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Why Is Howard Schultz Getting So Much 2020 Attention?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Sunday, Howard Schultz, former longtime CEO of Starbucks, told “60 Minutes” that he was considering a run for president — but he said he wouldn’t run as a Democrat, instead he’d run as a “centrist independent.”

Schultz’s announcement was met with swift backlash from many in the Democratic Party, including those who fear that a third-party candidate will pave the path for Trump’s re-election. Others, such as David Frum at The Atlantic, have argued that Schultz might be the kind of candidate needed to defeat Trump, as the anti-Trump majority is strong, but it isn’t all that progressive.

So, what do you think — can an independent win?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Probably not, but I have learned my lessons from 2016 about naysaying.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): People are being too absolutist in thinking that Schultz has a 0 percent chance of winning. He may very well have a 1 percent chance!

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): An independent could win the presidency, but I don’t think it’s very likely, and Howard Schultz seems like one of the least likely independents to win the presidency.

julia_azari: Whether an independent candidate could have a chance of winning is less about ideological positioning and more about having a solid Electoral College strategy. But I don’t see Schultz demonstrating that he would have one.

Instead, I think he’s trying to make a point about the Democrats moving too far left.

natesilver: I guess if we want to distinguish a 1 percent chance or a 0.1 percent chance from a 0 percent chance, then sure, he “has a chance.” But, I dunno, is Schultz more likely to win the presidency than Pete Buttigieg or Tulsi Gabbard? It’s probably pretty close. And Buttigieg and Gabbard aren’t being booked on every television network.

nrakich: Yes, it’s pretty dramatic how much our political system is stacked against independents.

Parties are very powerful organizations (especially in this era of polarization/partisanship) with built-in operations and supporters. And our winner-take-all system makes it very hard for even a strong independent — say, one who gets 25 percent of the popular vote — to get ANY Electoral College votes.

julia_azari: I’d add that nationalized messaging really puts independents at a disadvantage in a presidential election.

natesilver: I don’t think that’s quite as much of a barrier as people assume.

Like, if the independent gets 37 percent of the vote, and the two major-party candidates get 26 percent each, he’s probably going to win.

julia_azari: Permission for a brief history geek-out?

There have only been a few independent/third-party candidates who won Electoral College votes. Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 — although it probably helps when you, like, used to be the president. Before that, but as part of a related political movement, James Weaver ran as a populist in 1892 and got some Electoral College votes. (The Progressive and Populist movements had a sort of regional base in the West and Upper Midwest, and that’s generally where they did well).

And of course, George Wallace won a bunch of states in the South in 1968, as did Strom Thurmond in 1948.

Third-party politics has changed as television and other mass communications have made regional campaigning less of a thing. The signature third-party candidate of the current era is Ross Perot, who ran as a centrist without a particular regional tie. Perot won a lot of votes in 1992, but no states.

nrakich: Right, the most “successful” independent campaigns tend to be regionally based. But, of course, you can’t win the presidency with just one or two regions, and winning is (theoretically, anyway) the whole point of running.

sarahf: So if Schultz is at a disadvantage as a third-party candidate and is just as much of a longshot as Buttigieg or Gabbard, why is he getting so much attention?

nrakich: That’s the million-dollar question!

I agree with Nate that it’s unwarranted.

But I think it’s probably because media elites generally run in those (small) circles where there is an appetite for a centrist alternative — specifically, someone who is socially liberal but fiscally conservative, a trait Schultz and much of the Acela corridor have in common.

natesilver: Because he’s a rich guy, because the media thinks “Anything Is Possible Because Of Trump,” and because it’s sort of a slow news week.

sarahf: But what do we make of arguments from conservatives like David Frum that part of the panic we’re seeing from Democrats is that the anti-Trump majority is strong, but it isn’t all that progressive, so a candidate like Schultz actually offers more moderate voters an alternative?

julia_azari: I buy the concept that David Frum’s argument resonates with some people. After all, it’s likely that there are people who don’t like Trump, but who also remember Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and, going further back, George McGovern, losing big in presidential elections. Those voters may be worried about the Democrats becoming too liberal and losing in 2020.

nrakich: I’m not sure I buy Frum’s argument. A lot of so-called “progressive” priorities, like Medicare-for-all and legal marijuana, actually have strong majority support, if you believe polling.

natesilver: The panic is dumb and it’s about equally likely that Schultz will hurt or help Trump. But Democrats like to panic and, paradoxically, they’re also feeling very confident about their ability to beat Trump, so they don’t want anything to screw it up.

sarahf: Walk us through those two scenarios, Nate.

natesilver: I guess the scenario Democrats are worried about is that if, say, only 40 percent of the country likes Trump, Schultz will siphon off enough of the anti-Trump vote to allow Trump to be re-elected somehow.

There are a lot of issues with that, though.

One issue is that it presupposes that Trump’s still going to be at a 40 percent approval rating on Election Day next year. If he is, then frankly Trump is pretty screwed, most likely, with or without a third-party candidate in the race. I suppose things would be so dire for Trump at that point that any sort of wild card would help him. But it’s a big assumption to make.

