vision 2020

Howard Schultz and His Team Think the Backlash Means They’re ‘Onto Something’

Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Anyone who thought, or hoped, that the flood of horror in response to Howard Schultz’s independent presidential exploration would deter him might want to sit down for this. Because the former Starbucks chairman and his band of true believers are convinced — and getting more unblinkingly convinced by the day — that the anger is conveniently packaged proof that they’re paving the right path.

Schultz was minutes into his informal campaign-trail debut in January when a protester interrupted, imploring the “egotistical billionaire asshole” not to help reelect Donald Trump. Sitting onstage at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square, Schultz looked on, blankly, but members of his team, who were watching, annoyed, concluded almost immediately that the man — who was getting dragged off by security — must be what one of them soon called a “professional hater.”

Once the evening’s programming was over, and the microphones were off, Schultz, surprised but electrified, turned to his longtime friend Billy Etkin and said, “We’ve clearly struck a nerve.” Peter Chiarelli, the former Army vice–chief of staff who’s helping organize Schultz’s presidential exploration, told me he’d seen a television segment that concluded such an interruption was inevitable there, in downtown Manhattan, so he decided to laugh it off as a fringe stunt. Plus, said the retired general, he’s not on social media, so while he knows it’s getting rough for Schultz, he mostly ignores the raging masses — the hordes of Democrats from both left and center baffled that this guy doesn’t see he might accidentally help reelect a president he professes to hate — anyway. It’s like Schultz keeps telling his team behind closed doors, meaning to reassure them: “We touched the third rail! And this is what happens when we touch the third rail!”

This is because if Schultz, a Democrat until recently, does run for president as an independent, there’s a very good chance he’ll boost Trump’s shot at reelection. Trump, for one, thinks so, telling campaign donors he’s trying to goad Schultz into the race. Democrats, armed with copious polling data showing that Schultz would likely steal their votes and pave Trump’s path back to the White House, are sure of it. That January eruption neatly distilled the terror, fury, and baffled outrage that’s followed him everywhere since he first revealed he was thinking about a run. Few discussions of Schultz pass among Democratic pros now without a mention of Jill Stein or Ralph Nader, or frequent use of the word “spoiler.”

A widely shared sentiment. Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But back in Seattle, where Schultz is building his pre-campaign, his political team is digging into a posture of unbudging defiance as the world’s fury rains down on them on television, on Twitter, and in face-to-face confrontations. The anger, they keep telling each other, shows that Schultz has a point. They may be facing political exile and risking professional ruin. But, they keep insisting to their petrified friends, Howard Schultz is doing this, so you might as well forget your electoral college calculations and relax.

“The Constitution says if you’re 35 and you have a couple of good ideas, stand up and you can become president of the United States! That’s all he’s doing! Sharing his perspective — that’s all he’s doing!,” says Etkin of his friend, who’s had a political team around him, thinking about a run, for  over a year. “Oddly enough, he’s become a magnet for vitriol — oddly enough! — from the left! It’s incredible. These are the people who should be celebrating new ideas!”

Schultz’s inner circle of friends and aides insists the negativity is all part of their boss’s legend. “He went around to 241 people trying to raise money for a dream he had, and 241 people told him, ‘No,’ until he got to 242. This just makes him more determined,” says Chiarelli, recounting a version of Schultz’s Starbucks origin story.

Plus, they sigh, it’s obvious the country agrees Democrats have veered too far to the left and Trumpified Republicans have become unacceptable to most voters — regardless of what polls or recent elections demonstrate — and that the chorus imploring Schultz to step aside is really just 15 percent of screamers on the ideological fringes (primarily on the left). “The reaction we got from the extremes is proof-positive that we’ve struck a chord. That sounds really basic, but I think it’s true: We go out there, Howard says on 60 Minutes he’s thinking of running for president, and the world becomes unglued,” says Greg Strimple, the Republican pollster who does Schultz’s public opinion work. “How can that one sentence unglue the whole political Establishment of the most powerful country on Earth? It tells me we’re onto something.”

Schultz, for one, promises he was expecting the criticism. “Clearly we’re going to have some resistance,” he said on a radio show shortly after announcing his interest in running.

But, he conceded, “the extent of it has taken us aback a bit.”

The political operatives fanning Schultz’s ambitions have had a busy start to 2019.

When Bill Burton told his bosses at SKDKnickerbocker, the Democratic public affairs shop, that he was leaving to help Schultz’s presidential effort, it came as a surprise to everyone there. Starbucks was a longtime client of the firm, but so were a ton of Democrats — making it untenable to continue working there. Within party circles, whispers immediately broke out about Burton, a veteran of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and the White House. Friends and former co-workers mused about cutting off contact with him altogether, and guessing at just how much money he would be making off Schultz — who’s worth just under $4 billion, according to Bloomberg — became a parlor game. Before long, this kind of scorn became a topic of concerned discussion even among Burton’s new colleagues in Schultz’s orbit. Burton mostly stopped answering phone calls from reporters. Soon, he was moved to defensively tell CNN that he found the popular critiques of Schultz “extraordinarily lazy.”

