02:02 - Source: CNN
Schultz said he wasn't running for president

Editor’s Note: Arick Wierson is an Emmy Award-winning television producer and former senior media adviser to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He currently advises political and corporate clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @ArickWierson. Bill Hillsman is an independent political consultant who has worked on four presidential campaigns and political campaigns in 30 states, for candidates including Paul Wellstone, Jesse Ventura, John Hickenlooper, Kinky Friedman, and Ralph Nader. He is the founder of Independent Voters of America. Follow him on Twitter @BillHillsman. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN —  

The Washington Post recently reported that Howard Schultz, the former CEO and chairman of Starbucks, is seriously mulling a presidential run as a third-party candidate.

Arick Wierson
Bill Hillsman

That the former coffee executive is considering an afterlife in politics is not new news – his name has been bandied about on numerous lists of high-profile corporate and celebrity outsiders who might take on Donald Trump in 2020 – but up until now, much of that speculation assumed that Schultz would run as a Democrat.

The history of successful third-party presidential bids in modern American history is the shortest of lists – with precisely zero entries – but the “sui generis” dynamics of the 2020 contest could possibly create a once-in-a-generation opening for a Schultz presidential gambit.

For this to play out in Schultz’s favor, a few factors will have to align – some of which, as far as Schultz and his advisers are concerned, are completely outside their control.

2020 will not be ‘politics as usual’

Presidential elections are always referendums on the incumbent, either because the President is running for re-election, or his party’s nominee is running in the wake of his or her predecessor. And 2020, assuming Trump is still standing, will be a gut-check for Americans as they consider whether to give perhaps the most controversial President in American history four more years.

According to a recent Marist poll, 57% of registered voters would “definitely” vote for someone other than Trump in 2020. This same survey indicated that while 69% of GOP voters intend to back the President in 2020, 62% of independents and 91% of Democrats said they definitely won’t be backing Trump’s bid for re-election.

But voting “for” or “against” someone is a somewhat abstract exercise, absent a real opponent. So far, the first Democratic candidates out of the gate represent the increasingly progressive end of the political spectrum, leading many pundits to conjecture that many in the Democratic Party are determined not to nominate a white male candidate to the top of its 2020 ticket.

Forty-two percent of Americans identify as independent voters, and for many Americans in the middle, if the choice is between an increasingly erratic President and a firebrand like Elizabeth Warren, expect to see a seismic rift open up the middle of the American electorate – one that a candidate like Howard Schultz could step in and fill.

Of course, this being American politics, filling a void and winning a plurality of the electorate is quite different than racking up enough wins across the country to muster the 270 votes needed to take the electoral college.

Marketing to independent voters

For Schultz to break through, he must go full-bore after self-identified independent voters; there are enough of them in just about every county that, with the right ground game and clever media messaging, he could become a viable third option in nearly every state.

As a seasoned retailer, Schultz needs to use his money and his smarts to court independent voters as he would new customers, making them feel empowered by the fact that they don’t identify with either dysfunctional major political party. With the right strategy, he should be able to parlay his success in corporate America and in building a beloved brand into a viable political vector.

A crowded Democratic field will work in Schultz’s favor, as splintered allegiances during the primary season will depress the level of support for any one Democrat, which means that in the early polling throughout 2019 – assuming he can consolidate a core base of supporters – he could outperform every individual candidate except Trump – lending immediate credence to the legitimacy to his campaign.

As the election heats up, Schultz will be praying that some formidable centrist candidates emerge in the Democratic primary; he must hope that pols like Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg – both of them with the ability to garner widespread support from moderate Democrats who are just as suspect of progressives like Warren, Kamala Harris and Julián Castro as they are of Donald Trump – gain significant traction, but just not enough to win the primary.

A little help from his friends

Biden and Bloomberg bids – neither of which are confirmed yet – will work in Schultz’s favor, provided they don’t capture too much tail wind. Bloomberg’s campaign will likely do a good job of edifying voters that it’s not a mistake to elect a businessperson – just that Americans elected the wrong one last time – and Biden’s gravitas and re-emergence on that national stage will remind Americans what it’s like to have a steady hand guiding the country. It’s also quite likely that the Bloomberg campaign will target independents from the get-go, inadvertently setting up Schultz as the popular second choice among Bloomberg independents.

Formidable yet ultimately unsuccessful Biden and Bloomberg bids will leave millions of moderate Dems shopping around for a new sensible centrist, and an independent Schultz might very well be their cup of coffee. Nevertheless, banking on Biden and Bloomberg warming up the centrists is a risky proposition; if either campaign takes off and becomes the Democratic nominee, there would be little oxygen left in the race for an independent centrist like Schultz.

Less likely, but not entirely beyond the realm of possibility, is former Ohio Gov. John Kasich deciding to challenge Trump in the Republican primary, only to come up short in the end. A Howard Schultz with a strong independent message could then swoop up disaffected Kasich Republicans, “never-Trump” GOP-ers, and moderate establishment Republicans.

Ensuring ballot access in all 50 states

One of the biggest sticking points for third-party presidential candidates has been ballot access and developing a formidable ground game in the absence of a local party to lean on. In Bloomberg’s abandoned plans for a 2016 independent run, his advisers had determined that it would indeed be possible for an independent candidate to make a play to get on the ballot in all 50 states, but to do so would require significant lead time to marshal the resources on the ground, both legal and in the field, to fulfill each state’s unique ballot access requirements. If Schultz is serious about making a play for 2020, he would have to be willing to invest part of his estimated $3.4 billion net worth in building up local field operations teams and hiring election lawyers in all 50 states in the coming months.

Pivoting from executive to politician

The biggest wild card in a Schultz independent presidential bid is the candidate himself. Like the current President, this self-made billionaire is untested as a candidate in the political realm. Walking rows of beans with farmers in Iowa is not the same as ordering up company-wide diversity training sessions. Will he be able to break down complex economic and policy in terms that resonate with average voters? How will he manage the inevitable attacks calling him an out-of-touch plutocrat? Can he thread the needle and provide sensible proposals on the nation’s most divisive issues like immigration and health care? As an independent, how can Schultz project the image of a winner, and not just a spoiler?

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    For the news media and Washington political punditry, a Schultz independent run would add a new, potentially game-changing element to an already fascinating election dynamic. For Schultz, if he indeed harbors presidential aspirations, this is the one time the stars are more or less aligned for a legitimate third-party candidate.