Another issue is that lots of people who disapprove of Trump are going to be inclined to vote for him, especially if they identify as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents.

nrakich: As they did in 2016.

natesilver: Yeah, Trump won quite a few votes last time from people who did not like him because they also didn’t like Hillary Clinton and figured “Why the hell not?” Giving those voters an off-ramp — we’re talking about people who are basically conservative, but not Trump fans — might be helpful to the Democratic nominee, because if forced to make a choice between the major-party candidates they’re probably more likely to vote for Trump than, say, Kamala Harris or Bernie Sanders.

julia_azari: So one of the questions I’ve been thinking about here is ideology vs. partisanship.

The arguments for and against Schultz often assume people vote their ideology, and if there’s an option that’s not as far to the left as other Democrats, maybe they’ll choose that — putting aside for a moment whether this is a real segment of the electorate.

But there’s actually a decent amount of research that pushes back on that, saying that partisanship isn’t just about ideology — it’s also about disliking the other team.

It’s hard to argue that this isn’t the case with Trump and many Democrats.

natesilver: What are the implications of that, though? If anything, it seems to me like anti-Trump sentiment is so strong that Democrats will be very strategic in how they vote.

julia_azari: Exactly.

natesilver: Which means that Schultz wouldn’t pick off very many votes from Democrats.

julia_azari: Yes, that’s what I was trying to get at.

natesilver: And the reaction to his candidacy is sorta proof of that, maybe.

nrakich: Right, and the stereotypical Schultz voters — well-educated, elite — seem like the type who would vote strategically.

They understand, perhaps better than anyone, how voting for a third party runs the risk of throwing your vote away.

sarahf: So is that how Schultz hurts Trump? He takes voters away from Trump who were never going to vote for a Democrat but would support someone different than Trump?

julia_azari: For me the big takeaway is that the current party system precludes third-party impact — not just that third-party candidates aren’t likely to win. Rather, because voters are likely to be really averse to the idea of doing anything that might help the other party win, third-party candidates like Perot have had a harder time gaining traction in the national conversation.

I doubt that reluctant Trump voters would be drawn to Schultz’s socially liberal positions, either.

After all, a big reason why conservatives came home in 2016 and voted for Trump was because of abortion issues and the Supreme Court.

sarahf: So who does Schultz even appeal to?

natesilver: People who hated the Seattle SuperSonics.

People who read Axios.

sarahf: I struggle to understand his appeal as a candidate. Because if Democrats are going to vote for a Democrat regardless, and he’s not going to have much success in pulling away reluctant Republican voters, who then is his base?

natesilver: People who like mocha Frappuccinos.

sarahf: Nate.

nrakich: Probably very few people. Our default assumption should be that he’ll start off at the same level as a generic independent/other candidate in the polls.

julia_azari: He probably appeals to some rich, comfortable Democrats and moderate Democrats — but I just have my doubts about whether he appeals to them enough to attract a vote in the general.

natesilver: Yeah, the “both parties are too extreme” rhetoric will appeal to a certain number of voters.

But not necessarily a ton, especially because Schultz’s message is so substanceless (so far) and superficial. And he isn’t an especially interesting or dynamic guy. But, hey, politics is superficial sometimes.

nrakich: Schultz’s team is trying to argue that there’s an appetite for his candidacy because around 40 percent of Americans identify as independents. But I think that demonstrates how politically naive Schultz is. In reality, many of those people are Democratic or Republican leaners. Only about 12 percent are true independents.

And then even fewer of those independents are actual centrists. Independent does not equal moderate! Many independents are libertarians, or people on the far left who don’t think the Democratic Party goes far enough, like a certain Vermont senator.

natesilver: I’d also note that Schultz isn’t exactly a centrist.

In the context of American politics c. 2019, his economic views are quite conservative.

julia_azari: Centrism is an incredibly hard concept to nail down.

natesilver: Trump has largely given up on deficit reduction as either a rhetorical or an actual objective, for instance, whereas it’s maybe the headline message of Schultz’s campaign.

julia_azari: Right, that was a signature issue for Ross Perot, but the game is different than it was in 1992. Economic inequality has become a key item on the national agenda as a result of figures like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and vocal movements like Occupy Wall Street. Republicans began talking about the issue a few years ago, too.

Presidential elections turn on whether the economy is good. And, not to revisit the 2016 primary too much, but Bernie Sanders seemed to resonate with certain voters by arguing that the economic system is rigged.

sarahf: So, if you’re Schultz, who is a lifelong Democrat, why not run as a Democrat?

That’s one thing I don’t get about his candidacy. Branding yourself as an independent thinker by running as an independent isn’t necessarily the best way to roll out a platform.

natesilver: Probably because you know you’d get crushed in the primaries.

