past is prologue

If Ross Perot Couldn’t Win the Presidency, There’s Little Hope for Howard Schultz

While they have wealth and hostility to both political parties in common, Ross Perot was a far more galvanizing figure than Howard Schultz. Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images; Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

The wave of Democratic fear that swept through political circles when Starbucks founder Howard Schultz started talking about a lavishly self-financed independent run for president has abated somewhat in recent days. For one thing, he’s faced a degree of bipartisan mockery for his plans that would dent even the kind of outsize ego a man like Schultz likely possesses, as the Washington Post’s Ben Terris observed last week:

It was Valentine’s Day in Washington, and Republicans and Democrats nationwide had put aside their mutual contempt to share the greatest love of all: hating Schultz, the former Starbucks chief executive and “person of means” who says he may run for president as an independent.

“He’s accomplished his goal,” said Eric Rubin, a nurse who took his wife on a date to see Schultz speak at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in downtown D.C. “He’s united the country in their universal disdain!”

A CNN poll showed that disrespect for Schultz is not entirely an elite phenomenon, either:

There’s no indication that Americans like Howard Schultz two weeks into the rollout of his possible independent run for president; he had the worst numbers of any potential candidate tested, only one-in-five said they were likely to support him if he were to run in 2020, according to a CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released Wednesday.

Schultz falls behind Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (21% likely to support), New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (22%), and the other billionaire businessman thinking about running — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (27%), who built a media company that bears his name and now might run for president as a Democrat.

Schultz was tied with Bloomberg for those who said they were “not likely at all” to support the two candidates. They follow the more than half of Americans who said they were “not likely at all” to support President Donald Trump, according to the poll. Americans were 11 times more likely to say they were not at all inclined to vote for him (44%) than to say they were very likely to back him (4%).

For such an unpopular guy, Schultz isn’t very well known:

Schultz also had low name recognition, almost half of Americans (46%) had never heard of him, 13% had a favorable opinion and 22% who saw him as unfavorable.

Still, Schultz’s wealth and third-party posturing has led to frequent comparisons to an earlier plutocrat who ran two independent candidacies for president, and won more than 18 percent of the vote in 1992: H. Ross Perot.

You’d normally think that such comparisons might be comforting to Democrats. After all, like Schultz, Perot entered politics expressing outspoken hostility to the sitting Republican president of his time. And to this day many Republicans think Perot robbed George H.W. Bush of a second term, elevating Bill Clinton to the White House with a mere 43 percent of the vote.

However, the belief that Perot had a decisive impact on the outcome of the two-party race in 1992 has taken a beating, beginning with the inconvenient exit-poll finding that Perot voters would have split exactly equally between Bush and Clinton — with many others staying home — had their candidate not run. Despite pulling nearly 19 percent of the popular vote, he didn’t win any states or electoral votes, and he finished third everywhere other than in Maine and Utah. In Perot’s second campaign in 1996, his total vote was lower than Clinton’s margin over Bob Dole, so by definition he wasn’t the difference-maker. Perot may have mounted the most successful third-party runs in recent memory, but he didn’t set some precedent for a centrist to run a viable independent candidacy, like what Schultz is proposing.

Actually, when he began his independent presidential run Perot was much better known than Schultz is today; he was, in fact, a lot like Donald J. Trump, as David Bernstein once explained:

[L]ike Trump in ’16, he was already a well-known business superstar. In 1984, he’d sold a controlling interest in his company Electronic Data Systems to General Motors for $2.4 billion. He was even something of a proto-reality-television celebrity: in a wildly dramatized NBC miniseries about the 1979 rescue of two EDS employees from imprisonment in Iran, Perot had been portrayed by Richard Crenna, a veteran of the first three Rambo movies.

Perhaps just as importantly, Perot entered presidential politics in a period when the ideological sorting-out of the two major parties was still underway, and the percentage of Americans unmoored from both parties was high. That’s all changed since then; while a large percentage of Americans like to call themselves “independents,” their voting behavior is more predictably partisan than ever.

Perot also stood clearly for a national emphasis on issues the two major parties were ignoring: a growing national debt and the impact of economic globalization on jobs. As a self-conscious “reformer” he also embraced ideas like free TV time for candidates, shorter election campaigns, and an end to political action committees. What he lacked in specificity he more than overcompensated for with a fascinating mix of folksiness and wonkiness, conveyed through prime-time campaign infomercials that relied on charts and graphs.

Perot ran nine of these infomercials in 1992, including one that ran on all three major networks on Election eve. Some of them got better ratings than sitcoms. Perot was without any question a phenomenon who made an indelible impression at the time. The same cannot be said for Schultz. Though he’s been making the media rounds and has a new book on the New York Times best-seller list, it’s still unclear what he stands for other than dislike for Trump and disdain for what he considers a socialist trend among Democrats.

But the most important reason Schultz is unlikely to become the Perot of 2020, even if that necessarily meant anything in terms of the outcome, is simple: Thanks to the rare combination of a Republican president whose popularity was in free fall (owing to conservative disaffection and a terrible economy) and a scandal-plagued, little-known Democratic rival, Perot was actually a viable presidential candidate for a while. On Larry King’s TV show in February of 1992, he authorized a successful volunteer effort to get his name on the ballot in all 50 states. By June he was leading Bush and Clinton in the Gallup poll. Then Clinton’s campaign took off, and in the middle of the Democratic Convention Perot abruptly dropped out, noting that the Democratic Party had been “revitalized.” But Perot dropped back into the race in early October after constant pleas from his grassroots supporters, and retained enough popularity to force himself into the three presidential debates.

Unless something very strange happens, Schultz will never achieve such heights in popularity or such prominence in the presidential campaign, even if he does spend enough money to gain ballot access through paid organizers. So if he runs, Schultz is likely to be a marginal figure in the 2020 campaign. And even if he begins splitting the anti-Trump vote as some Democrats fear, memories of 2016 are likely to create a firestorm of hostility to this and every other non-major-party candidacy.

Right now the most dangerous thing about Schultz is his strange take on public opinion, which somehow keeps him from understanding the limitations of his appeal as most observers do. Here he is in an op-ed published in the midst of the widespread scorn his proto-candidacy has inspired:

To be very clear, I firmly believe there is an unprecedented appetite for a centrist independent presidential candidate, and that there is a credible path for an independent to win more than the necessary 270 electoral votes — a key criteria in my consideration of whether to run.

Actually, “centrism” is in extreme disrepute among the rank-and-file of both major parties, and partisan and ideological polarization is at an all-time high. The opening Schultz sees is mostly between his own ears.

Yes, if in 2020 Trump is foundering the way George H.W. Bush was in 1992, Schultz might pick up some otherwise-Republican votes along with those of anti-Trump voters who fear “socialism.” But in the end he’s no more likely — and is probably a lot less likely — than Ross Perot to become anything other than a historical curiosity.

If Ross Perot Couldn’t Win, Howard Schultz Has Little Hope