The frenzy over businessman Howard Schultz’s announcement that he is considering an independent run for president is understandable.
Democrats think President Donald Trump is headed for defeat in a one-on-one general election contest, and anything that changes that trajectory improves his re-election prospects.
Unfortunately, few of the people who panicked about Schultz — or praised him — seemed to look at the numbers. So, let’s do just that.
First, let’s stipulate that if he runs, Schultz will position himself as fiscally conservative and socially progressive. He’ll stress his business credentials, pragmatic approach, centrist views, commitment to tolerance and diversity, and frustration with the two parties.
Let’s also note that Schultz has very deep pockets and would be the ultimate outsider and disruptor, giving him appeal to many voters, especially if the Democrats nominate an extreme liberal.
Let’s also acknowledge that American politics has become something less than predictable.
The impossible has already happened, so something else impossible could happen again.
But while more than four in ten Americans identify as independents, let’s not get carried away about Schultz’s chances.
Many independents are closet partisans, just as many “weak” partisans actually vote as if they are strong Republicans or strong Democrats. That’s just how people behave.
They like to think of themselves as more independent than they really are.
With Schultz positioning himself as a moderate and independent, he’s unlikely to find support among partisans and the most ideological.
Those voters are strongly attached to one of the two parties, and his moderate message won’t resonate with them.
Mapping it up
O.K., let’s turn to the numbers — that is, to the states.
The national election actually is a collection of state contests, with the winner needing 270 electoral votes.
For years, Gallup has ranked states on the basis of a number of measures, including Trump’s job approval/disapproval, self-identification as Republican/Democrat or independent-leaning Republican/Democrat, self-identification as conservative/liberal, and religiosity.
I’ve gone through the lists and identified nine states plus the District of Columbia, with 139 electoral votes, that are among both the most liberal and the most Democratic: California, Connecticut, D.C., Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.
Voters in these states would be less likely to find Schultz’s positioning appealing. (The list does not include five states that made one list but not both: Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey and New Mexico.)
I found 16 states, with 96 electoral votes, that are among the most conservative and the most Republican: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.
These states would be even less likely to vote for Schultz than would the liberal/Democratic states because of Schultz’s very limited appeal in rural, socially conservative areas. (Again, this list does not include three states that made one list but not both: Alaska, Louisiana and West Virginia.)
The two lists of the most partisan and ideological states account for 235 electoral votes, leaving Schultz and the two major party nominees to compete for 303 electoral votes, 30 more than needed for a victory.
Schultz would need to win 270 of the remaining 303 available.
In other words, he’d need to virtually sweep the “competitive” states.
But remember, the so-called competitive list includes Alaska (3 electoral votes), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Louisiana (10), Maine (4), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5) and West Virginia (5), which make either the most partisan or the most ideological list, but not both.
Many or all of these states would be difficult — or impossible, in the case of West Virginia — for Schultz. (For convenience sake, I have assumed Nebraska’s and Maine’s electoral votes are not split.)
Some “competitive” states that didn’t make either list for partisanship or ideology also seem like a stretch for Schultz, including Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina and Texas.
Culturally, Schultz seems most out of touch with the Trump states, which limits his options about where to compete. Does anyone really think that he is going to carry the Deep South, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma or Idaho?
His only hope of getting 270 electoral votes is to swipe states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut from the Democratic nominee, and to win swing, suburban states that are clearly trending Democratic, including Colorado and Virginia.
House always wins
To the extent that he can do that, he all but destroys the Democratic nominee’s chances. But what if Schultz fails to reach 270 electoral votes but does well enough to deny an electoral vote majority to either of the major party nominees? In that case, the House would select the next president (with each state getting one vote), and that would be Donald Trump.
Republicans currently hold a majority of 26 House delegations, to 22 for the Democrats. Two states (Michigan and Pennsylvania) have equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members, so they would not vote. But might not GOP House members faced with four more years of Trump look for another option, like Schultz?
No. That wouldn’t happen. Partisans behave like partisans, and House Republicans are not an independent, centrist bunch.
It’s certainly possible that voters will take a look at Schultz and decide that they don’t like him, don’t want him as president or regard him as little more than a spoiler.
A year from now, everyone may be wondering why anyone got excited about a Howard Schultz candidacy.
But it is more likely that, if he runs, Schultz becomes a factor in the 2020 presidential contest, if only because of his resources and the extreme positioning of the two parties.
A detailed look at state politics suggests that Schultz’s chances of winning the presidency outright are small, probably microscopic.
If he has any impact, it will be among suburban voters, a group that was significantly more Democratic in 2018 than in 2016.
Schultz isn’t likely to have much appeal among Trump’s rural, culturally conservative, white evangelical base. And that means he would be likely to do much greater damage to the Democratic nominee’s vote than to Trump’s. And that’s why Democrats have reason to be worried about Schultz’s candidacy.
(Note to readers: If this column seems vaguely familiar, it may be because you may recall a similar analysis in my Feb. 16, 2016 column about Michael Bloomberg.)
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2019.