Political News

Howard Schultz needs to find a way to gain traction -- and soon

Posted February 12, 2019 4:18 p.m. EST
Updated February 12, 2019 5:50 p.m. EST

— When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz takes the TV stage to promote a possible presidential run at a CNN Town Hall with Poppy Harlow tonight, he'll be emulating the last independent White House hopeful to capture a significant share of the vote, H. Ross Perot.

That is a challenging path, especially this early in the presidential campaign season.

Perot, a prominent businessman, sat down with CNN talk show host Larry King on February 20, 1992, as a reluctant candidate.

"I don't want to run," declared Perot. But after prodding from King, Perot allowed that if his would-be supporters put "skin in the game" by getting his name on the ballot in their states and promising to "stay in the ring after Election Day," then the Texas billionaire businessman would seriously consider a run. The CNN switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree and Perot's quixotic presidential campaign got underway.

Schultz's potential 2020 independent bid is being unveiled to voters more than a year before Perot sounded his call on Larry King. Schultz, a past donor to Democratic candidates, says his party has moved too far to the left even though more centrist 2020 options like former Vice President Joe Biden, former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who was elected as a Republican and an independent) haven't declared their intentions yet. While Trump has antagonized and aggravated many in his own party, no serious challengers to his re-nomination have emerged. But New Hampshire's primary is almost a year off — a lifetime in politics.

And in 1992, when Perot was boosting his candidacy on television, there were fissures evident in both the Democratic and Republican ranks. Perot's appearance on the King show came two days after New Hampshire voters jolted incumbent President George H. W. Bush by giving conservative commentator Pat Buchanan 38% of the GOP primary vote. They also gave long shot Democratic challenger, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, a primary victory over the eventual Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton. The political environment was ripe for a folksy upstart like Perot who railed against the seraglios of Washington: a recession alienated many Americans from Bush, while stories of marital infidelities and avoidance of the Vietnam draft, left just as many suspicious of Clinton. In June of that year, a Gallup Poll placed Perot ahead of both Bush and Clinton with 39% support.

Prior to Perot's bid, third party presidential candidacies were typically born from an electoral schism in one or both of the major parities. In 1980, Illinois Republican congressman John B. Anderson rallied liberal Republicans to his banner but failed to capture any primaries (narrowly missing in both Massachusetts and Vermont) including that of his home state. On April 24, 1980, Anderson announced he'd run as an independent. In June of that year, after Ronald Reagan had wrapped up the GOP nomination, but Democrats were still bitterly divided between President Jimmy Carter and his challenger Edward M. Kennedy, Anderson peaked in popularity drawing support from 24% of those surveyed by Gallup. Ultimately, Anderson veered left naming former Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Patrick Lucey, a Kennedy supporter, as his running mate. He captured 6.6% of that November.

In 1968, it was the Democratic Party that was so divided over the Vietnam War and racial issues that incumbent president Lyndon B. Johnson decided to not seek reelection. The great presidential chronicler Teddy White recounted in his book on that tumultuous election, "there could be no doubt that millions upon millions of Democrats had forsaken the party of their fathers and gone elsewhere. And there was no doubt where they had gone: George C. Wallace."

While Wallace hadn't sought the Democratic nomination in 1968, he ran in the party's 1964 Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland presidential primaries, in the latter scoring 43% of the vote against LBJ stand-in, Sen. Daniel B. Brewster. From that experience, White observed, Wallace retained "a residual know-how of national campaigning, a feline feel for the contours of national politics that was to make him a major force in the presidential campaign of 1968." Indeed, the segregationist Alabama governor running as the standard-bearer of the American Independent Party hit 21% in a September Gallup Poll. Wallace ultimately carried five Deep South states — the last independent to win any state — capturing more than 13% of the vote.

Schultz must gain traction among disaffected Democrats and Republicans and persuade them — along with a lion's share of independents — that they have no options in either of the two major parties. Mobilizing that support a year before the primary season produces the kind of voter alienation and angst that has traditionally fueled past independent candidacies is a daunting task.

Already, major media organizations will start to test and track Schultz's appeal. A recent CNN Poll conducted by SSRS found Schultz had some of the worst numbers of any potential candidate tested. Just 19% of voters said they were at least somewhat likely to support him if he were to run in 2020. Of that 19%, only 4% said they were very likely to support him. And even though almost half of all voters (44%) had never even heard of him, his net favorability rating (favorable - unfavorable) among those who could form an opinion of him stood at a quite poor -11 points.

If he can't demonstrate that he's rallying alienated voters in public opinion polls his candidacy could flag before it's officially announced. Schultz is a billionaire, and he can afford to self-fund an advertising blitz—on cable TV and the Internet—that could boost his popularity. Sustaining that will not only be expensive but a gamble. History shows us that independent candidacies are forged and feed by the fires of the primaries, not the size of ones wallet.