Politics is as much art as science. It’s a lesson that’s been lost in recent years as operatives are awed (and alarmed) by the emerging wave of microtargeting and data science into the political realm. The art of persuasion has been consumed by base-obsessed strategists. But ultimately, the candidate with the most compelling message that matches the moment generally prevails. Barack Obama was the candidate of change when established leaders bungled into a war and stumbled into a recession. Donald Trump wanted to “make America great again” when a growing number of Americans were anxious about the fast pace of economic and cultural change in the country.
Often the political class obsesses over the micro-level campaign tactics, and misses the big picture. Pundits dwell on past history instead of looking at leading indicators to identify emerging trends. In the sneering dismissiveness toward former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s possible independent candidacy, those mistakes are being made all over again.
Normally, I’d join the deep-seated skepticism toward any independent presidential candidate. There’s a reason why centrist, business-friendly candidates are duds with the general electorate. It’s because they’re not filling a void. But there’s never been a moment in modern American history when both parties nominated populist disruptors. The vacuum is always on the populist side, as two establishment-friendly candidates face off and leave a wide opening for candidates with views similar to Trump's.
Yet there’s a very real chance that the untapped market in a 2020 general election will be upper-middle-class suburban voters—the kind that swung the House from Republican to Democratic control in 2018. They’re amply represented across the country. And if Trump squared off against a socialist-minded candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, there would be plenty of up-for-grabs voters should a well-funded candidate like Schultz give them that choice.
There are good reasons to be bearish about a Schultz candidacy. Even ideologically polarizing nominees typically pivot back to the middle in general elections for their own self-interest. Most analysts expect polarization to persist, pushing voters toward one of the two parties even if they disagree with parts of their preferred party’s platform.
Most significantly, as Nate Silver points out, the notion of a socially liberal Paul Ryan as a third-party candidate would have minimal public appeal. As a businessman, Schultz has called for entitlement reform, spending cuts, and balanced budgets. As a third-party candidate, he’d be wise to focus on his business acumen, fiscal responsibility, and opposition to controversial progressive proposals like single-payer health insurance and taxing billionaires out of existence. There’s good reason why Democratic candidates barely mentioned these issues in swing districts across the country last year.
But what if Schultz spends much of his fortune early on and finds that a message of competence broadly resonates in early polls? That psychological boost would send a signal that his candidacy isn’t a lost cause. And what if negative polarization—the concept of hating the other side more than supporting your own party—ends up being mitigated with a credible third-party candidate who better appeals to voters' interests? You don’t need to be that creative a thinker to anticipate scenarios in which Schultz gains traction.
Schultz would be reliant on blunders by the opposition—like a football team outside the playoff hunt hoping for other teams to lose. But given that Trump still commands solid (though fraying) support among Republicans, and Democrats seem content to veer hard left, those blunders don’t sound all that unlikely.
The other opportunity that a centrist candidate would have is that they’d be running a national campaign, not a regional one. The midterms showed that there are upscale suburban voters all across the country, from New Jersey to Texas to Kansas to California. Democrats won by focusing on winning anti-Trump, socially liberal, tax-conscious suburbanites across the country. It’s not an insignificant constituency. Just like analysts dismissed Trump winning the Electoral College, an independent candidate who could hit 30-35 percent in the polls would have a real shot at getting to 270 electoral votes.
All told, Schultz’s candidacy is a long shot, but hardly impossible. He has a better chance than his billionaire counterpart Michael Bloomberg, who holds the highest negative ratings in the Democratic field. Bloomberg is considering a run in a party primary where Barack Obama’s 2008 message would be ideologically out of place. Its impressive front-running candidate, Sen. Kamala Harris, just suggested at a televised town hall that she’d be open to abolishing private health insurance. That’s the type of message that pushes people into Schultz’s corner as a viable alternative.
Democrats wouldn’t be freaking out if Schultz’s third-party candidacy were a vanity project. He’s hired top consulting talent who have experience appealing to the very suburban voters who are up for grabs. If he focuses his message on providing competence at a time of growing chaos, he could become a reassuring alternative for a critical mass of Americans in 2020.