the adviser said in an email. “The fact is Hillary Clinton is behind in Iowa and New Hampshire. That should scare a lot of people — and it does.” (Public polls have shown Mr. Sanders leading in New Hampshire, a close race in Iowa and Mrs. Clinton with a solid lead nationally.)
Since the 2012 election, Mr. Bloomberg has repeatedly mused at private events about Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign as a cautionary tale for candidates from the business world. Mr. Romney assembled an impressive record as a private equity investor before serving as governor of Massachusetts; the Obama campaign branded him as a heartless corporate raider.
Social acquaintances and political and business leaders said they had been surprised to find their encouraging remarks about a possible 2016 campaign answered with intense seriousness by Mr. Bloomberg, who has stressed that he would run if he saw a path to victory.
Mr. Bloomberg’s brain trust has examined previous third-party efforts dating to Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, giving closest attention to the campaigns of John Anderson in 1980 and H. Ross Perot in 1992.
It is unclear whether Mr. Bloomberg would be more likely to draw support from a Democrat, like Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton, or a conservative Republican.
While Mr. Bloomberg supports many of the Democratic Party’s social policies, he has been a fierce defender of the financial services industry, which is unpopular with many liberals, and put into practice aggressive policing policies in New York City that are anathema to left-leaning voters.
And when he first ran for mayor in 2001, he did so as a Republican. But he has also poured energy and money into advocating policies that conservative Republicans detest, most notably gun control and immigration reform.
Mr. Bloomberg has seen the Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric on immigration as especially distasteful. But in an interview with ABC News that aired last weekend, Mr. Trump said he would welcome a presidential campaign by Mr. Bloomberg, whom he called “a friend” and “a great guy.”
Mr. Bloomberg, he predicted, would “take a lot of votes away from Hillary.”
Alan Patricof, a financier and longtime donor to the Clintons who is also friendly with Mr. Bloomberg, said it would be “a terrible thing” for the Democratic Party’s prospects of winning the White House if the former mayor ran as an independent.
“If it was President Trump or President Bloomberg, I’d certainly rather have President Bloomberg,” Mr. Patricof said. “But it certainly can’t help the Democrats.”
Some Republicans are less certain of the effect Mr. Bloomberg would have on the race. In swing states like Ohio and Virginia, suburban moderates who recoil from certain liberal policies might be more likely to support Mr. Bloomberg than a candidate like Mr. Trump or Mr. Cruz.
Representative Daniel M. Donovan Jr., a New York Republican who is a friend and golfing partner of Mr. Bloomberg’s, said that many voters “who aren’t totally satisfied with any of the people who are running right now, would welcome a Mike Bloomberg candidacy.”
Mr. Donovan said he could consider supporting Mr. Bloomberg, depending on how the rest of the race develops.
“He governed more in pragmatic ways than in ideals,” Mr. Donovan said, adding, “That may be different from some of the folks, like Senator Cruz, who are apparently doing well among primary voters.”
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