Over the past week or so, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has become nearly as ubiquitous as the coffee chain itself. As part of the press blitz for his new book, “From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America,” the 65-year-old billionaire and self-described “lifelong Democrat” has been toying with the idea of running for president in 2020 as a “centrist independent.” Many progressives -- and even a number of anti-Trump moderates and conservatives -- worry that Schultz would play the role of spoiler by peeling off enough Democratic votes to re-elect Trump. He’s also been using these press stops to bash proposals like “Medicare-for-all” and free public college, earning him a reception as ice-cold as a Frappuccino from the political left.
Thankfully for Schultz, there’s one group in media shamelessly encouraging him to take the presidential plunge: the far right.
It’s hard to say what Schultz supports, as he hasn’t actually come out in favor of a single detailed policy. That hasn’t stopped conservative media from giving him a whole bunch of attention.
Fox News, in particular, has been a major hub for Schultz fans. He’s been described as “realistic,” as the type of candidate who can get Wall Street’s backing, as someone who is “very cognizant” of what Americans want in terms of health care reform, and as a champion for “people who don’t want to play fantastical economics anymore.” The network has also repeatedly stood up against criticism of his background and billionaire status.
On his new podcast, former Trump administration communications director Anthony Scaramucci said Schultz and fellow billionaire businessman-turned-politico Michael Bloomberg would both make “phenomenal presidents,” listing them as “the two people who could possibly beat Trump.” Steve Schmidt, a former adviser to John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, took a job with Schultz last year. And in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe brushed off Democratic criticism that a third-party challenge would aid Trump’s re-election, writing, “If Democrats want to kneecap Schultz's run, they need to offer better than whatever dregs of desperation they're currently putting on the table.”
Schultz himself has directly boosted right-wing media figures who are encouraging him to run against Democrats. On January 30, Schultz tweeted (and later deleted) a link to a PJ Media editorial by Roger L. Simon. Schultz thanked Simon for what he called “a thoughtful analysis of what's possible.” A quick glance at the article, however, reveals a number of cringeworthy lines attacking Democratic candidates, including referring to Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) as a “shrill … quasi-socialist promising pie in the sky” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as “Fauxcahontas.”
Schultz later tweeted a link from the notoriously conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board, which described Democrats’ response to a possible Schultz candidacy as “shrieking like teenagers at a horror movie.” The editorial went on to play up the virtues of having a serious adult in the room to encourage a policy debate, contrasting the 65-year-old billionaire with young progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), “whose claim to fame is winning one election, looking cool on Instagram, and proposing ways to spend other people’s money.”
It’s extremely unlikely that any of these outspoken conservatives actually want Schultz to win -- and if we’re all being completely honest with ourselves, few likely think he can win.
You may be asking yourself why people on the far right would promote Schultz’s candidacy if what they really want is Trump’s re-election. Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but I’m pretty sure the answer is already right there in the question: because they want Trump to win re-election. Right-wing commentators are trying to downplay this possibility in their effusive praise of Schultz.
To get one thing out of the way: There’s virtually no chance of Howard Schultz actually winning in 2020 -- though it would be interesting to see if critics would give him a pass on a “latte salute” or two. National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar bemoaned the “failure of imagination” of pundits saying that Schultz doesn’t have a viable path to 270 electoral votes. The truth is that the Electoral College makes it extraordinarily hard for a candidate outside of the two main parties to win any electoral votes, let alone a majority of them. In 1992, Ross Perot received 19.7 million votes (18.9 percent of the total), but ended up with zero electoral votes as he didn’t carry a single state. In fact, the last time a third-party candidate won any electoral votes was in 1968, when George Wallace took 46.
It’s not a “lack of imagination” that says Schultz has an espresso bean’s chance in a grinder to win; it’s just reality. Come January 20, 2021, it will almost certainly be Donald Trump being sworn into a second term in office or whomever the Democrats nominate taking over. Sorry, Schultz superfans of the world -- if you exist.
Democratic megadonor Haim Saban thinks a Schultz campaign “guarantees Trump a second term.” Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at centrist think tank Third Way -- the exact type of person a Schultz campaign would appeal to, if anyone at all -- told NPR that a centrist independent entry into the race could “splinter” opposition to Trump, leading to his re-election. Even Trump thinks Schultz running would help his own chances, per one report.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake recently dissected a Washington Post-ABC poll showing that 56 percent of registered voters will “definitely” not vote for Trump in 2020, lending some credence to the idea that Trump’s re-election odds might hinge on a wild card:
Trump may not need those 56 percent of voters. He won the presidency, after all, with just 46 percent of the popular vote — about two points higher than the 44 percent who are at least open to supporting his reelection. He could win with even less of the vote if a third-party/independent candidate, like former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, splits the vote three ways.
There’s also the possibility that Schultz himself doesn’t even think he can win, but just wants to incentivize the Democrats to avoid nominating the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or some other candidates with tax hikes for the rich in exchange for an expanded social safety net.
In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin, Schultz explained, “I respect the Democratic Party. I no longer feel affiliated because I don’t know their views represent the majority of Americans. I don’t think we want a 70 percent income tax in America.” (He was referencing Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent on income more than $10 million per year.)
He later added, “If I decide to run for president as an independent, I will believe and have the conviction and the courage to believe I can win. I can’t answer that question today. But I certainly am not going to do anything to put Donald Trump back in the Oval Office.”
If conservative journalists truly believe that a Schultz campaign will throw the 2020 election to Trump, it’s in their best interests to convince him to run. By his own words, the only way to do that is to tell him that he has a legitimate shot. Schultz has been citing the stat that “about 42 percent of the electorate affiliate themselves as an independent.” That figure has been key in Schultz’s argument that he has a real chance at winning. Unfortunately, this confidence seems to be based on a misreading of what that data actually says.
In an article for FiveThirtyEight, Geoffrey Skelley breaks down just how misleading that figure is:
Gallup shows that roughly 39 percent of Americans say they’re independents — it also signals a fundamental misunderstanding of how the electorate really feels. And that’s because once you subtract independents who lean more toward one party, the number of true independents shrinks to around 10 percent. Using this metric, Gallup finds that roughly 88 percent of Americans identify with one of the two major parties, and Pew Research puts that figure even higher, at 92 percent.
It’s also worth noting that “independent” is not synonymous with “centrist” or “moderate.” Some self-described independents may be further to the left than the Democratic Party, or further to the right than the Republican Party. It would seem that Schultz’s calculation in all of this is totally wrong, or maybe, as my cynicism-poisoned mind might suggest to me: This is all just a game of chicken between him and the Democratic Party to try to shift its economic priorities to the right.
Whether or not Schultz runs for president, and no matter what his intentions actually are in making that run, it’s good to take partisan media figures contemplating his potential candidacy with a grain of salt.