The announcement that former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering an independent bid for the White House begs the question of in what reality Howard Schultz resides.
The answer: A separate, parallel dimension, where he has a genuine chance of winning the White House, or at least do anything other than help President Donald Trump achieve a second term.
The case for a Schultz candidacy — beyond his own self-gratification — is unclear. It’s true that, unlike a certain resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, he’s an undisputed billionaire and successful businessman. But Trump has presumably destroyed the attraction of a bringing in a businessman to run government.
And Schultz’s initial flirtation raises questions about whether he’s ready for prime time: “I don’t want to talk in the hypothetical about what I would do if I was president,” he said on CNBC Monday when asked about possibly raising corporate tax rates. Seriously? He doesn’t want to speak hypothetically about what he would do if he won the office for which he is considering running? (Never mind that he had no problem answering other policy questions, making his “hypothetical” dodge even weaker.)
At a time of almost blinding polarization, a national outcry for (excuse the pun) lukewarm coffee hardly seems likely. “Any calls for centrism are larger than the electoral space for centrism,” Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, told me. “I’m just not sure that there’s enough space for a moderate candidate to win enough votes.”
A cursory knowledge of U.S. history, too, indicates that third party candidates are the longest shots to win: George Wallace was the last to win any states more than a half-century ago.
Nevertheless, Schultz’s bank account alone suggests 3.4 billion reasons why he should be taken seriously. And there are at least a couple of reasons why the prospect of an independent Schultz bid worries Democrats and should cheer the besieged Trump.
The first is his potential to play spoiler. “Definitely if there’s an independent in the race, particularly one with Mr. Schultz’s background, who’s a Democrat, I would expect that he will draw from whoever the Democratic nominee is going to be and ultimately help Mr. Trump get re-elected,” former Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat of Maine, said to me.
He knows of what he speaks: Michaud was the Democrats’ 2014 gubernatorial nominee in the Pine Tree State, running against a polarizing, deeply unpopular incumbent, Gov. Paul LePage. Dubbed “America’s craziest governor” by Politico, LePage seemed the least likely politician to win re-election that year – and yet he prevailed. That win came, at least in part, because of independent Eliot Cutler, a former Carter administration official who ran as an independent. Cutler tallied more than 50,000 votes in a race LePage won by about slightly less than 30,000. “It definitely made the difference,” Michaud says.
It is an admittedly rough parallel: Maine has a deep tradition of independent candidates — one of its current senators is Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats — and does not have anything like the Electoral College. But it serves as a cautionary tale of how a strong third party can help rescue a beleaguered incumbent.
“I have seen enough data over many years to know that anyone running for POTUS as an independent will split the anti-incumbent, anti-Trump vote,” tweeted Howard Wolfson, an adviser to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who pondered an independent bid in 2016. Bloomberg is now contemplating a run as a Democrat because, as he himself tweeted, “in 2020, the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the President.”
Trump himself gets this, taunting Schultz on Twitter that he “doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run for President!” Why elevate Schultz like that? “Trump told the crowd at the Trump Hotel [Monday night] fundraiser that he was trying to get Howard Schultz into the race with his tweet earlier today because he thinks he'll help him, per attendee,” The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted.
This does not mean Schultz (or former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who is reportedly mulling an independent bid) would automatically be a game-changer: Neither John Anderson in 1980 nor Ross Perot in 1992 materially affected the outcome of those races, despite achieving nontrivial vote shares. (That Perot was a Clinton-electing spoiler in 1992 is accepted wisdom among some on the right but, as MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki has ably demonstrated, it’s a myth.)
Still, national Democrats are still feeling the sting of Jill Stein’s vote totals being larger than the Trump-Hillary Clinton margins in three key states (Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) in 2016, as well as Ralph Nader getting more than the George W. Bush-Al Gore margins in Florida and New Hampshire in 2000.
That history precisely illuminates the problem Trump faces: The last two non-incumbent Republicans to win the White House needed a third-party nudge to help them over the finish line. Ordinary presidents, even ones who didn’t have to rely on the Electoral College for their victories, enter office seeking to expand their coalitions and increase their popularity. Not so Trump, who seems content that his 2016 victory, which relied on a roughly 80,000 vote edge in three swing states while losing the popular vote badly, is a reliable model for 2020.
And not only has he put in zero effort to expand his base, he responded to a 2018 electoral whipping that should have been a blaring alarm — including Democrats picking up governorships in Michigan and Wisconsin — with a shutdown over immigration, an issue which drives moderate and suburban voters from him.
But beyond dividing the electorate so that Trump could conquer, a Schultz candidacy poses a subtler but still pernicious threat to Democrats: He could normalize our radical president.
Fundamental to a Schultz candidacy is the assumption that the two parties are equally to blame for our national problems. “We have a broken political system with both parties basically in business to preserve their own ideology without a recognition and responsibility to represent the interests of the American people,” Schultz told The New York Times.
That is nonsense. Trump is not merely a conventional Republican afflicted with an acute case of political Tourette’s Syndrome. While a bungler, he nonetheless has authoritarian impulses that threaten genuine harm to our country: He attacks the free press and independent judiciary; he countenances violence and racial strife; and he undermines long-standing international alliances while praising authoritarians, especially Vladimir Putin (who seems to hold a special place in the president’s heart). And that list doesn’t include his potentially using emergency powers to override the constitution and cut Congress out of the national policy-making process.
But in Howard Schultz’ view, Trump is apparently no worse than whomever the might Democrats nominate. And since we’ve already elected one delusional person to the highest office in the land, it’s unclear why Schultz would be any better than Trump.