A billionaire, with the ability and apparent willingness to self-finance a national campaign, Schultz could have a profound impact on the presidential contest, even if his actual chances of victory would likely be slim.
Schultz’s tentative entry into the race sparked a variety of reactions across the country. His announcement piqued the interest of those who long for an alternative to the two-party system. It also earned the immediate derision of many political veterans, who see him as a wealthy dilettante. Most notably, it provoked outright fear among many Democrats, who worry that his bid could siphon votes away from their party’s eventual nominee, giving President Donald Trump a better shot at re-election, despite his sharp decline in the polls.
Originally from Brooklyn, Schultz, 65, made his billions on the West Coast, turning a small Seattle coffee company into a ubiquitous chain with more than 28,000 outlets worldwide. Along the way, he became a reliable donor to the Democratic Party, calling himself a “lifelong Democrat.”
That, however, has changed.
In a flurry of TV appearances over the past week, Schultz has explicitly broken with both major political parties, insisting that the majority of Americans are not being well-served by “far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats.”
Staking out a middle ground
While Schultz has not yet laid out detailed policy proposals, he appears to be staking out a middle-ground position, agreeing with Republicans on some economic and fiscal issues, but with Democrats on many social issues.
He has angrily denounced proposals from high-profile Democrats to expand Medicare to cover all Americans, and to increase taxes on the wealthy by raising marginal rates on the highest earners, or taxing wealth in addition to income.
In an appearance on CNN, he dismissed the Medicare idea as “not American.” In an interview with National Public Radio, he called Democratic tax plans “ridiculous.”
On many of the issues that have fueled the country’s ongoing culture war, though, Schultz is firmly on the side of his former party. He remains in favor of abortion rights and gay marriage, and has spoken in support of tighter regulation of firearms. He also favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and aggressive action to counter climate change.
Schultz’s pitch is that his mix of policy positions will appeal to what he has repeatedly referred to as a “silent majority” of independent voters who are dissatisfied with both major parties and want an independent candidate to support.
But that assessment of the American electorate isn’t shared by political scientists. While some 40 percent of voters do self-identify as independents, study after study has shown that the overwhelming majority of them actually have a strong preference for one party or the other.
Schultz looms as a ‘spoiler’
To think otherwise is “just incredibly naive,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It shows a very unsophisticated understanding of the American electorate.” He added, “There is a spoiler potential with someone like Schultz. But a path to victory? It’s just difficult for me to imagine.”
Indeed, commentators and partisans on both sides have focused less on Schultz as a potential president and more as a disruptive force in what will almost certainly be a highly contentious election.
“His presence in the race adds a degree of uncertainty,” said Seth Masket, director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
“He stands very little chance of winning the 2020 election, but he stands a decent chance of affecting the outcome,” Masket added. “If it’s going to be a close re-election race, and I assume it is, his votes could be the difference between a Trump re-election and a defeat.”
For his part, Schultz said he has no intention of aiding the incumbent president.
“I would never put myself in the position of being the person to re-elect Donald Trump,” Schultz told CNN Wednesday. Yet, he strongly signaled that if the Democrats turn toward a far-left candidate like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the temptation to launch an independent campaign would be irresistible.