And also maybe because you’re hearing stuff about Medicare-for-all and a 70 percent marginal tax rate and you don’t think that’s good for you, personally, as a Really Rich Person.

julia_azari: I saw a tweet from Jon Favreau of Pod Save America asking why Schultz thought he could just skip the Democratic primary and go straight to the general election — and asked pretty pointedly if it was because he has a lot of money — which I thought was interesting framing.

But another reason one might arguably go outside the normal party structure is that the parties are a bit beleaguered right now. Case in point: Trump and Sanders got a great deal of mileage out of anti-party messages even in their party primaries.

natesilver: To make an obvious comparison, Bloomberg is polling pretty badly right now. And Bloomberg is much more progressive than Schultz, is much better known, and has a much longer track record of actually doing stuff to support liberal causes (e.g. on gun control).

So if Bloomberg is having trouble seeing an opening, Schultz has no chance in hell.

julia_azari: And Bloomberg has actually held elected office.

natesilver: Yeah. Like, this conversation would be a lot different if Schultz had been mayor of Seattle or something.

Or Tacoma, even. Olympia. Walla Walla.

Anything that showed commitment to public life or any interest in public policy.

julia_azari: I’m not totally sure how to characterize this, but I think his candidacy and the attention it’s garnered is kind of a last gasp at this centrist idea that a non-politician is going to come in and save us.

Some people may have felt this way with Perot almost 30 years ago, but my sense is that the idea may no longer hold the same appeal.

nrakich: I don’t know if it’s a last gasp. I kind of feel like the three constants in life are death, taxes and baseless media buzz about a third-party candidate who’s going to shake up the presidential race.

Remember Americans Elect in 2012? Good times.

And Bloomberg in 2016?

This happens every year.

julia_azari: Sure, but anti-party politics are evolving, and I think Trump and Sanders are more illustrative of what the landscape looks like now.

nrakich: That anti-party messages are most effective within a party?

Yeah, it’s pretty ideal if you can run against the party and give people the rhetoric they want to hear, but still take advantage of all the structural benefits.

natesilver: To the extent it’s the last gasp, it might be because Schultz is such an ineffective messenger for it.

julia_azari: Yeah, I don’t mean it’s the last time this will happen, but I do think its appeal has diminished.

Please don’t ask me to predict the rest of human history, guys.

natesilver: I don’t use these terms a ton, but it reeks of a certain kind of entitlement and privilege to basically say that you’re the only reasonable person in the room and that a “silent majority” (Schultz’s term) of Americans support your ideas, when (1) those ideas just so happen to be in your economic self-interest and (2) you’ve put no real effort into learning about how politics or policy work.

sarahf: I still wonder though what Schultz’s candidacy would mean for the Democratic primary if he were to run as a Democrat. Would it force the conversation to hit more issues in the middle? Or are we past that point, and now if a candidate doesn’t support some version of Medicare-for-all they can’t win the nomination?

natesilver: In terms of what would happen if Schultz were a Democrat, I think he’d get literally almost no traction and it would be a non-story.

sarahf: So that’s interesting. Are we only experiencing the current Schultz-mania because he’s an independent?

natesilver: I think so, Sarah. I mean, look, there’d be a few days of coverage. But there’s not a big market for this candidacy in the Democratic primary and, to the extent there is, Schultz is not the right vessel for it.

nrakich: This is only tangentially related, but I also don’t know how much appetite there is among anti-Trumpers for yet ANOTHER rich businessman with no political experience.

Just another reason Schultz isn’t the best type of independent, I guess.

natesilver: I agree with that, Nathaniel. It’s an awfully weird time to claim that running as a businessman with no political experience is an asset, when you’re also claiming that Trump is a terrible president.

julia_azari: But on the topic of “electability” (heavy quotes), a conversation that was already happening before Schultz announced, Schultz theoretically possesses the qualities that make voters feel more confident — he’s a centrist, he’s older, and he’s a white man.

Arguably, he’s also a foil for what could be a very diverse crowd of candidates in the Democratic primary.

natesilver: But to some extent, he can be a foil for whoever the Democratic nominee is anyway.

julia_azari: Unless it’s Biden! Since he’s also an older white man and has kinda distanced himself from some of the heavy redistribution policies that other Democrats have advocated.

natesilver: In part because (so far) he’s a pretty bad spokesman for his positions.

Maybe he’ll get better.

nrakich: Honestly, the backlash has been so swift and unanimous, I wonder if Schultz even goes through with it.

sarahf: Yeah, maybe he won’t run.

natesilver: To appear in the presidential debates, he’d have to get enough of a base to poll at 15 percent.

nrakich: He got his media attention. He’s selling his book. Why drag yourself through the mud on an actual presidential campaign?

natesilver: But, like, having Kamala Harris standing on stage against two old rich business dudes who are saying we need to roll back the welfare state is a contrast that probably works pretty well for Kamala Harris.

julia_azari: Definitely in the Democratic primary.

sarahf: Any closing thoughts?

nrakich: I think Kyle Kondik pretty much summed up my thoughts on Howard Schultz’s chances as an independent:


Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.