Schultz Flirts With An Independent Bid

[ Posted Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 – 17:17 UTC ]

We're barely through the first month of 2019 and the 2020 presidential race is already heating up. The biggest news this week came from the flirtation of former Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Schultz with an independent run. This has caused much consternation on the left, because most Democrats see a Schultz independent bid as nothing short of a spoiler effort which may put Donald Trump back in the White House for another four years. Personally, I'm not so sure the electoral equation would be that simple, though.

Schultz, apparently not knowing the history of the term, says he is counting on a "silent majority" to propel him to victory. As with Roger Stone's recent "V-for-victory" pose in front of a courthouse, one has to wonder whether Richard Nixon is really the best person to be borrowing political imagery from these days (or "ever," for that matter). Schultz is reasoning that there are so many independent voters out there that they'll all flock to him and he'll split the two major parties down the middle. This is quite likely a fantasy, of course, since the Electoral College is what determines presidential elections, not the outcome of the popular vote.

Before we get to the viability of an independent Schultz campaign, there are two big reasons why any third-party bid is such an incredible longshot. The first is the history of such bids, and the second concerns the constitutional mechanics of presidential elections.

In modern history, third-party candidates are indeed often mere spoilers. The example of this that still enrages some Democrats is Ralph Nader, who may have peeled off just enough votes in key states like Florida for George W. Bush to become president (although there was a Supreme Court case in there as well, to be fair). But there's another example worth considering as well -- the most successful billionaire independent candidate of our lifetimes, H. Ross Perot. Perot got close to 20 percent of the popular vote, which is a pretty astounding feat. He guaranteed -- twice -- that the winner of the presidential race did not win a clear majority of the popular vote (Bill Clinton's two elections left him with less than 50 percent, which raised questions about the relative size of his mandate). Perot was more than just a spoiler, and the size of his vote totals mean that he went beyond merely peeling off a few votes from one or the other of the main party candidates.

The second thing to consider is the strange mechanics of what would happen if no candidate won the Electoral College by a simple majority. If there is no clear winner in the Electoral College, then the president is determined by the House of Representatives. But the process is not as simple as "the House gets together and votes on who will become president." In the first place, it will be the incoming House, not the outgoing House who will decide. This means the results of the 2020 House races will be very important. But it's even more complicated, because in the House each state gets only one vote. Each state's caucuses get together and hold internal votes and then using these results, cast their single vote for president. So a simple count of who is in the majority in the House is not determinative. You have to count up the number of states with majorities of each party, and then factor in states where there might be a tie vote as well. Currently, even though Democrats hold the House, if they had to vote for president, the Republican candidate would likely win, because the GOP holds more states' delegations than Democrats do. Remember -- California gets exactly the same single vote as Wyoming or North Dakota. So the process is a lot trickier than it may first seem.

Getting back to Schultz, the biggest thing worth pointing out is that even though Perot did get one-fifth of all the votes cast, he got precisely zero Electoral College votes. He didn't win a single state outright, to put this another way. So all his support was no more than a footnote when the Electoral College got together to determine the presidency.

Even if Schultz spent a goodly portion of his own billions on a run, and even if he managed to get his name on all 50 ballots (a daunting task for any third-party candidate), and even if he did get a whole bunch of votes, the question to ask him is which states he truly thought he could win. Because getting 20 or 30 percent of the vote is meaningless without also chalking up clear victories in a number of states. This is the question that cuts directly towards whether a presidential run would be any more than a vanity project for Schultz. What is his path to victory? Where would his silent majority actually deliver him a majority of the ballots?

Schultz seems to be falling into what might be called the "third way trap." This is the belief that there are a whole lot of people downright disgusted with the two major parties who want to see a return to civility and compromise, and will therefore back an outsider who is not a member of either party. What this viewpoint misses, however, is that people rarely want to vote for mushy stances on just about anything. "Republicans want to do X, and Democrats want to do Y, and I consider both extreme, so we'll just tinker around the edges and not change much of anything" is not exactly a rallying cry many will get behind. So far, hearing Schultz speak, he's quick to denounce both parties' agendas, but has not come up with much of an agenda of his own. He'll tell you what is wrong with both the lefty and the righty approaches, but he offers nothing more than vague platitudes about what he would do instead.

