If Howard Schultz wants to be President…

...there is only one plausible pathway to get there.

Time for a basic lesson about American politics.  Under the system we use to elect presidents, candidates only have one viable pathway to the Oval Office:  run in, and win, the nomination process for one of the two major parties.

To be direct:  no third party or independent candidate is going to win the White House unless it is in the context of the utter collapse of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

The reasons are multiple, but let’s focus on the most powerful:  the nomination process.  The way we select the nominees is one in which a) candidates for the nomination essentially self-select, b) the party elites/establishment have limited influence, and c) the voters who participate in the process have the final say. The first two elements here are key:  come one, come all, and try to take over the party by winning the voters over.  This is how Trump managed to find his way to the White House.  If Trump had run as a third party candidate in 2016, I feel quite confident in saying he would not be president now.*

Let’s consider:  what the nomination process we currently use does is allow multiple branches of each party to compete among themselves for the right to be the party’s standard-bearer.  The key there is that it takes away the incentive for serious candidates to pursue a third party pathway.  The spoils of winning the nomination fight of one of the two major parties are huge.  Being the nominee of the Rs or the Ds means a substantial percentage of the electorate is going to vote for you in November no matter what.

A third party candidate is not even guaranteed such a voter base.  A third party candidate has to build all the way from the ground up.

What is harder:  winning a primary or building a base from scratch?

Note:  I acknowledge neither is easy, but which one is easier?

If one truly thinks that one has the goods needed to win the presidency, going alone is not the smart route.  The smart route is to figure out which party one fits best in and pursue that party’s nomination.

Put another way:  new party formation comes about because a group of politicians, and their followers, find that they cannot get their views heard within the existing party structure.  They, therefore, have no choice (if they want to be heard) than to form a new party.

There is no such incentive in the US party system, unless one is truly on the fringe.** Rather, if one is anywhere in the broad mainstream, one can find a niche in one of the two major parties.  Think Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul.  Think the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus.  Think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Think, for crying out loud, Donald J. Trump. There is room in both parties–and it can be occupied by winning primaries.  Going third party is to choose losing.

Apart from the nomination process, the general election is governed by rules that help constrain, although do not force, competition into two parties given that we 51 hold multi-seat, plurality elections, plus a handful of single seat plurality elections in Maine and Nebraska.***   The math favors being one of two candidates backed by large, established, collectives.

I would note that a third party is not precluded from this system, but that any significant third party success in the Electoral College would likely mean that the system would work more like the Framers thought it would:  by having the House regularly select the president, which is not how things turned out.

We could, for example, have regional parties (indeed, the blips on the EC radar over time, like George Wallace, were regional in nature), which is again closer to what the Framers thought would happen, but the reality is that have strong, national parties and so if one wants to be president, they are the only game in town.

As such, the only role a third party/independent candidate can hope to achieve is media spectacle and potential spoiler for one of the two mainstream candidates.

So, if Schultz understood American politics (I would argue that he appears not to), and if he really wanted to be president, then he should have sought the nomination of either the Rs or the Ds. I don’t think he has a snowball’s chance in Hell of winning either one, but he does have higher odds of making that work than he does of successfully winning a third party bid for the presidency.

Three concluding notes on Schultz.  First, the notion that all is takes to win the presidency is staking out the “middle” is an utter fantasy that demonstrates a cartoonish understanding of American politics.  Second, after hearing him talk this week, I don’t think he would take votes away from the Dems as much as he would provide a repository from some never-Trumpers. Third, his current numbers are truly atrocious (at least in the linked poll).****

*And yes, I know I was confident Trump wasn’t going to be nominated and thought he was going to lose in the general.  But he had a clear pathway to win in 2016 as the GOP nominee–that I never doubted.   It just was that the lower probability outcome came to pass.

**And if one is truly on the fringe, defined as having very little overall public support, one isn’t going to win the presidency (because one can’t win with a fringe of the vote).

