Howard Schultz joined Starbucks early in its existence and turned the company into a global mega-chain. Last June he left his job as Starbucks CEO, and in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast Sunday night, he said he’s “seriously thinking” of running for president as a “centrist independent” who would advocate for progressive social policies and fiscal restraint.
This is a bad idea, and not just because it could siphon votes from the eventual Democratic nominee or because we should probably stop letting rich people with no government experience run the country simply because they have a lot of money to spend on campaigns. It’s a bad idea even on Schultz’s terms. If he really wants to promote his ideas and serve his country in 2020, he needs to challenge Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primary.
Schultz has very little chance of winning as an independent. The portion of self-described “moderate” voters in the U.S. has been declining for years, and even within that swing cohort, social conservatives who hold fiscally liberal views are much more common than social progressives who are fiscally conservative. (Put more bluntly, aging white people who want to protect and expand entitlement programs but hold reactionary views on race and immigration significantly outnumber Schultz’s tribe of business-class flyers who believe in LGBT rights.) Schultz also has low name recognition and made inadvertently clear in the 60 Minutes interview that he doesn’t understand how the process of getting your name on the ballot works for independent candidates.*
In other words, the only people right now who seem to think Schultz has a good shot at becoming the first independent candidate to win a presidential election since George Washington are probably the members of the “elite” team of PR consultants he has assembled to tell him so. Media and voter interest in an independent Schultz campaign would likely dwindle away to nothing as more and more relevant candidates joined the race—including, possibly, another fiscally conservative, socially liberal businessman who actually has campaigning and governing experience.
Which leaves the two parties. And if Schultz’s goal really is, as he says, to get people talking and thinking about his ideas, doing so in the Republican primary is the best way to achieve it. While Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters already have an abundance of candidates to choose from (many with high net favorability ratings among Dems), Donald Trump’s support among Republicans is somewhat soft. More than one-quarter of Republicans say they’re not sure they want to vote for him again, and his approval rating is declining. If Schultz wants to find a receptive audience, he would have a pretty captive one among Republicans who are sick of Trump. Public interest in a Republican challenger would obviously be tremendous, especially among “NeverTrump” party and media elites, while the narrative of an actual successful businessman challenging a fake one would be irresistible.
Polling guru Nate Silver thinks most observers are underrating an independent Schultz run’s appeal to Republicans:
If Silver’s right about the core buyer, Schultz would have even more appeal within the GOP apparatus. Republicans like to vote for their party! (He’d have to spin the fact that he’s described himself in the past as a “lifelong Democrat,” but “I’m switching parties because these AOCs and Bernie Sanders got too crazy for me, with their socialism and whatnot!” wouldn’t be a bad explanation.)
By running as a Republican, Schultz would almost certainly not defeat Trump. But by giving GOP voters a chance to vote for a fiscal conservative who isn’t a raving conspiracy idiot, Schultz would be selflessly providing a model for a sane Republican Party that is more like the conservative parties elsewhere in the developed world, and he’d be directly challenging the guy who is most personally responsible for the “toxicity” he says he deplores in national politics. (This is, by the way, also what Bloomberg—who was a Republican when he was mayor of New York—should do instead of switching back to being a Democrat again.) If you’re going to lose anyway, why not make it count?
Correction, Jan. 28: This paragraph originally included an erroneously dated reference to a June 2018 interview Schultz conducted with CNBC; since it would be unfair to judge Schultz’s nascent campaign on an interview that happened well before he announced he was considering one, the reference has been removed.