Starbucks Coffee magnate Howard Schultz’s revelation this week that he is considering a run for the U.S. presidency as an independent candidate added an unexpected twist to the nascent 2020 campaign.
A billionaire, with the ability and apparent willingness to self-finance a national campaign, Schultz could have a profound impact on the presidential contest, even if his actual chances of victory would likely be slim.
Schultz’s tentative entry into the race sparked a variety of reactions across the country. His announcement piqued the interest of those who long for an alternative to the two-party system. It also earned the immediate derision of many political veterans, who see him as a wealthy dilettante. Most notably, it provoked outright fear among many Democrats, who worry that his bid could siphon votes away from their party’s eventual nominee, giving President Donald Trump a better shot at re-election, despite his sharp decline in the polls.
Originally from Brooklyn, Schultz, 65, made his billions on the West Coast, turning a small Seattle coffee company into a ubiquitous chain with more than 28,000 outlets worldwide. Along the way, he became a reliable donor to the Democratic Party, calling himself a “lifelong Democrat.”
That, however, has changed.
In a flurry of TV appearances over the past week, Schultz has explicitly broken with both major political parties, insisting that the majority of Americans are not being well-served by “far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats.”
Staking out a middle ground
While Schultz has not yet laid out detailed policy proposals, he appears to be staking out a middle-ground position, agreeing with Republicans on some economic and fiscal issues, but with Democrats on many social issues.
He has angrily denounced proposals from high-profile Democrats to expand Medicare to cover all Americans, and to increase taxes on the wealthy by raising marginal rates on the highest earners, or taxing wealth in addition to income.
In an appearance on CNN, he dismissed the Medicare idea as “not American.” In an interview with National Public Radio, he called Democratic tax plans “ridiculous.”
On many of the issues that have fueled the country’s ongoing culture war, though, Schultz is firmly on the side of his former party. He remains in favor of abortion rights and gay marriage, and has spoken in support of tighter regulation of firearms. He also favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and aggressive action to counter climate change.
Schultz’s pitch is that his mix of policy positions will appeal to what he has repeatedly referred to as a “silent majority” of independent voters who are dissatisfied with both major parties and want an independent candidate to support.
But that assessment of the American electorate isn’t shared by political scientists. While some 40 percent of voters do self-identify as independents, study after study has shown that the overwhelming majority of them actually have a strong preference for one party or the other.
Schultz looms as a ‘spoiler’
To think otherwise is “just incredibly naive,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It shows a very unsophisticated understanding of the American electorate.” He added, “There is a spoiler potential with someone like Schultz. But a path to victory? It’s just difficult for me to imagine.”
Indeed, commentators and partisans on both sides have focused less on Schultz as a potential president and more as a disruptive force in what will almost certainly be a highly contentious election.
“His presence in the race adds a degree of uncertainty,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
“He stands very little chance of winning the 2020 election, but he stands a decent chance of affecting the outcome,” Masket added. “If it’s going to be a close re-election race, and I assume it is, his votes could be the difference between a Trump re-election and a defeat.”
For his part, Schultz said he has no intention of aiding the incumbent president.
“I would never put myself in the position of being the person to re-elect Donald Trump,” Schultz told CNN Wednesday. Yet, he strongly signaled that if the Democrats turn toward a far-left candidate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the temptation to launch an independent campaign would be irresistible.
Long list of failed political outsiders
Should he make the decision to fully commit to a presidential run, Schultz would join a long list of outsiders who have sought to disrupt the two-party system that has dominated post-Civil War U.S. politics.
Those candidates have come from across the political and social strata of the country, but in living memory, they have all had one thing in common: abject electoral failure.
It has been more than 50 years since a candidate not representing one of the two major parties in the U.S. won even a single electoral vote in a presidential election.
In 1968, George Wallace and the American Independent Party, running on a segregationist platform, managed to collect 46 of them. (The Libertarian Party candidate received one electoral vote in 1972, but he did not actually win it. It was awarded to him by a “faithless” elector, who was supposed to cast his vote for Republican candidate Richard Nixon.)
The most successful independent candidate since Wallace was, like Schultz, another self-funded billionaire. Texas businessman H. Ross Perot earned about 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, though again, that wasn’t enough to earn him a single electoral vote.
But it is important not to confuse a lack of electoral success with a lack of overall impact, and that’s why Schultz’s potential candidacy is making some people nervous.
The Perot effect
Perot’s effect on the 1992 presidential race remains a source of controversy today.
There is little doubt that his intense focus on the federal budget deficit forced his opponents, incumbent President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, to pay more attention to the issue than either would have liked. A larger question is whether Perot helped Clinton win the presidency by pulling votes away from Bush.
Political scientists, by and large, believe Clinton would have won in a two-candidate contest. But there are members of the GOP who still blame Perot for making the elder Bush a single-term president.
Better examples of third-party candidates as spoilers arose in both 2000 and 2016.
The election of 2000 came down to the state of Florida, where Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore were within 0.01 percent of each other when the votes were counted.
In that race, charismatic consumer activist Ralph Nader ran as the candidate of the Green Party. He earned 2.74 percent of the vote nationwide, and crucially, 1.63 percent in Florida.
In a different race, it would have been insignificant. But many believe that the Green Party drew its voters almost exclusively from the political left, with a fatal effect on Gore’s candidacy in the state.
More recently, Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2016 may have damaged the chances of Democrat Hillary Clinton in key races in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
In all three states, Clinton lost to Republican Trump by fewer votes than Stein received. While it is impossible to know how —or even if — all of Stein’s supporters would have voted if she hadn’t been on the ballot, there is broad consensus that she hurt Clinton far more than Trump.
It’s the potential for a Schultz candidacy to serve as a spoiler that has Democrats, in particular, sweating over his announcement.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is considering a run for the Democratic nomination, said he had researched the possibility of an independent run and believes that it would only benefit Trump.
“In 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the president,” he said in a statement. “The data was very clear and consistent. Given the strong pull of partisanship and the realities of the Electoral College system, there is no way an independent can win. That is truer today than ever before.”
But not everyone is convinced that a Schultz candidacy would be uniquely damaging to a Democratic candidate.
“I think the most natural constituency for someone like Schultz would be affluent, white, college-educated voters in the suburbs, some of whom may be transitioning away from the Republican Party,” Kondik said. “Maybe they grudgingly voted for Clinton in 2016. Maybe they grudgingly voted for Trump. Maybe they voted for another third-party candidate, and maybe some of those voters would be open to voting for someone like Schultz.”
Schultz, he said, could actually damage Trump as much or more as he might a Democratic candidate.