Howard Schultz certainly accomplished one of his goals. The former Starbucks chief executive has gotten a tremendous amount of publicity for his potential independent presidential run, including an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” as well as loads of commentary from pundits and analysts. Much of it, however, has been withering attacks against Schultz for the possibility that he’ll throw the election to President Trump.
Last June when this idea first came up, I explained why it’s so foolish for Schultz — or any corporate CEO with no political experience — to think he could be president. In a better world, his candidacy might be dismissed as quickly as that of self-help guru Marianne Williamson (who announced her run for president yesterday; you probably missed it).
But it turns out that the very ludicrousness of Schultz’s candidacy offers some insights into how presidential politics works, and what the challenge is for Democrats as they try to figure out how to defeat Trump in 2020.
You can criticize Schultz on any number of grounds. There’s the narcissism shared by so many billionaires who assume they could run the government without any relevant experience, the fact that he seems to have barely thought about how he might put his exceedingly vague ideas into action, and the incorrect belief that dissatisfaction with the parties translates into eagerness to support an independent candidate.
But the most important criticism of Schultz to be lodged may be that the number of voters who want what he’s selling is tiny. Schultz offers social liberalism on issues like LGBTQ rights, combined with economic conservatism based on low taxes for the wealthy and scaling back social programs in order to reduce the national debt.
His potential candidacy has led many people to look back at this extraordinarily revealing chart created by political scientist Lee Drutman in 2017, which mapped the 2016 vote on two dimensions, opinions on social/identity issues and opinions on economic issues:
Those who were liberal on both dimensions (the lower left quadrant) made up 45 percent of the electorate, while those who were conservative on both (the upper right quadrant) made up 23 percent. The Howard Schultz quadrant (lower right), combining social liberalism with economic conservatism, made up a whopping 4 percent of the electorate. The real contested ground is the upper left or populist quadrant (29 percent of the electorate), where social conservatism meets economic liberalism.
Because he spends his time with a lot of people whose views resemble his own, Schultz probably believes there are many more people who share his views than there actually are. It is a misconception many of us are prone to; you may recall the apocryphal quote from film critic Pauline Kael, who supposedly said after the 1972 election that she couldn’t understand how Nixon won, since nobody she knew voted for him. In fact, Kael never said that; she understood perfectly well why Nixon won, and was commenting on the insularity of her social circle. But it was repeated so often because it captured a truth, that we’re all at risk of assuming those we know can be extrapolated to the rest of the country.
But let’s consider that populist quadrant. While mobilization of the two parties' loyalists will be critical to the outcome in 2020, where there are persuadable voters — those who might choose either candidate — that’s where they’re mostly located. The battle for those votes will likely shape the race.
How will that play out? Democrats will go after them by arguing that Trump pulled a con on them in 2016, an argument that has the benefit of being perfectly true. Trump told voters that the system was rigged against them and promised that he’d restore balance in their favor. He would throw out vague promises that he had no intention of keeping, such as his vow of “insurance for everybody,” his promise of “no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid,” his suggestion that “I do” believe in raising taxes on the wealthy, “including myself,” and his claim that “I’m not going to let Wall Street get away with murder. Wall Street has caused tremendous problems for us. We’re going to tax Wall Street.”
Yet Trump has been more eager to do the bidding of the wealthy and corporations than any president in modern times, and has run a spectacularly corrupt administration. The question is how many of those in the populist quadrant will turn to a Democrat who shares their priorities on economics — but might not on social issues.
Trump’s strategy to hold on to them will be simple: race and immigration. He ran a campaign of xenophobia and hatred in 2016, tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing to save Republicans in 2018, and he’s going to do the same thing in 2020.
As despicable as it is, from a purely strategic standpoint, it’s not crazy. If the president is in danger of losing those populist voters, racial fears and resentments can offer a powerful incentive for them to stay with him. The problem for him is that he needs to hold nearly all of them, and will need to convince them to ignore what he’s done on economic issues (and the state of the economy itself, should we experience a slowdown).
Democrats, on the other hand, start with a larger base of people who are liberal on both economics and social issues, so they only need to win over a relatively small number of populist voters to put the election out of Trump's reach. And unlike him, they don't have to lie about half of what they believe and intend to do.
To garner a significant number of votes, an independent candidacy might have to go at that populist quadrant, to offer genuine economic liberalism combined with social conservatism. If there was a candidate like that with a few billion dollars to throw around, it could really upend the race. But Howard Schultz is not that candidate.