***By which I mean each state (plus DC) is a district with multiple “seats” (electors) to win.  In all 51 districts, the winner of the plurality of the vote wins everything.  Even in Maine and Nebraska, which also allocates electoral votes using House districts, the winner of the state wins two electoral votes.

To understand what I am point out with this language, think about what it would be like if all the member of the House and Senate were elected by whichever party could get the most votes in one election in a given state.

****I know the poll I posted says he hurts Dems more–but that number is suspect to me since we don’t know who that Dem nominee will be. Also, 56% of respondents haven’t heard of him, meaning election day scenarios are hard to judge from this poll.  The thing to take away from the poll is that his overall numbers (recognition, favorable/unfavorable, etc.) are terrible.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Political Theory, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    I am pleased that you have the same reaction to him that I do: No Democrat would vote for him, but disaffected Republicans might.

    Honestly, his instinctive gesture to insult Democrats aligns him well with Republicans.

  2. Kathy says:

    Timely article over at Five Thirty Eight: America Isn’t Really Set Up For Third-Party Presidential Bids

    It adds little to what Steven posted, but there’s some interesting data. In particular near the top, it states how independents tend to vote.

  3. Teve says:

    I follow a few dozen center to liberal political observers on Twitter, and to a person they HATE Schultz. Anybody who wants to give billionaires more tax cuts, while cutting Social security and Medicare is already voting for the Stupid Shitty Party.

  4. Teve says:

    If Schultz runs, Trump will win.

    based on Trump’s performance in 2016 and how the polls have changed since then, there’s no way Trump can win next year short of a Yellowstone supervolcano destroying the entire West Coast.

  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    A poll out this AM shows a Schultz candidacy pulling 3-4% from Dems and 1% from Repugs.


  6. @Sleeping Dog: That’s the one I reference in the original post (with a statement about my assessment of the figure you are citing).

  7. charon says:

    My local supermarket sells Starbucks branded coffee beans and packsged ground coffee. Fat chance I ever buy any from now on.

  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    My bad. That’s what I get for reading the column and then going off to do something else before commenting.

  9. @Sleeping Dog: Easy to do.

  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “… it would help solidify a Trump victory.”

    I think that’s really the goal. Schultz wants to get “no Trump” street cred without damaging the benefits that come to him personally from Republican mismanagement of economic policy. (The foreign and domestic policy parts don’t affect coffee sales, so he doesn’t give a rat’s @$$.)

  11. eric78 says:

    I think the purpose of Howard Schultz run is to scare liberals back to the center. If he ran in the democratic primary is campaign would go nowhere. But with the threat of a third party/independent run democratic primary voters may choose a moderate like Biden to play it safe. Schultz could then end his campaign saying he is comfortable voting for a moderate Democrat.

  12. JohnMcC says:

    Someone had the idea of charging Americans $4.00 or $5.00 for a cup of coffee with cream and sugar. And it made him a billionaire because, well….millennials.

    Who else would you trust at the helm of the ship of state?

    Putting aside the snide, snarky negativism…. I think the facts of Donald Trump taking over the Republican party and Howard Schultz thinking seriously about a presidential run sort of imply that the idea of national leadership — hell, the idea of what is a ‘nation’ and what is ‘leadership’ — are in rapid flux. No one repeat NO ONE in the ’50s and ’60s would have considered the candidacy of someone like either of these gentlemen to be an actual political possibility. Back then there were great national/racial and world-historical events unfolding. The general consensus was that politics was really effing SERIOUS.

    Now I’ve become Tyrell.

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @charon:..Fat chance…

    True Confessions
    Just discovered that the Seattle’s Best Dark & Intense Coffee Level 5 Whole Bean that I have been buying 3 or 4 bags at a time when it is on sale is a subsidiary of Starbucks. ACK!
    The 12oz size is a full $3 cheaper than ‘bucks French Roast Beans 120z.
    I don’t think I’ll be throwing out my stash in protest like The Sons of Liberty did in Boston in 1773.
    I can only hope that eric78 is onto something and that Howard Schultz is just bluffing.