Editor’s Note: Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer are history professors at Princeton University and the authors of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is thinking about running for president on an independent ticket. Even though he has been a lifelong Democrat, Schultz now insists that the party has become too radical. During an interview with “60 Minutes,” he said he is considering running a campaign as a “centrist independent, outside of the two-party system.”
Although the announcement conjures instant jokes about a campaign promising a “vanilla latte in every cup,” this potential run could have serious consequences for the future of the nation. By entering the race, Schultz could emerge as a savior that the struggling President Donald Trump and the GOP have been desperately waiting for. Drawing on his own personal fortune, he will have the resources to mount a serious campaign and to blast his message over the airwaves and on your cell phone.
And he could easily pose a serious problem to a Democratic candidate seeking to secure every vote possible in the crucial purple states.
The odds of Schultz winning the presidency are incredibly long. In our strong two-party system, third-party candidates don’t really have a chance, especially now that our politics are more polarized than ever.
As we have argued in our new book “Fault Lines,” the two major political parties have a built-in advantage given the institutional resources they command and the strong attachment that voters have to their partisan identification.
While both parties used to win landslide victories with some frequency – Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984 – in recent decades the parties have become much more evenly matched and the elections much more closely contested.
In the modern age, presidential races have increasingly hinged on small numbers of voters in a handful of states. As a result, presidential campaigns have centered on the ability of parties to turn out the vote. As we saw in 2016, shifts in even a sliver of the electorate can determine that outcome.
For many Democrats, a potential Schultz campaign calls to mind the Green Party candidacy of consumer advocate and political reformer Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. With self-righteous fervor, Nader complained that the Democrats were no different from the GOP. Both parties, he argued, had sold themselves out to corporate money and were under the control of K Street interest groups. Neither one, according to Nader, cared about average Americans.
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Nader’s run helped cost Democrats the election. Vice President Al Gore defeated Texas Governor George Bush by about 540,000 ballots in the popular vote, but the Electoral College outcome proved too close to call on election night. With Gore claiming 267 electoral votes and Bush having 246, the undecided state of Florida became the final battleground.
After a heated battle over the recount process, culminating with the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision, Bush ended up winning the state by about 537 votes. Meanwhile, Nader took more than 97,000 votes in the state. It’s impossible to know if all of Nader’s voters would have gone to the polls without his candidacy or how they all would have voted, but it seems more than likely that enough of them would have gone to Gore and put the Democrats over the top, both in Florida and in the nation.
Schultz could easily play the same spoiler role in 2020. To be sure, there’s a chance some Republicans peel off from the GOP to vote for Schultz in protest against their own party. Nate Silver, for instance, has argued that Schultz could end up drawing votes from both parties like Ross Perot. Or, some think he might replicate the 1980 campaign of John Anderson, a Republican congressman who ran for president as an independent and drew votes from both parties.
But given how pronounced Republican partisan loyalty has proven in the ensuing decades, it would be difficult for a former Democrat who holds some liberal positions on issues like climate change and same-sex marriage to attract Republican voters. Moderate Democrats, meanwhile, would be untroubled by these social stances and perhaps drawn to Schultz’s message of fiscal responsibility and deficit cutting. This is a third-party campaign that will, like Nader, draw many more votes from one party than the other.
If Schultz’s goal is breaking free of the polarized politics of the Trump presidency, he should understand that his independent candidacy could wind up prolonging it. If the President were to win re-election in a cluttered campaign field, he and his party would surely take it as a sign of re-affirmation and double down on a radical agenda that would advance a number of right-wing proposals that Schultz claims to oppose.
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If Schultz’s goal is also to improve the quality of how our democracy functions so that the parties do what is “necessary on behalf of the American people,” then he should deal with the underlying processes instead of helping to secure a second term for President Trump.
Instead of wasting his money on what would be a vanity campaign at best and a contribution in kind to the Republicans at worst, Schultz should consider wiser ways to use his ample fortune: promoting access to the ballot for disaffected voters; providing contributions to other candidates at the federal, state and local levels; and working to support redistricting reform so that House districts are not so solidly red or blue.
In tackling those issues, Howard Schultz wouldn’t necessarily see his name on the 2020 ballot. But his presence in that election would be more profoundly felt.