Schultz also assumes that after the disaster of electing a billionaire with no experience in governing, the country will want to try the same experiment again, just with a different billionaire. This is a dubious proposition at best.

The big guessing game surrounding a Schultz bid, of course, is: "Which side would he draw votes from?" He's been a Democrat all his life, but he is firmly in the Clintonian/Democratic Leadership Council faction of the party. Their political theory can be summed up as: "Let's be nice to Wall Street and all of the other problems can be dealt with one way or another -- just as long as we don't dare consider raising taxes on the rich or big corporations." This isn't exactly where the Democratic electorate is right now, which is probably why Schultz isn't considering running for the Democratic nomination. He knows it would be a tough fight for him, and that he'd likely lose in the end.

So who would vote for corporate centrism these days? Would disaffected Republicans sick of the Trump drama decide that Schultz would keep their taxes low? Would Democrats fearful of going too far left decide to back Schultz instead? These remain open questions, and they're the questions that are scaring Democrats right now.

I think it is far too early to tell, personally. A lot can happen in two years, after all. Will Trump even still be president? Will he be the Republican nominee? These aren't normal questions to ask of a sitting president, but they are both also still open questions for Donald Trump. Even assuming Trump will lead the GOP ticket, where will the economy be next November? Will we have started a new war in the meantime? Nobody knows what the big issue that will determine our next president will turn out to be, in other words. Two years is an eternity in presidential politics.

As for the Democratic side, a lot will hinge on who the eventual nominee is. There's going to be a primary race for the ages, so it's impossible to say at this point who will emerge victorious from the fray. Will it be a fire-breathing progressive? Will it be a compromise candidate? Will the candidate be a woman, or a minority? That last question is important, because it could be a big factor in how many votes Schultz could siphon off from the Democratic base.

Last time around, there were many Democrats who just couldn't bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. Some voted for Bernie in the primaries and then held their nose and voted for Clinton in the general election, but some could not bring themselves to do so. There were various reasons for this, and even now it is impossible to definitively say how many voters didn't vote for Clinton for which particular reasons. Some voted against her because of all of her baggage (political and personal). Some just didn't like her, period. And a goodly amount were just flat-out sexist -- they wouldn't vote for a woman for president. Now, if Kamala Harris or Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren wins the 2020 Democratic nomination, a lot of the people who were purely anti-Hillary might return to the Democratic fold. But those who were anti-woman would assumably not -- they'd vote against Harris or Klobuchar or Warren for the same misogynistic reason they voted against Clinton. So it's tough to even predict what influence a Schultz independent run would have without knowing which Democrat he'd be up against.

It's also impossible to gauge who would cross over to vote for Schultz without knowing where Donald Trump will be in a year or so. What will his job approval rating be at that point? What will be the biggest issue in front of Congress at the time? Will Trump have shut down the government again, or even defaulted on our debt limit? Will we be in a recession? These are all monumental questions, but at this point they are unanswerable. To get to the core of the matter, how many Republican voters will be so disgusted with Trump that they would consider voting for Schultz?

Things could really go either way. Schultz may wind up being a spoiler that actually helps the Democratic nominee. Like H. Ross Perot, he may peel off a lot of disaffected Republicans who are not happy with their current president, and leave the path open for the Democrat to win. Or all the Democrats shaking in their boots right now could wind up being right, and Schultz could peel off enough Democratic voters to return Trump to the White House for another disastrous term. But neither one is guaranteed in any way. Schultz has every right to run, after all, and he has every right to fight for every voter he can convince. A strong (meaning well-funded) third-party bid would make what is already shaping up to be a barnburner of a race even more chaotic, but at this point it's impossible to say what that would mean for the ultimate outcome of such a race.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


10 Comments on “Schultz Flirts With An Independent Bid”

  1. [1] 
    Paula wrote:

    Things could really go either way. Schultz may wind up being a spoiler that actually helps the Democratic nominee.

