The flirtation of an independent run for the White House by former Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, was immediately met with a loud revulsion from Democrats, crying that an independent left-of-center candidate would surely split the left vote. This would mean the re-election of Donald Trump, no matter who Democrats nominated.
While there is some merit to that fear, because the drive left by Democrats has many moderate liberals (like Schultz) feeling left behind, the idea that Schultz would achieve nothing but re-electing Trump seems like a premature conclusion. Would Schultz necessarily draw more from the left than the right, would it make a difference, and would he achieve nothing in the process? While it’s more than likely he has no realistic chance at outperforming either major party candidate, he could outperform any third-party or independent candidate since Ross Perot, and inject a much-needed third voice into our political dichotomy.
The biggest thing to consider with Schultz is whether he will run and why he will or will not do so. Schultz is a vocal critic of the socialists in the Democratic Party and their rising power. Therefore, it is much more certain he runs if an Elizabeth Warren is nominated than if a Joe Biden was. So who will Democrats nominate? We have two polls to look at, one from Emerson of Iowa Democrat likely caucus-goers, and the other from Monmouth of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents nationwide.
In the Emerson poll, respondents overwhelmingly chose Joe Biden (who is not yet running) with 29% of the poll. The second was California Senator Kamala Harris with 18%, third was Bernie Sanders with 15%, and fourth was Elizabeth Warren with 11%. So, while Biden has a large lead initially, the next three all have similar voters, and they combine to 44% of the vote. However, 86% of those Iowa Democrats want a candidate who can work across the aisle, and progressives may be seen as too radical to do that. In the Monmouth poll, Biden again received 29% of the likely Democratic voters, with Sanders (16%), Harris (11%), and Warren (8%) combining to a much smaller portion of the pie (35%). Again, Biden is not even announced yet, but the polling sure looks positive for a Creepy Uncle Joe presidential bid.
If Biden is nominated, not only do I think it’s much less likely that Schultz would run, but I also think it would decimate his chances. Biden is the most center candidate being seriously considered for the Democratic nomination, and that’s where Schultz’s votes would have to come from. This is probably a moot point though, so let’s look at Schultz’s chances with Democrats nominating a progressive.
The earlier-cited Emerson poll asked a wider range of participants (n=831, +/-3.4%) who they would choose in hypothetical head-to-heads with Trump. Only Biden won in the state Trump carried by ten points in 2016, but Emerson also included Schultz in one situation: Trump versus Warren. This is probably the most likely case for Schultz to run, and it does indeed aid Trump. Trump leads Warren 52-48 head-to-head, but 49-40-11 with Schultz in the mix. Politico and Morning Consult also did some polling on the idea of a third-party or independent candidate in 2020, and 35% of voters were very or somewhat likely to consider a third-party candidate, and 50% say that a third-party is needed in America.
The biggest news comes from the Schultz camp’s own research. An internal poll run by Change Research considers Schultz in a range of contests, always helping Trump more than the Democrat, and never yielding Schultz more than 7% uninformed and 9% informed. He swings Trump-Warren three points in Trump’s favor (from 46-47 to 45-43-6), Trump-Harris the same numbers, Trump-Biden two points (from 45-52 to 44-49-3), and Trump-Sanders four points (from 46-48 to 45-43-7). Obviously, the smallest effect in those numbers is if Joe Biden were running, which gives Schultz the least impact.
So what can Schultz do to remedy this perception? He could always run with a Republican. John Kasich, Jeff Flake, and Mitt Romney are all anti-Trump Republicans who have flirted with runs before and would counter Schultz’s left-lean and government inexperience. The idea of helping elect your least favorite candidate by not voting for the viable alternative (lesser of two evils argument) is a common problem for third-party candidates. Schultz’s numbers don’t help his case here, so he could scare off what support he has when they realize they’re all on the same side of the fence. A conservative VP candidate could fix this by attracting some of the 43% of Republicans who want Trump to be primaried (Monmouth). Kasich gets 14% of the Republican vote in a hypothetical primary rematch with Trump, and he has flirted with the idea of a bipartisan run before (with Colorado governor Hickenlooper).
If Schultz could get 10% of the popular vote, it would be the most successful run outside of the Republican and Democratic parties since Ross Perot. However, like Perot, he has no chance at electoral votes (unless some elector goes rogue). The most Schultz could realistically hope to do is get on a debate stage and platform his ideas to the nation. Those ideas are exactly new, though. Schultz is a moderate Democrat, and little more. Sure, Schultz could show that it is possible to run outside the major parties and still compete with them, but Schultz has something most independent and third-party candidates don’t: a $3.5 billion net worth.
I don’t know if I like Schultz. I think I like him more than Trump, and more than most every Democrat considering running (the exception being Tulsi Gabbard). But I don’t see the point in voting for him. He won’t win, and he isn’t even fighting for something like ballot access because he doesn’t have a party. Schultz could make big waves running for President, but that seems like all he could do.
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