CNN —  

Here’s some valuable political trivia for you Howard Schultz fans out there: The last two incumbent presidents to lose re-election faced both strong independent or third-party candidates and tough primary challenges.

President Donald Trump faces neither of those at the moment.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz could provide one of those things if he carries through with his possible campaign as a “centrist independent.”

But the knives are certainly out for him. The response to the political neophyte publicizing his possible presidential ambitions as an independent candidate has been swift and vicious.

He was heckled at a book event, castigated by Democrats to whom he once wrote donation checks and accused of playing the role of a spoiler ready to hand re-election to Trump.

That last accusation was leveled by Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire who spoiled into politics as a Republican-turned-independent New York mayor who has now become a Democrat to perhaps mount his own presidential bid. Bloomberg, by the way, chose not to spend his billions on a run as an independent in 2016 because he said at the time it would only help elect Trump. We all know how that worked out.

Now, just as Trump remade the GOP, Bloomberg would have to remake the Democrats.

The main point of argument against independent candidates like Schultz that’s being seized upon by Democrats right now is that he could spoil their chances in the general election. And that could leave the country with four more years of Trump, a scenario Schultz says he would prevent.

But there are serious problems with the spoiler theory. The most famous and successful independent run of recent memory was Ross Perot’s in 1992. The common belief is that he spoiled President George H.W. Bush’s re-election effort by pulling support from the President, which is what allowed Bill Clinton to be elected with a decisive Electoral College victory but just 43% of the vote.

In the exit polls, however, it’s pretty clear that Perot pulled from both candidates. If the race had been only between Clinton and Bush, 47% said they would’ve voted for Clinton, 41% for Bush, 2% for someone else and 3% would not have voted at all. Among Perot supporters only, it’s almost an even divide, 43% Clinton, 42% Bush and the rest saying other or would not vote. Those results carry into specific states, according to an analysis published in The Washington Post at the time. Perot pulled more votes from Clinton in states Clinton won, like Ohio, and more from Bush in states Bush won, like Florida.

The same was true in 2000. Democrats still bemoan that consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s run as a Green Party candidate handed the race to George W. Bush. But that makes a lot of assumptions and ignores the fact that there were in fact six third-party candidates who got more than the 537 votes that separated the top two finishers. Why is Nader more to blame than Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan? If his voters had supported Bush, the result might not have been so close. Or maybe if Gore had run more in line with Bill Clinton, it wouldn’t have been as close as 537 votes in the first place.

42:04 - Source: CNN
1993 NAFTA debate: Al Gore vs Ross Perot (Full debate)

There aren’t a lot of recent presidents who lost re-election, but those who did have shared a certain cocktail of circumstances. Both Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush faced stiff primary challenges – Carter by Ted Kennedy and Bush by Buchanan. They both also faced high-performing independent candidates on general election day.

Independent presidential candidate John Anderson makes his concession speech on Election Day November 4, 1980.

Bush faced Perot and Clinton, and Carter faced Republican Ronald Reagan and independent John Anderson, a former Republican congressman who was booed out of the Republican primary and then mounted a quixotic bid. His 6.6% total on Election Day would not have swayed Reagan’s landslide. Going further back into history there are examples like former President Teddy Roosevelt’s crusade to sink President William Howard Taft by joining and running from the Progressive Party. Roosevelt beat Taft that year, but they both lost spectacularly to Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat.

The thing about more recent independent candidates is they have a tendency to fizzle before Election Day as voters get more serious. Schultz will need to become popular before he can fizzle.

And yet – if you look at what voters say in polls, there’s a desire in American politics for options. That’s why states have experimented with things like nonpartisan primaries (California) and ranked-choice voting (Maine).

Americans certainly don’t love the binary options they have.

In 2016, 18% of voters had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Hillary Clinton. Just 38% had a favorable view of Trump, well below the 43% who had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton. The less favorable candidate won. The 15% of voters who had an unfavorable view of Trump but voted for him anyway all had at least one third-party option on their ballots. But that didn’t drive people in droves to Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Sen. Ted Kennedy took his primary challenge of  President Jimmy Carter to the Democratic National Conventon in 1980.

Presuming Schultz would play the spoiler presumes voters can’t be trusted with options. Democrats had few options in 2016, and that led to Trump. Their field is full of options in 2020.

But the primary system has also grown to the point where a very few Americans choose the options for the majority of Americans. In 2016, 61.3 million Americans took part in the process, a little less than a quarter of the voting age population of more than 250 million. About 55.5% of the voting age population took part on Election Day.

Trying to fit a wealth of ideas into one party can be interesting. As a Democrat, Bloomberg, who made his fortune selling financial data to Wall Street, could find himself explaining the benefits of capitalism vs. socialism on a primary debate stage with the likes of Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, who have made careers holding Wall Street to account. No matter who wins in that field, there are going to be some disenfranchised Democrats.

But Bloomberg sees becoming a Democrat as the only way to beat Trump, who maintains the support of the vast majority of Republicans even though the number of Americans who identify as Republican has dropped during his presidency, according to an analysis of Gallup data by Marquette Law School professor and pollster Charles Franklin. But those people leaving the GOP, unlike Bloomberg, aren’t just migrating to the Democratic Party. Many of them are becoming independents.

“In recent reads of Gallup data, the percentage of independents is around 40% or higher, but if you go back a decade, it was much closer to 30%,” said Jennifer Agiesta, CNN’s director of polling and election analysis. “That’s a real shift over time.”

But she adds an enormous caveat: “They are less likely to identify themselves as partisan, but they largely still behave like partisans no matter what they call themselves.” She pointed to the lack of independents in Congress, except for a few New Englanders, as evidence.

The oddity of the party’s immediate knee-jerk fear over a lifelong Democrat running as an independent to yank the party to the middle in 2020 is that it was an avowed independent running as a Democrat who yanked the party left in 2016. And Sanders, still not technically a Democrat, may run again for the Democratic nomination this year. His relative success in 2016 inspired plenty of fellow progressives and democratic socialists to run as Democrats. Their excitement helped Democrats regain the House in the 2018 midterm elections, but it also led to a generational debate about exactly how liberal the party should be.