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Why Howard Schultz's presidential campaign is already stumbling

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

He might end up being the kind of rational candidate pragmatic centrists are longing for. But as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz considers running for president as an Independent, he’s already tripping political land mines.

Schultz said on “60 Minutes” that he plans to run as an Independent because “both parties are consistently not doing what’s necessary … and are engaged every single day in revenge politics.” Many Americans would agree with that assessment.

But that doesn’t mean an Independent candidate can win. Schultz points out correctly that more people say they’re Independent than identify as either Republican or Democrat. In the latest breakdown from Gallup, 39% say they’re Independent, 34% say Democrat and 25% say Republican.

But most Independents lean either Democrat or Republican, and vote that way. In the 2016 election, 31% of voters said they were Independent, according to Roper. But 42% of them voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton and 46% voted for Republican Donald Trump. That leaves just 12% of Independents who voted for a third-party candidate or a write-in.

[Learn about Howard Shultz’s credentials.]

The high-water mark for Independents within the last century was Ross Perot, who won 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election. Perot seems to have drawn votes from similar numbers of Rs and Ds, so he probably didn’t affect the outcome, with Bill Clinton winning 43% of the popular vote and George H. W. Bush winning 37.4%.

The outcome was far closer in 2000, when Ralph Nader ran not as an Independent but as a Green Party candidate. Nader won just 2.74% of the vote, but most of those votes would have gone for Democratic candidate Al Gore had Nader not been in the race. In two states, Republican George W. Bush beat Gore by far fewer votes than Nader got, which means Gore would have won if just a portion of the Nader votes went for him. And victory in either of those states would have given Gore a clean win in the electoral college. Instead, Bush won the hotly contested election.

Democrats fear Schultz could have the same effect if he runs as an Independent in 2020, and takes enough votes from the Democratic candidate to put Trump, or whoever runs as a Republican, over the top. Schultz is socially liberal. When he led Starbucks, the company took a stance in favor of same-sex marriage, for instance. He’s a vocal advocate of racial equality who had pictures of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Seattle office. So he would appeal to Democrats on those issues.

But Schultz also castigates Democrats for offering extraordinarily costly programs, such as Medicare for all and free college, without acknowledging that they’re wildly expensive and would require vast tax hikes. In that regard, he’d more likely appeal to fiscally conservative Independents and even some Republicans, rather than progressive Democrats.

Schultz defines budget issues as one area he’s most passionate about—just as Ross Perot did in 1992. But that is probably not enough to build a successful campaign around. The issues voters care most about are health care, economic opportunity and immigration. Schultz has spoken publicly on such issues as a businessman, but he hasn’t yet articulated policy priorities—or buzzy social-media memes likely to stick in voters’ minds. If he can’t, it might not matter how he runs for president.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman