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Howard Schultz’s presidential ambitions spurred a months-long effort to disrupt the 2020 race

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said on Jan. 29 that he believes he "can beat the system" if he decides to run for president. (Video: Reuters)

Before announcing his presidential ambitions this week, former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz secretly undertook a months-long effort to prepare an independent presidential campaign against the nation’s two-party political system, deploying more than six national polls and laying the groundwork for paid advertising that could debut in the next two months.

The full reach of the project suggests that his stated goal of disrupting the U.S. political process is not likely to fade away anytime soon, despite enormous historical barriers to success and Democratic predictions that his entry in the race will help President Trump get reelected.

An early advertising effort, made possible by Schultz’s net worth of about $3.4 billion, would be designed to help Schultz show early promise in national polls during his book tour, which he has described as a time to test the appeal of his ideas.

“If I decide to run for president as an independent, I will believe, and have the conviction and the courage to believe, that I can win,” Schultz said in an event Monday in New York City.

Schultz’s moves have taken aim at liberal Democrats and provoked a fierce backlash from the party’s strategists and presidential candidates, who worry that Schultz’s entry in the race would divide Trump’s opposition and ensure his reelection. Democrats point to the results in recent races involving third-party candidates, including Jill Stein in 2016, Ralph Nader in 2000 and H. Ross Perot in 1992.

For his part, Trump has goaded his potential rival on Twitter, writing that Schultz, who has called himself a lifelong Democrat, “doesn’t have the ‘guts’ to run.”

If funded, the Schultz ad campaign would come as Democratic candidates running for president are still hoarding cash for a primary fight. Schultz has said that he would not be dissuaded by having to spend $300 million to $500 million of his own wealth on a campaign.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who said he may run for president as an independent, was heckled during his book launch event Jan. 28 in New York. (Video: MphoD via Storyful)

That wealth has become a point of contention with Schultz’s Democratic rivals, whose policies he has criticized this week. Schultz cited as “ridiculous” a plan by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to tax the net worth of those with more than $50 million in assets. He described the government health plan of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), which would eliminate private insurance, as “not American.”

Democrats have struck back.

“What’s ‘ridiculous’ is billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else,” Warren tweeted Tuesday in response to Schultz’s comments. “It’s time for change.”

Former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, another billionaire, released a statement Monday warning that a Schultz campaign was likely to reelect Trump.

Advisers say Schultz plans to make a decision midyear on a campaign based on continued polling and book tour feedback. If he moves forward, Schultz this fall would begin the process of collecting signatures to gain ballot access in all 50 states. The campaign would have a goal of polling above 15 percent nationally to ensure Schultz’s inclusion in the general-election debates.

Without a formal campaign, Schultz has built out an extensive operation to support his bid. He has been working on ballot access plans with Kellen Arno and Kahlil Byrd, two former strategists for Americans Elect, which mounted a similar effort in the 2012 presidential election cycle. Schultz has also been having policy conversations to develop his platform, including a meeting with venture capitalist Bob Kocher, a veteran of the Obama White House and an expert on reducing government health-care costs.

Advisers say Schultz will be able to win by turning the 2020 campaign into a referendum on the two-party system. They said they were encouraged by the results of an internal 1,000-voter test conducted during Schultz’s “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, during which he confirmed he was considering the race.

In national polls, Schultz’s team, led by Republican pollster Greg Strimple, tested a three-way race between Trump, a generic “centrist independent” and named Democratic candidates. They found the independent candidate — a stand-in for Schultz — would fare better in a general election if a more liberal candidate, such as Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), were to win the Democratic nomination, the person said.

Tests of a three-way matchup in which former vice president Joe Biden was the Democratic candidate were more challenging for Schultz. Biden said Monday that he would “soon” make a decision on running.

Strimple, who has worked for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the Congressional Leadership Fund, is a longtime colleague of Schultz’s top strategist, Steve Schmidt, a former Republican who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Bill Burton, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, has also joined the effort.

Independent candidates historically play only insignificant or spoiler roles in presidential races. The last third-party candidate to win an electoral college vote was former Alabama governor George Wallace in 1968.

Existing data suggests that the election of Trump has not yet broadened the market for third-party candidates. Independents fared poorly in the 2018 elections, badly losing statewide races in Maine and Kansas, among others.

“Our assumption was growing partisan polarization left open the possibility that people would say I am not represented by either side,” said Nick Troiano, the executive director of Unite America, which endorsed independent candidates in 2018. “But down ballot where we focused, the election was driven by fear and anger on the other side, so people voted against the party they hated.”

Polling and focus groups after the elections by Unite America found that independent voters cited their concern over Trump as a reason for voting Democratic. Troiano recalls one voter in a focus group explaining, “I’m an independent. I always vote for the person, not the party, but in this election if you weren’t a Democratic lady on the ballot, you weren’t getting my vote.”

Schultz’s strategists say they hope to overcome this pattern by forcing a national debate about the political process and voter dissatisfaction with both political parties. One adviser not authorized to speak on the record said the Democratic backlash over the last two days had helped Schultz make that case, while also allowing Schultz to distance himself from his own Democratic roots.