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What impact would a Schultz independent run have on 2020?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has often been mentioned by commentators as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020. Schultz recently stated in an interview that he was “seriously considering a bid”. However, to the surprise of many–and the dismay of some–Schultz did not say he would join the crowded Democratic primary field, but rather he would run as a “centrist independent”.

Then came the deluge. Democrats began hammering Schultz, charging that a high-profile independent bid could hurt their own prospects at taking down Trump. Even Michael Bloomberg, who himself flirted with an independent bid in 2016 and only quite recently changed his party registration from independent to Democrat, cautioned Schultz not to run. But are their concerns, that Schultz could siphon off voters from the Democratic nominee, thus re-electing Trump, merited?

The argument against that concern is grounded in equal parts historical precedent and surface-level analysis.

Quantitative analysis of past elections has shown that high profile third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Ross Perot, contrary to common wisdom, did not garner a lopsided amount of votes from one major party nominee over the other, thus making them “spoilers”. Rather, they won votes from members of both parties. Their electorates also had large percentages of voters who, in the absence of their preferred third-party candidate, simply wouldn’t have turned out for one of the major party nominees.

The surface-level analysis is simply taking Schultz’s stated platform at face value. If he truly ran as a “centrist independent,” one would assume he would garner votes equally from both parties, thus negating the spoiler effect. Also supporting this argument is the fact that Schultz is a rich, old, white man at a time when the Democrats are seemingly dead-set on voting for someone that represents the rapidly diversifying face of America like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

One might also consider the politics of the times and conclude that potential Democratic voters would be less likely to splinter off and support a third party candidate. At the moment, the Democrats are quite energized and focused on the singular goal of taking down Trump. So it would follow that Democrats who may disagree with their nominee on some issues of policy would put those concerns aside and ultimately work to support the lesser of two evils, who would most likely be more viable than a third party candidate.

That is pretty much where the non-spoiler argument ends. Upon closer inspection of its merits, substantial cracks begin to form.

Firstly, Ross Perot and Gary Johnson both had quite different appeals from Schultz. Perot was a populist who appealed broadly to disaffected voters in both parties, while Johnson got a lot of his non-Libertarian voters from people who simply held negative views of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Schultz has little to offer Trump voters, however.

In addition to being a lifelong Democrat who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, Schultz’s brand also severely limits the broadness of his appeal. Starbucks is seen in American culture as virtually synonymous with this middle American perception of ‘coastal liberal elitism’. Think “latte sipping liberal”. Some analysts say that perception alone turns much of Trump’s rural and economic base off from progressive candidates.

However, the Republicans that Schultz might appeal to, with his stellar business acumen, centrist policy proposals and upscale, elite brand might are center-right suburbanites. They will be key to the Democrats’ efforts to take back the White House, as they were a crucial factor in the Democrats’ 2018 House victory. Schultz might very well give them an excuse to vote against Trump while not compromising many of their ideological beliefs.

It’s difficult to say which of these arguments would ultimately hold true in a Schultz run. It’s also important to factor in that he may not even run, and that even if he does run, there is no guarantee that he will do well enough to significantly impact the election. While he could spend a significant portion of his own $3.4 billion fortune to finance his campaign, money has been shown to have a limited effect on races as high profile as the Presidential election.

What we can say for sure, however, is that there’s no scenario in which a Schultz run helps the Democratic nominee at the expense of Donald Trump. In a universe where Schultz runs and catches fire, the best case scenario for Democrats is that he takes votes evenly from both nominees. The worst-case scenario, and probably a slightly more likely one, is that he takes a disproportionate amount of votes from the Democrat, thus strengthening Trump. For that reason, Democrats are probably making the right call in trying to get Schultz to stand down.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has often been mentioned by commentators as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020. Schultz recently stated in an interview that he was “seriously considering a bid”. However, to the surprise of many–and the dismay of some–Schultz did not say he would join the crowded Democratic primary field, but rather he would run as a “centrist independent”.

