NEW YORK – Michael R. Bloomberg’s decision not to seek an independent bid for the White House brings a new measure of clarity to a presidential race that has come sharply into focus in recent weeks, and reflects both Hillary Clinton’s tightening grip on the Democratic contest and the growing alarm among mainstream political and business leaders about Donald J. Trump’s populist insurgency.
Bloomberg, who for months quietly laid the groundwork to run for president as an independent, will not enter the 2016 campaign, he said Monday, citing his fear that a three-way race could lead to the election of a candidate he thinks would endanger the country: Trump.
In a forceful condemnation of his fellow New Yorker, Bloomberg said Trump has run “the most divisive and demagogic presidential campaign I can remember, preying on people’s prejudices and fears.” He said he was alarmed by Trump’s threats to bar Muslim immigrants from entering the country and to initiate trade wars against China and Japan, and he was disturbed by Trump’s “feigning ignorance of white supremacists,” alluding to Trump’s initial refusal to disavow support from David Duke.
“These moves would divide us at home and compromise our moral leadership around the world,” Bloomberg said in a column published Monday on Bloomberg View, his opinion site. “The end result would be to embolden our enemies, threaten the security of our allies, and put our own men and women in uniform at greater risk.”
The decision by Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who served three terms, ends months of intensive preparation for a candidacy. Convinced that a restive electorate was crying out for nonpartisan, technocratic government, he instructed his closest aides to set up the machinery for a long-shot billion-dollar campaign that would have subjected his image to a scorching political test.
They covertly assembled several dozen strategists and staff members, conducted polling in 22 states, drafted a website, produced television ads and set up campaign offices in Texas and North Carolina, where the process of gathering petitions to put Bloomberg’s name on the ballot would have begun in days.
Bloomberg held extensive talks with Michael G. Mullen, the retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about forming an independent ticket. Lawyers for Bloomberg had completed the process of vetting Mullen, and all that remained was for Bloomberg to ask formally that Mullen serve as his running mate.
Torn between his aspiration to serve as president and a mountain of data showing that the path for an independent campaign aimed at the political center was slim and narrowing, Bloomberg, 74, ultimately abandoned what would probably have been his last chance to run for the White House.
Had both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont appeared headed toward victory in the Republican and Democratic presidential primaries, Bloomberg was determined to run, according to his advisers, several of whom insisted on anonymity to speak candidly about confidential discussions.
But Bloomberg balked at the prospect of a race against Trump and Clinton, who has established a dominant lead over Sanders on the Democratic side. In his column, Bloomberg said he could not in good conscience enter a race that could lead to a deadlock in the Electoral College – and to the election of Trump, or perhaps Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Trump is widely seen as a weak general election candidate, and surveys conducted for Bloomberg bolstered that perception. Bloomberg’s veteran pollster, Douglas E. Schoen, gauged his prospects in polls in February and March, testing Bloomberg as a candidate nationally and in 22 crucial states.
At the outset, about two-fifths of the country had no familiarity with Bloomberg, who may be best known nationally for his support of expanded gun control legislation. But Schoen’s February polling found that after voters heard mostly favorable descriptions of Bloomberg, Trump and Sanders, Bloomberg collected 35 percent of the vote and a solid lead in the Electoral College.
In a race against Trump and Clinton, however, Bloomberg faced far tougher odds.
The most favorable result for Bloomberg might have been a stalemate in the Electoral College, with no candidate capable of taking the 270 votes required.
Under those conditions, the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a majority, would choose the president.
By opting not to run, Bloomberg is deactivating a political apparatus far more extensive than the one he assembled the last time he seriously weighed a run for president, in 2008. In private conversations, Bloomberg appeared far more enthusiastic about running now, and he laid out his ambitions in conversations with leaders including Vice President Biden. Aides planned an elaborate campaign to introduce him to the electorate, and consulted with Milton Glaser, the architect of the “I Love New York” campaign, and Swedish industrial designer Thomas Meyerhoffer to work on logos.
His messaging would have stressed Bloomberg’s identity as a self-made man and a problem solver not beholden to either party.
For Bloomberg, the decision drops the curtain on a long-held dream.
In announcing it, Bloomberg said he expected to serve in other ways.
“For most Americans, citizenship requires little more than paying taxes,” he wrote. “But many have given their lives to defend our nation – and all of us have an obligation as voters to stand up on behalf of ideas and principles that, as Lincoln said, represent ‘the last best hope of Earth.’
“I hope and pray I’m doing that,” he wrote.