© Matt Kenyon
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Every now and then a stopped clock is right. Speculation about a presidential bid by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, is a quadrennial affair. It never happens because Mr Bloomberg can do the maths.

Third party candidates do not win in America — they usually come away with nothing. But 2016 is different. The political laws of gravity are in suspension. If there was ever a moment for a New York billionaire to roll the dice, now would be it. The question is what would happen if he did.

According to those around him, the prospect is not academic. “People here are talking about nothing else,” says a friend who works at Bloomberg’s news operation. The three-times mayor of New York has commissioned polls to look at how he would fare in a three-way race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Should Bernie Sanders be the Democratic nominee, Mr Bloomberg’s temptation would grow. Who then would speak for voters who believe in free trade, internationalism and global alliances? Not Mr Trump, for sure. Or Mr Sanders. Enter Mayor Bloomberg.

His basis for running would be twofold. First, Republicans are running scared. Having loudly dismissed the chances of a Trump nomination, the party’s elders are dividing between those who could live with it and those who believe it would usher in the biblical end of days. The first group includes Bob Dole, the 92-year-old former nominee, who believes Mr Trump is the only candidate who can stop Ted Cruz, the Texan ideologue.

Mr Cruz is pretty much loathed by anyone who has ever worked with him and plenty who have not. It is part of his grass roots appeal. He is beloved by Iowa’s evangelical voters. If he wins in Iowa on February 1, he could capture the momentum. The following six weeks is dominated by Bible Belt primaries. Unlike Mr Trump, who can reinvent himself at the drop of a hat, Mr Cruz is a committed hardliner.

The second group warns that Mr Trump is the party’s worst nightmare. It would take years to recover from the crushing defeat, and humiliation, of a Trump nomination. Unfortunately, grass-roots Republican voters do not appear to be listening. A roll call of conservatives last week put their names to an “Against Trump” editorial in the National Review, a home of conservative intellectualism. The piece described Mr Trump as a “philosophically unmoored opportunist” with the politics of “an averagely informed businessman”. Moreover, he would “trash the [Republicans’] broad ideological consensus in favour of free-floating populism with strong-man overtones”. Was that the best they could do? The problem is that voters are partial these days to free-floating strong men. As an example of intellectuals misreading the tone of revolting peasants, the National Review could hardly be improved upon.

If Republicans cannot stop Mr Trump, can Mr Bloomberg? It is easy to see why he would think so. The media titan rubs shoulders with Manhattan’s great and the good, few of whom would enter into a property deal with Mr Trump. Unlike voters, they personally know that a Donald Trump presidency would rip to shreds everything they hold dear. This includes free trade.

Mr Trump has vowed to slap punitive sanctions on China and Mexico, which are America’s two largest trading partners. It also includes the Pax Americana. As Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institution scholar, has shown, Mr Trump has consistently argued that US allies such as Japan, South Korea and Germany should pay America for its protection. There is nothing new in his nationalism. In 1987 he took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to make that point. “We’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing,” Mr Trump told Playboy magazine in 1990.

Mr Bloomberg can easily afford the gamble. With a net worth of $38bn, he is the wealthiest man in New York; his fortune is many times Mr Trump’s. Unlike Mr Trump, Mr Bloomberg is self-made.

He is also a world-class entrepreneur. The Bloomberg terminal was a huge innovation that still dominates the finance industry more than 30 years on. Contrast that with Mr Trump’s luxury golf courses and reality TV shows. It is easy to see why Mr Bloomberg believes he can take on his Upper East Side neighbour. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mr Bloomberg also has a sense of humour. “I’m a single, straight billionaire in Manhattan,” Mr Bloomberg used to say. “I’m a wet dream.”

However, there would be one major snag: an independent Mr Bloomberg would have almost no chance of winning the White House. Moreover, he is a strong supporter of gun control, gay marriage, fighting global warming and cutting people’s sugar consumption — all positions that would rile Mr Trump’s base support. He would almost certainly take more votes from Mrs Clinton than from Mr Trump.

A Bloomberg candidacy could split the vote just enough to give Mr Trump the White House. Imagine that. As Mr Bloomberg weighs his chances, he should recall the words of Adlai Stevenson, the 1950s Democratic leader. On being told that he would have the support of “every thinking man in America,” Mr Stevenson replied: “Yes, but I need a majority.”

edward.luce@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Hayek’s objections to conservatism still apply / From Leonard S Hyman

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