Howard Schultz is unlikely to land in the White House if he makes an independent bid for the presidency, but he would probably pull enough votes away from a Democratic candidate to strengthen Donald Trump’s prospects for re-election.
That’s the conclusion of a survey examining the former Starbucks Corp. chief executive officer’s political ambitions conducted by Optimus, a data-science firm that’s studying the effects of independent candidates on the 2020 race.
The 65-year-old Seattle billionaire is drawing 7.7 percent of voters overall, but pulls twice as much support from Democrats (11.6 percent) as Republicans (5.6 percent). The poll highlights the reason Democrats reacted so angrily to Schultz’s announcement that he’s considering running for president as a centrist independent: the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls fare worse against Trump when Schultz is included in the race.
The national survey of 1,290 registered voters found former Vice President Joe Biden leading Trump 50 percent to 43 percent in a head-to-head match-up. But Biden’s lead shrinks to 4 percent when Schultz is included. Trump narrowly led Senator Kamala Harris 45 percent to 43 percent, but his lead swelled to 4 percent with Schultz as an option. Trump also led 3-way races against Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Representative Beto O’Rourke.
Schultz says he’s banking on a “silent majority” of Americans who are fed up with what he considers to be the extremity of the two major parties. His advisers point to the growing number of political independents as evidence of a potential constituency, although experts say most independents actually are reliably partisan and not the kind of moderate swing voters that Schultz considers himself to be. Finding a path to 270 electoral votes would require him to win sizable numbers of Democrats and Republicans, in addition to independents.
“If he didn’t have $3 billion you’d put a fork in him,” said Scott Tranter, a partner at Optimus.
The path for an independent to win the White House is particularly onerous. Optimus modeled several possible outcomes for Schultz and found that even winning 33 percent of the popular vote would likely only net him about 22 electoral votes.
“In order to win as a centrist independent, our models suggest he’d have to carry at least 37 percent of the popular vote, while taking between 22 percent and 45 percent each of Democrats, Republicans and independents,” says Tranter. “Realistically, he’d have to displace one of the major-party nominees.”
In 1992, billionaire H. Ross Perot won 19 percent of the vote -- the highest total of any recent independent candidate -- and didn’t win a single electoral vote.
To mount a viable campaign, the former Starbucks CEO will first have to make himself better known to voters. The Optimus survey, conducted Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, found that fewer than half of respondents (48 percent) could identify him.
Schultz’s announcement that he’s considering an independent run triggered a furious reaction from Democrats. He was heckled at a book event the day after he appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and lambasted by Democrats.
“It’s not just that he’d help re-elect Donald Trump, but that he came across as a spoiled billionaire more concerned with protecting his fellow billionaires from paying a lot of taxes than protecting Medicare and Social Security for the middle class,” says Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.
Schultz’s supporters are grayer, wealthier, and more educated that other voters, according to the poll by Optimus, which has worked with Republican candidates. Seventy percent of his backers are older than 55, and there are more women (57 percent) than men (43 percent).
Schultz has been touring the country promoting his book and gauging his chances. He is set to deliver a speech Thursday at Purdue University in Indiana. Schultz and his advisers have said that he won’t enter the race unless he can significantly expand his base of support enough to give himself a realistic prospect of winning.
“He 100 percent will only run if he sees a viable path. There’s no chance he gets in this race if there isn’t a path,” Bill Burton, a former aide to President Barack Obama who recently joined Schultz’s political team, said in a Jan 29 interview.
Although he faces a steep climb to viability, Schultz has plenty of time to get there.
“Right now, many Americans don’t have an opinion about Schultz and, among those who do, their opinions are not favorable,” says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and co-author of Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. “It is far too early to say with any confidence how well Schultz would do against Trump and a Democratic nominee.”
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