Howard Schultz Is Only a Symptom of How American Politics Is Changing by Stewart Lawrence

Howard Schultz seems to have offended the entire political class with his threat to run as a third–party candidate for president in 2020. Democrats sense that a Schultz candidacy would siphon votes from their own nominee and hand the election to President Trump.

Schultz denies any such intent, but the results of recent polling in Iowa suggest that his liberal critics may be right.

For example, in a head-to-head contest with Trump, Elizabeth Warren trails the president by just three points, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. But in a three-way race with Schultz included, Trump’s lead over Warren extends to nine points. That’s beyond the statistical margin of error, and suggests that a Schultz candidacy would indeed favor Trump.

Still, it’s only one poll — and an early one. (The Iowa caucuses won’t actually be held for another year). But Schultz’s 11% of the polling is extraordinary, given that he has yet to announce his candidacy and his name recognition is based on just a handful of interviews on programs like “The View” and “CBS Morning News.”

Schultz’s own internal polling – the details of which remain sketchy — shows him gaining 17% of the national vote in a three-way contest with Trump and a generic Democrat. It would only take 15% of the vote in polling to give Schultz the right to claim a seat at the nationally televised presidential debates, and to gain even greater exposure.

As we learned with H. Ross Perot in 1992, a third party contender with a message is still a long way from being recognized as serious presidential timber, but Schultz’s presence in the race can help shape the contours of debate. Perot ran neck-and-neck with Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in the summer of 1992 and ended up with 19% of the national vote. With his attack on trade deals, he may well have forced changes to the NAFTA agreement.

What would Schultz’s likely debate impact be? Almost surely he would pull the debate over the economy back to the center, with a stronger focus on eliminating deficits and protecting the free market. Most damaging to the Democrats, perhaps, would be his critique of their “Medicare-for-All” platform, which seems to imply the abolition of private health insurance, a stance many voters would oppose.

On the other hand, Schultz’s presence in the race would likely reinforce the push for an amnesty program for illegal aliens, stronger gun control, and fewer abortion restrictions. Those stances might attract some moderate Republicans disenchanted with Trump, and in theory at least, could pull votes from the president.

Will Schultz actually run? A lot depends on how Trump manages the next two years. The more he pivots to the center, and finds ways to work with Nancy Pelosi on issues like the nation’s infrastructure, the less likely real space will open up to support a Schultz candidacy. And should former vice-president Joe Biden jump into the race and manage to pull his party back from the socialist brink, Democratic defections to Schultz would also be far less likely.

But Schultz is right. Voters are deeply disenchanted with the two-party system — and with each party separately. The favorability rating of the Democrats is at its lowest level in one hundred years; it’s even lower than the rating for the GOP, which has edged up in recent years.

Do voters want a third party? Nearly 60% say they do, according to Gallup polling over the past three years. Among Millennials, a whopping 71% favor the idea.

In important respects, voters have already begun voting for third-party candidates. In 2016, Bernie Sanders ran as a Democrat and Donald Trump ran as a Republican, but they largely did so to reach the broad masses and have a real chance of winning. Neither man reflected the mainstream of the party to which he was putatively attached. Sanders, though he still regularly caucuses with Democrats, is a committed socialist and has been for decades. Trump, long considered a Democrat, consistently defies Republican orthodoxy.

The two men were easily the most dynamic candidates running for office in 2016. Were it not for blatant Democratic chicanery – and the power of pro-Hillary Clinton super-delegates — Sanders would likely have vanquished her. Trump, through sheer force of will, and riding a wave of deep disenchantment inside the GOP, managed to roll over a dozen more established Republican figures.

Right now the two parties are being reshaped, ideologically, in the image of Sanders and Trump, which could well produce a civil war in each camp. We might even see split-off parties emerging in the not too distant future.

In other words, there’s already the semblance of a third-party movement in America, even if it appears somewhat disguised at present. Schultz’s recent emergence merely confirms an underlying trend, which could well grow in the months ahead as each party fiercely debates its political direction and tries to maintain a semblance of unity.

Consider, too, the presence of official third parties like the Green and the Libertarians. In 2016, they took 8% of the popular vote, triple their percentage in 2012. Green Party candidate Jill Stein may well have denied Clinton a victory in one of the Rust Belt states.

The upshot? Voters want more candidate choices, and if the two parties don’t provide them, they will look elsewhere. In a real democracy, that can’t be a bad thing.

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