The biggest name on Schultz’s advisory team faced new incoming, too. Days after Schultz told 60 Minutes he was considering a run, MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace confronted her onetime colleague Steve Schmidt, the former John McCain strategist who left the GOP last year out of disgust with Trump. “People are terrified, and people are terrified that you, one of the most visible Trump critics, are now behind someone that they feel like could take away the Democrats’ best chance of toppling Donald Trump,” she told him on air, as he stared back, stone-faced. “Nobody is voting. The election is two years away,” he responded. “But we’re already scared!” she shot back. A few days after that confrontation, Schmidt was due to tape an episode of his podcast, Words Matter, with co-host and fellow conservative Trump critic Elise Jordan. Within political circles, Schmidt had long been widely known as a Schultz adviser, but now that Schultz was looking at a campaign, Jordan and producer Adam Levine had some questions about how this was going to work. The trio had already agreed that Schmidt was going to leave Words Matter, but he consented to an unusual arrangement now: He’d answer their questions. Sitting with them, he explained his position that “it may be the case that 2020 is the year that the American political system can be disrupted.”

For nearly half an hour of polite conversation, Schmidt grumbled defenses of Schultz, and his impatience with pundits who were writing him off. Plainly unimpressed, Levine and Jordan pushed the increasingly tense Schmidt to walk them through Schultz’s possible road to victory on the electoral map, and the strategist repeatedly demurred, rejecting the request as premature. Finally, when Levine asked Schmidt about Schultz’s views on tax policy, he’d had enough. “Adam, this is bullshit,” he snapped, backing away from the microphone. “I’m not doing this.” The truncated episode posted February 10; Schmidt hasn’t been back on air.

Starbucks, too, scrambled to contain the fallout. One new group calling itself TRENTA PAC (“Trump’s Re-Election? Not Today, Asshole”) organized protests outside Schultz’s events and coordinated with another group called “No Howard No,” which ran a mobile billboard through Capitol Hill calling for a Starbucks boycott. Hoping for distance from the mess, corporate distributed situation-defusing talking points to employees in case they were confronted by citizens with questions about Schultz (“Howard’s future plans are up to him”).

By now, Schultz’s pre-campaign team has been growing for months. He consulted with D.C. veterans like former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, both ex-Starbucks board members, before making his exploration public, and his political payroll now includes — in addition to Chiarelli, Schmidt, Burton, and Strimple — GOP operative Brooks Kochvar, who’s managing the effort, and longtime PR pro Tucker Warren and former D.C. journalist Erin McPike for the press side.

As public anger mounted, Schultz’s aides thought through ways to counter the barrage they’d been facing on social media, and on February 15, Strimple’s team pushed out a document highlighting a Morning Consult poll from the previous month in which 50 percent of respondents said a third party was needed. Over a third of voters said they’d consider a third-party candidate. Slightly more Republicans than Democrats were recorded as identifying less with their party than in 2016, which the pollsters wrote “is helpful in refuting the spoiler argument.”

Then Schultz sat down with his team to draft a letter that would, they hoped, calm everyone down and reassure the skeptics that the tycoon wasn’t insane. “We went through several turns of it,” Chiarelli said, before they pressed the publish button on Medium and in an email to Schultz’s supporters on the morning of February 19.

“As I’m sure you’ve seen, there have been some skeptical and even downright angry comments from party activists and inside-the-Beltway pundits in the press and on social media. Others have expressed genuine fears that an independent candidate could help re-elect President Trump. I hear and respect this overriding concern, and have repeatedly promised that I will not be a spoiler,” Schultz wrote. But, he scolded, Democrats risked spoiling their own chances by nominating a left-wing candidate. “To be very clear, I firmly believe there is an unprecedented path for an independent to win more than the necessary 270 electoral votes — a key criteria in my consideration of whether to run.”

Schultz, who early in his exploration commissioned 50 state polls to test whether a plausible path to victory existed, had already conceded elsewhere he might be willing to abandon his potential campaign if Democrats nominated someone he perceived to be a centrist — maybe Joe Biden or, briefly, Michael Bloomberg — and his own path to victory disappeared. Just days earlier, he told CNN he wouldn’t move forward if the numbers didn’t add up for him. But, when asked then if he’d be a spoiler, he responded, “How can you spoil a system that is already broken? It’s just not working.”