    That's the first thing I thought and I don't get why so many are assuming he'd hurt Dems and help DT.

    Dems are not interested (I don't think) either in helping DT OR in electing billionaire 3rd Party vanity candidates. Dems are fired up about the Dem field.

    If anything, I think he'd peel off some of the never-trumpers and disenchanted Trumpers. I can't see him snagging disappointed Berniers when Bernie doesn't become the Dem nominee as Schultz is actually the epitome of the corporatist hack. Berniers who won't vote for anyone but Bernie will go Green or write-in BS or stay home before they'd vote for someone like Schultz.

    Men who voted for Obama but can't swallow voting for a woman went with DT last time and either won't come back or will. Those who won't are Repubs and we don't need them.

    The "elite" (i.e. rich) pundit class will give Schultz more attention than he justifies because THEY may not like talk of higher taxes on the top-end so he may have a longer shelf-life than he should. But maybe not. He's been panned pretty hard from many corners. The Dem party worked hard - with the assistance of the Resistance - to awaken people to the political process and it paid off in the midterms. We made history electing all kinds of "firsts" all over the country. A tone-deaf super rich white guy trying to sell centrism and dissing Universal Coverage/Medicare for All will have, I suspect, limited appeal.

  2. [2] 
    neilm wrote:

    I'm with Paula - Schultz is as likely to attract three groups:

    1. Some Clinton Democrats who are put off by a leftward swing in the Democratic Party (note: I'm a Clinton Democrat, and I have no intention of voting for Schultz).

    2. Some disgusted voters who wouldn't have voted for any candidate anyway.

    3. Some Republicans who just can't vote for Trump.

    If I had to guess, I'd go:

    1. 25%
    2. 50%
    3. 25%

    Thus, in my mind at any rate, this is a silly candidate.

  3. [3] 
    chaszzzbrown wrote:

    I think there's a category of Democrat voter who truly longs for the Republicans of their youth. They Liked Ike; and yet there's no Republican who really fills that bill today, nor has there been for a couple of decades.

    My Mom (Silent Generation age), who first voted D in 2008 for Obama and who loathes Trump with a passion, would probably have voted for Bloomberg in 2016 if he had run as a 3rd party candidate.

    Schultz strikes me as having a similar sort of appeal. That being said, unlike in 2016 when Clinton was "obviously a shoo-in", there's no danger my Mom would vote anything but D in 2020.

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    schultz sees nothing.

  5. [5] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    There's a rumor going around that there are more than a dozen Democratics who are NOT running for president in 2020!! I don't believe it myself.

  6. [6] 
    Kick wrote:


    schultz sees nothing.

    The dummkopf knows nothing too, particularly if he actually believes a billionaire running as an Independent can win the Electoral College in 2020. California and New York are pretty much a lock for the Democratic candidate, so what big state does he think he's going to flip... Texas?! *laughs*

  7. [7] 
    Paula wrote:

    [5] Joshua: good one!

  8. [8] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    You see? Nobody learned 'nutin from the 2016 election. This guy's one of two billionaires wanting this race. It's insane. There's gonna be 100 candidates on the Dem side. At least - we're not into February yet.

  9. [9] 
    Kick wrote:


    I've never been into February- it's too fucking cold.

    The "Small Month" that never contributes more than 29 days to a year, with generally the lowest temperatures that was literally named for purity and purification, and you're not into it?! *laughs*

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    The mainstream media - generally speaking, of course - did more than their fair share to elect President Trump and likely, will do its best in the same regard come the 2020 campaign. In fact, they've already started.

    Schultz says 'medicare for all' is un-American. Bloomberg says it will bankrupt America, for a long time.

    The media, generally speaking, agree with these assertions. Because it's too hard to learn the facts and understand them, let alone relate them to voters.

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