Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks and essentially its founder, is thinking of running for president as, in his words, a “centrist independent.”
Centrist and independent, two terms that make him the bright light of those who claim to be sick and tired of party politics and insist that the political center is the place to be.
That bright light is also a false hope. There is an extremely high probability that Schultz will lose precisely because he is a centrist independent.
Howard Schultz bills himself as a “centrist independent.” Is that really what voters are looking for in these polarized times?
It’s important to understand his candidacy because it says so much about the mythologies of American politics and third-party candidates, especially among the chattering class who love both moderation and celebrities.
Maybe we are what we eat, but truth is we don’t like to admit that we are also what we vote.
That’s getting ahead of our story, which best begins at the Koko Marina Starbucks.
Early morning a couple of Sundays ago I got there to get my usual cup of coffee. But it was closed. As a handwritten sign on the door said, busted pipe.
So I went next door to Texaco, got myself a cup of convenience store coffee, and settled at one of the unusually deserted Starbucks outdoor tables.
I watched as dozens of people came to the door and read the closed sign. Almost no one simply walked away. Some tried to rattle the door, as if they could not believe it was closed.
Most stood for a moment as if they did not know what to do next. “Oh my goodness,” said one.
A few asked me where I got my coffee. But I didn’t get takers with my pitch for the gas station. As one woman put it as she walked the other way, “I take almond milk in my coffee.”
Imagine back in the day Mom packing Pop’s lunch, topping off his thermos of Folgers with a soupcon of almond milk. But the woman’s comment shows how essential Starbucks has become.
What’s an even stronger, more insurmountable brand than Starbucks? Political party identification — either Republican or Democrat.
The most common reaction was: “Where is the next-closest Starbucks?” People were there not for a coffee experience but for a Starbucks experience.
Schultz’s true genius is that he has created a brand so powerful that it’s virtually irreplaceable.
According to a design magazine, the Starbucks logo, which features that sea siren looking like a teenage-boy-sea-creature’s fantasy date to his Neptune High junior prom, is one of the most popular logos in the world.
And that’s exactly the clue to why Howard Schultz’s presidential candidacy will fail.
Because do you know what’s an even stronger, more insurmountable brand than Starbucks? Political party identification — either Republican or Democrat.
And do you know what brand is weaker than convenience store coffee? “Centrist independent.”
In surveys many people claim to be independents. But if you look at how people actually vote, it is a different story. Only 12 percent are true independents in the sense that they don’t vote consistently for one party.
Here are three reasons why a centrist independent candidate is highly unlikely to win or even come close:
• First, the political system with its winner-take-all races and the Electoral College is structurally stacked against any independent. Ross Perot, the last centrist independent presidential candidate most like Schultz, created enormous buzz in 1992, got about 19 percent of the vote, but no electoral votes.
• Second, political messaging has become more nationalized, certainly much more so than in Perot’s time. So the chance of an independent candidate finding a political niche has grown even smaller.
Third, the basic mother ship argument on behalf of the strength of a candidate like Schultz goes something like this:
The most important thing is that people are changing. Fed up. They are sick and tired of gridlock, partisanship …
So, therefore, there is demand for a fresh faced, political outsider, one who owes no allegiance to those blundering, myopic, squabbling political parties with their stuck-in-the-mud ideologies.
This is fairy dust spread by political pixies.
Right now, as Julia Azari points out in that Fivethirtyeight analysis, voters are not mainly driven by ideology. Instead they are motivated by their fear and loathing of the opposing political party. Their main desire is to make sure that other party does not win.
This increases the likelihood that people will vote strategically for the candidate most likely to prevent the other party from winning. That reinforces party identification and makes it even harder for an independent, centrist or otherwise.
There is a lot of anti-party politics, but the most powerful examples of it are within the political parties themselves. That’s what Trump was and, in many ways, still is. And that’s what the 2016 Sanders insurgency and the moderate-progressive struggle within the Democratic Party is all about.
Basically Schultz’s campaign ideas are based on a pile of false assumptions generated by an ignorance, willful or otherwise, of the fundamental elements of American Politics 101.
If that’s how he had started his beverage business, he would only sell a product that everyone claimed was good for them but no one in fact was buying, say kale extract: “Let me have a venti kale Frappuccino.”
And very soon his team would be made up entirely of a bankruptcy lawyer and two critical-care specialists from the Small Business Administration.
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Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.