To some, this sounded familiar. The night of the 2000 election, Nader appeared at the National Press Club in Washington, and repeated one of his favorite lines: “You can’t spoil a system that’s spoiled to the core.”

When Michael Bloomberg, a fellow billionaire and committed centrist, issued a statement essentially discouraging Schultz from running — recalling how he abandoned his 2016 independent flirtations for fear of electing Trump — Schultz’s team was furious. “God knows he’s a brilliant man with lots of resources, and there’s no doubt his analysis took him where it took him. [But] he said if an independent ran it would elect Donald Trump. Well, he didn’t run, and Donald Trump won anyway. [And] the conditions in 2019 are totally different from 2015 and 2016,” insists Chiarelli. “The whole idea on the Democratic side that they can predict, in February of 2019, that Howard Schultz’s entry to this is going to elect Donald Trump is just silly! It’s just silly!”

Schultz’s team had long been convinced their guy and Bloomberg were pulling from the same group of voters, and when members of the Schultz crew read the news alert earlier this month revealing that the former mayor wouldn’t be running, they jumped to their feet, in the telling of someone who was in the room in Seattle. There were cheers and laughs: “Well, this makes the case, doesn’t it?” mused one aide, figuring that Bloomberg’s concession that he couldn’t win a Democratic primary was tantamount to an endorsement of Schultz’s central point about polarization.

Bloomberg, however, said nothing of Schultz. Meanwhile, much of the polling remains clear that Schultz would draw disproportionately from Democrats’ voter base — and he continues to receive a great deal of attention on cable news. “A billionaire flirts with a run for president and gets grossly disproportionate free airtime. We all know the punchline,” wrote the Columbia Journalism Review. Schultz’s vague policy talk, which often sounds like an attempt to justify why he’s left the Democratic Party, hasn’t eased any of the animosity from the left. He’s criticized the recent GOP tax bill and said he should pay more taxes, but called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas “punitive” and Elizabeth Warren’s “ridiculous.” He’s called for eliminating the national debt and said the education system should be “more nimble” without explaining what that means, while calling the Green New Deal “immoral” and Kamala Harris’s health-care position “not American.” His aides now say his schedule is filled with policy meetings, and he recently gave a speech in Miami outlining a series of presidential promises that include signing only bipartisan legislation and not nominating anyone to the Supreme Court unless he or she could be confirmed by two-thirds of senators. (Who such a nominee might be was left unsaid.)

They’re also rushing to build out the communications side of his operation. They were caught unprepared for the sheer magnitude of reaction to his announcement, and to the out-of-touch optics: First they scheduled Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop podcast for one of his first interviews, and he soon after found himself confronted by a Philadelphia activist who said he was mischaracterizing the famous 2018 arrest of two black men at a Starbucks there. He subsequently said, “I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.”

Nonetheless, Schultz’s aides are sketching out a path for the months ahead that includes meetings with voters and business owners all over the country, and studying target states — including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas — where they think he has a chance to make waves. His friends and staff are both careful to insist he still hasn’t made up his mind on running, but people in both camps these days regularly slip and call the effort a campaign, before correcting themselves.

The exploration is now far enough along that any window he had to change his mind and run as a Democrat has been duct taped, nailed, and cemented shut, a few times over. Democratic firms have now compiled opposition research books on Schultz, focusing on his business history, and Priorities USA, the main Democratic super-PAC (which Burton co-founded), says it’s prepared to launch a full-scale anti-Schultz campaign if it becomes necessary.

It may need to. Throughout Schultz’s CNN town hall, his strategists ran dial tests to gauge levels of support. They found positive sentiment about him rose 43 percentage points among those watching, according to an internal report. And whereas only 36 percent of viewers thought he was a credible independent presidential candidate when the evening began, 63 ended the hour agreeing. Still, the show ended up behind both Fox News and MSNBC in the ratings.

A few days after the Barnes & Noble appearance, Schultz’s aides circulated a polling memo meant to demonstrate his electoral viability. In the introductory note, a staffer highlighted a tweet from Democratic Hawaii senator Brian Schatz declaring, “There is no appetite for a centrist independent candidacy.”

“That belief is based on the confirmation bias that comes from the closed loop of Twitter and the self-satisfaction from one-upmanship within the commentariat,” wrote the Schultz aide. In the memo, the pollsters revealed that they’d tested two hypothetical three-way contests: Schultz versus Trump versus Harris, and Schultz versus Trump versus Warren. “Less than a week after the announcement” of his interest in running, read the memo, “he was already at 17 percent of the vote in both three-way match-ups.”

The part that they didn’t spell out: In both scenarios, Trump was narrowly winning.

For Howard Schultz’s Team, the Backlash is Encouragement