Howard Schultz for President: Are We Asking The Wrong Question?

Is Howard Schultz really the spoiler he’s expected to be? Short answer: Probably yes. Longer answer: Yeah, but it’s not really about him.

The latest news is that former Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz is seriously considering a self-funded independent presidential run.

The conventional wisdom on Schultz is that he’d siphon votes away from the Democratic candidate and thereby play “spoiler,” helping Trump get reelected. It’s a solid argument – Schultz is a major donor to Democratic candidates, and while he calls himself a centrist, his policy views are definitely closer to the Dems than the GOP. There’s also a reasonable argument that he could do more to hurt Trump by providing a clear alternative who shares his billionaire outsider shtick.*

*If you want my opinion – which seems possible given that you’re reading my blog – I think that Schultz will take more votes away from the eventual Democratic nominee than from Trump, but maybe not all that many more. I think the risk that he’ll actually tip the election might be overblown. But I am also keenly aware that I could be wrong – and that many people who know much more about this than me think he will end up helping Trump.

My larger point, though, is that we shouldn’t be asking whether it’s a good idea for Schultz to run, but rather why it is that we have to ask that question at all.

In a healthy democracy, shouldn’t we welcome more candidates?

I think the answer to that question is self-evident. In principle, we should want a wider diversity* of candidates in any good democratic election. The more candidates, the wider the range of perspectives in the discourse surrounding the election and the more issues discussed. More to the point, giving voters more choices is fairly obviously a good thing because it allows their votes to actually reflect their preferences.

*Yes, I’m aware that an older white male billionaire is not the greatest example of added “diversity” in an election that already features Donald J. Trump, but I think it’s fair to say that as a true self-made man with a strong center-left ideology, Mr. Schultz offers a very different perspective.

Diversity is a good thing in any election, and certainly in an election to choose the president of a country as large and diverse as the United States of America. The problem is that our voting system isn’t designed to accommodate a diversity of candidates because voters can only cast their ballot for one candidate, with no mechanism to pass those votes along to a second or third choice if the first choice cannot win. This creates “wasted” votes, strategic voting, and the dreaded spoiler effect.

Howard Schultz isn’t the spoiler. The system is the spoiler.

We’ve seen this same issue before, of course. The preponderance of the evidence says that in 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader spoiled the election for Democrat Al Gore. Exit poll data indicates that nearly half of Nader’s voters would have voted for Gore if Nader were not in the race, whereas only about a fifth would have voted for Republican George W. Bush. (The balance wouldn’t have voted at all.) In an election where the tipping-point state, Florida, was decided by only 537 votes, those thousands of Nader votes would have been more than enough to change the outcome.

Other third-party “spoilers” have come into play throughout history. In 1912, incumbent President William Howard Taft and former president Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote, handing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. And independent candidate Ross Perot – a billionaire who had never held elected office, much like Schultz – picked up nearly 19 percent of the vote in 1992, although it’s debatable which major party candidate he helped or hurt, if either.

In each case, the problem wasn’t that a third-party candidate entered the race. Again, having a diversity of ideas and perspectives in a presidential election is undoubtedly a good thing. The problem is that our electoral system is vulnerable to vote-splitting and the “spoiler effect,” which means that voters who vote their consciences ironically end up helping the candidate they disagree with most (for example, Nader voters who largely preferred Gore and disliked Bush ended up helping to elect Bush).

Under first past the post voting, there is no room for third-party or independent candidates. This is exactly why we have a two-party system in the first place, and this is why Howard Schultz is (justifiably) angry.

Schultz is right to dislike the two-party system. He’s wrong to attack it this way.

In one of his first Tweets, Howard Schultz wrote this:

I agree! We have an incredibly divisive two-party system in this country, and that needs to be changed. We have a system in which many voices are never heard because every election inevitably boils down to a binary choice. That’s not good for democracy and not good for America.

Here’s the thing, though: Running as an independent can only make the problem worse. Again, I don’t know for sure what impact, if any, a Schultz 2020 candidacy would actually have on the outcome. I do know that Democrats are deeply concerned about what he could do to their prospects of defeating Donald Trump. And I know that if Schultz does indeed tip the election to Trump, he’s going to cause Democrats to become more tribal and partisan, not less. He’s going to be attacked by the people who are closest to him on the ideological spectrum and cheered on by those who are farthest, not because of his ideas but because of the spoiler effect.

Mr. Schultz, if by something resembling a miracle you’re reading this, here’s what you should do: Instead of running for president, invest your billions in advocacy for election reform. Endorse ranked-choice voting and contribute to groups that are fighting to open up our political system to a diversity of candidates. Get rid of the spoiler effect once and for all.

And once that is done, then by all means, run for president. I can’t promise I’d vote for you, but at the very least, I would absolutely want to hear what you have to offer the country.

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