Then came the deluge. Democrats began hammering Schultz, charging that a high-profile independent bid could hurt their own prospects at taking down Trump. Even Michael Bloomberg, who himself flirted with an independent bid in 2016 and only quite recently changed his party registration from independent to Democrat, cautioned Schultz not to run. But are their concerns, that Schultz could siphon off voters from the Democratic nominee, thus re-electing Trump, merited?

The argument against that concern is grounded in equal parts historical precedent and surface-level analysis.

Quantitative analysis of past elections has shown that high profile third party candidates like Gary Johnson and Ross Perot, contrary to common wisdom, did not garner a lopsided amount of votes from one major party nominee over the other, thus making them “spoilers”. Rather, they won votes from members of both parties. Their electorates also had large percentages of voters who, in the absence of their preferred third-party candidate, simply wouldn’t have turned out for one of the major party nominees.

The surface-level analysis is simply taking Schultz’s stated platform at face value. If he truly ran as a “centrist independent,” one would assume he would garner votes equally from both parties, thus negating the spoiler effect. Also supporting this argument is the fact that Schultz is a rich, old, white man at a time when the Democrats are seemingly dead-set on voting for someone that represents the rapidly diversifying face of America like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

One might also consider the politics of the times and conclude that potential Democratic voters would be less likely to splinter off and support a third party candidate. At the moment, the Democrats are quite energized and focused on the singular goal of taking down Trump. So it would follow that Democrats who may disagree with their nominee on some issues of policy would put those concerns aside and ultimately work to support the lesser of two evils, who would most likely be more viable than a third party candidate.

That is pretty much where the non-spoiler argument ends. Upon closer inspection of its merits, substantial cracks begin to form.

Firstly, Ross Perot and Gary Johnson both had quite different appeals from Schultz. Perot was a populist who appealed broadly to disaffected voters in both parties, while Johnson got a lot of his non-Libertarian voters from people who simply held negative views of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Schultz has little to offer Trump voters, however.

In addition to being a lifelong Democrat who endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016, Schultz’s brand also severely limits the broadness of his appeal. Starbucks is seen in American culture as virtually synonymous with this middle American perception of ‘coastal liberal elitism’. Think “latte sipping liberal”. Some analysts say that perception alone turns much of Trump’s rural and economic base off from progressive candidates.

However, the Republicans that Schultz might appeal to, with his stellar business acumen, centrist policy proposals and upscale, elite brand might are center-right suburbanites. They will be key to the Democrats’ efforts to take back the White House, as they were a crucial factor in the Democrats’ 2018 House victory. Schultz might very well give them an excuse to vote against Trump while not compromising many of their ideological beliefs.

It’s difficult to say which of these arguments would ultimately hold true in a Schultz run. It’s also important to factor in that he may not even run, and that even if he does run, there is no guarantee that he will do well enough to significantly impact the election. While he could spend a significant portion of his own $3.4 billion fortune to finance his campaign, money has been shown to have a limited effect on races as high profile as the Presidential election.

What we can say for sure, however, is that there’s no scenario in which a Schultz run helps the Democratic nominee at the expense of Donald Trump. In a universe where Schultz runs and catches fire, the best case scenario for Democrats is that he takes votes evenly from both nominees. The worst-case scenario, and probably a slightly more likely one, is that he takes a disproportionate amount of votes from the Democrat, thus strengthening Trump. For that reason, Democrats are probably making the right call in trying to get Schultz to stand down.


Learn more

CNBC – Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says he won’t do ‘anything to put Donald Trump back in the Oval Office’

Washington Post – If Howard Schultz runs for president, Starbucks will be on the ballot, too

The Independent – If Howard Schultz really runs in 2020, he’ll be handing Trump a second term

Andrew Solender ’20 is a political science major and history correlate. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the VPR and has worked as a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources, and City & State NY.

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