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Howard Schultz Might Not Help Trump

Independent candidacies are strange beasts and the conventional wisdom about them is almost always wrong.
by Liz Mair
January 31, 2019
Featured Image
Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz speaks during Starbucks annual shareholders meeting March 18, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Within minutes of Howard Schultz announcing he was considering a possible independent run for president just days ago, the progressive left went to DEFCON 1.

If he ran, they said, Schultz would be handingPresident Trump a re-election win on a platter.

Progressives were so worried that they actually started toying with the idea of boycotting Starbucks in protest on Saturday morning; Schultz didn’t even make his intentions public until Sunday evening.

Their thinking seemed to be that, as the company’s single largest stockholder, a boycott might cost Schultz some money—though in all probability, a self-funded run for president will cost him more.

Collective outrage is, of course, a dearly-held tenet of boatloads of modern political activists and commentators. Many on the left have perfected it as an art. But ironically, for all the upset, it’s not entirely clear that a Schultz candidacy would help Trump, at least having regard to the appeal that prior contests’ third party candidates have exhibited.

Take 2016’s two non-major-party candidates, Libertarian former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and Green party candidate Jill Stein.

In the runup to the election, there was a lot of talk about how Johnson’s candidacy was going to hurt Hillary Clinton by giving soft Republican/libertarian types a way to vote against Trump without having to give their vote to the Democrats. Trump supporters also worried that Johnson’s presence in the race could lead to an even-worse-than-expected performance by Trump.

But when Election Day rolled around, the Johnson-Weld coalition was pretty evenly split between people who would have voted Republican, Democrat, not at all—or who would have written someone in had the only options on their ballot been Trump or Clinton. The net effect was to actually help Clinton, but only ever so slightly.

The same dynamic applied to the candidacy of Jill Stein, who seemed, on paper, like an even more open-and-shut case of a candidate who cost Hillary Clinton votes. As Vox.com reported, “Obviously, not all Stein and Johnson voters were disaffected Democrats—some would have voted for Trump, written in candidates, or not voted at all . . . And that’s what exit polling that asked people how they would have voted in a two-party race—with the third option of not voting—finds. Under that scenario [Clinton] would have won Michigan, still lost Florida, and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would have been a 48 to 48 percent toss-up. Clinton would have needed to win both of those states to reach 270 electoral votes.”

The point here is that voter behavior is more contingent and less pre-determined than you might think. For instance, although Johnson’s candidacy helped Clinton a teensy bit on net, the attempt by Democrats to delegitimize Johnson actually curbed that small boost. Clinton would have been better off courting Johnson’s voters instead of trying to attack Johnson.

The fact is, the only plausible argument to be made that third party candidates cost a major party candidate a presidential race is the 2000 election in Florida, which was a perfect storm of an almost evenly-divided local (and national) electorate mixed with a fast-moving news event that rippled through the race over the final week.

But even this edge-case starts to break down when you look at the numbers closely. Here’s what the ballot-level analysis from two UCLA political scientists concluded in 2006:

Only approximately 60% of Nader voters would have supported Al Gore in a Nader-less election. This percentage is much closer to 50% than it is to 100%. One might have conjectured, that is, that Nader voters were solid Democrats who in 2000 supported a candidate politically left of the actual Democratic candidate. This conjecture, we have shown, is wrong: Nader voters, what participating in non-presidential contests that were part of the 2000 general election, often voted for Republican candidates. Correspondingly, [Reform Party candidate Pat] Buchanan voters voted for down-ballot Democratic candidates. Thus, the notion that a left-leaning (right-leaning) third party presidential candidate by necessity steals votes from Democratic (Republican) candidates does not hold.

So it turns out that Nader didn’t really give us Bush, after all.

But the most famous “spoiler” of all is still Ross Perot who, everyone just knows, handed the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. Except that he didn’t. Like Gary Johnson, Perot pulled pretty evenly from “Democratic” and “Republican” voters. As the New York Times reported at the time, “If Mr. Perot had not been on the ballot, 38 percent of his voters said, they would have voted for Gov. Bill Clinton, and 38 percent said they would have voted for President Bush” and “Of the 31 states where Mr. Perot garnered more than 20 percent, 17 were won by Mr. Clinton and 14 by Mr. Bush.”

And yet, the conventional wisdom persists that Perot cost George H.W. Bush the election.

Even though this view is incorrect, the Perot coalition of 1992 holds some lessons Schultz today.

Perot racked up votes not just among “fair traders,” but among people who were deeply skeptical of the political class, wanted all the bums booted out, and who, at the time, were under 45 and very white. The truth is, that sounds a lot like Trump coalition today.

That’s actually Schultz’s biggest challenge: In order to mount a real campaign, and not just be a protest vote, he’ll need to corral a whole bunch of voters who are willing to reject a traditional politician in favor of a businessman. And among that population, you’ve got (1) A whole bunch of people who support Donald Trump, and (2) A whole different bunch of people who, by virtue of Trump experiment, will have gotten the “reject politicians and vote for the businessman” bug out of their systems.

If Schultz makes a run at the presidency, he’s going to have to convince a significant number of voters that the best idea is not to return to the tradition of elevating governors, or occasionally senators, to commander-in-chief because the problem with the idea of a businessman-president is less conceptual than unique to the particular deficiencies of Donald Trump. That is a very nuanced argument to make to a very polarized electorate.

I’m agnostic about whether or not Schultz could do it successfully. And that’s one reason why voters like me, who are open to a variety of presidential choices in 2020 may prove harder for Schultz to win over than he thinks.

Liz Mair

Liz Mair is a former communications adviser to the Republican National Committee, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker. She supported and campaigned for Gary Johnson in 2016. She is also the founder, owner, and president of strategic communications firm Mair Strategies LLC.