The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that in a three-way general election matchup, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., would pull 42 percent of the vote, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani would get 34 percent, and Bloomberg would attract 11 percent. The survey, taken July 27-30 by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Neil Newhouse, two of the best pollsters in the business, shows Clinton getting 76 percent of the Democratic vote, Giuliani 73 percent of the GOP vote, and Bloomberg 16 percent of the independent vote.
But what is the potential for an independent presidential candidate? When half of 1,005 adults surveyed were asked, "Would you strongly favor, mildly favor, feel neutral, mildly oppose, or strongly oppose building a new independent political party to run a credible candidate for president?" 31 percent said they would strongly favor and 22 percent said mildly favor -- meaning 53 percent seem at least open to the idea. Of the remaining respondents, 16 percent were neutral, 12 percent were mildly opposed, and 14 percent were strongly opposed.
Interestingly, 58 percent of men said they would favor the idea, contrasted with 50 percent of women; 57 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds and 60 percent of those ages 35 to 49 supported the idea as well.
On another question to half the sample, respondents were given four choices: 30 percent said they would "consider voting for an independent candidate regardless of who the nominees for the two major parties were," while 22 percent said they would "consider voting for an independent candidate if I did not like my own party's nominee."
Together, those groups constitute a slight majority of 52 percent. Thirty-four percent indicated they would consider voting for an independent only if they did not like either major party's nominee, and 11 percent said they would never consider voting for an independent.
Certain to cause some head-scratching is that while 45 percent of Democrats responded favorably to the idea of building a new independent party, 55 percent of Republicans did. This could simply reflect that Republicans are more disillusioned with their party these days. Not too many years ago, those numbers would likely have been reversed.
To win a majority in the Electoral College, an independent candidate would probably need 37 or 38 percent of the popular vote -- maybe as much as 39 or 40 percent. At that point in a hotly contested three-way race, candidates would probably start winning a lot of states by narrow margins.
Winning a smaller plurality of the popular vote would simply throw the election into the House, where each state's delegation would have a single vote. Today, the math indicates that Democrats would prevail by one vote, but, of course, the number of delegations controlled by each party could shift in the upcoming election.
Obviously, trying to win the presidency is an even more formidable exercise for an independent than for a major party nominee. An independent might start with the support of about 11 percent of the electorate. Combining that with the $1 billion that Bloomberg could pump into his own campaign, it might not be implausible for his support levels to hit the mid-to-high 20s, perhaps even attracting the 30 percent or so who seem particularly open to an independent candidacy.
But for Bloomberg to get from, say, 30 percent to the high 30s, the level probably needed to win the necessary 270 electoral votes, the public would have to be repulsed by both major parties' nominees because they had been so badly damaged.
That's possible, given that the Swift Boaters were the first of their particular genre but aren't likely to be the last. A good guess is that there will be "independent" groups on the left and right intent on carving up the other side's nominee and showing little regard for restraint, good taste, or fairness. And that's a recipe for creating a disgruntled electorate willing to wish a pox on both major parties' houses.