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.
During a brief period when I was working for the political unit of CBS News around the 2006 midterm elections, I attended a pre-election meeting run by Sean McManus and Paul Friedman. McManus was then president of CBS News, while Friedman was vice president.
I remember McManus, who made his mark running CBS Sports, saying he had bumped into a friend or acquaintance who told him the alleged Democratic midterm wave had crested and Republican prospects were rebounding.
Having just had conservations with campaign pollsters, party strategists and political consultants, I knew there was little or no evidence of a dramatic change in the trajectory of the election, and I said so in response to McManus’ anecdote. The midterm wave, including a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress, was still intact, I observed. (Democrats won control of both chambers that year.)
I recall that my comment didn’t seem to please McManus, but the meeting quickly moved on to other matters. McManus almost certainly had no idea who I was. He never said a word to me.
I relate this memory as a warning about the final month before a national election.
The tendency to draw dramatic conclusions from fragments of data, whispers of alleged movement in polling or supposed anecdotes from a particular campaign is almost uncontrollable in the final few weeks before an election. Both experts and the casually involved are looking for any sign that things are changing, since change is bigger news than continuity.
In some respects, this “last month effect” now happens every day for two years during each election cycle. There are more polls, more airtime to fill on cable TV, and more political and election coverage in general than there ever has been, which has produced more chatter, more speculation and more amateurish analysis.
I’ve warned repeatedly about jumping to conclusions from the latest public poll — my Feb. 12 column “The Generic Is Falling! The Generic Is Falling!” correctly rebutted the widespread assessment that the 2018 midterm’s trajectory was changing — and I am doing so again.
Over the last week, we have seen a seemingly endless flood of stories about new Republican enthusiasm and how that could affect both turnout and election outcomes next month.
“Democrats’ advantage in recent polls may not bring the ‘blue wave’ they’re hoping for,” warned a piece on CNBC.com from an economics reporter, and plenty of talking heads and reporters warned the Kavanaugh Supreme Court fight was energizing Republicans and undercutting the Democratic midterm surge. Take all such assessments with a grain of salt.
My point is not that any single poll, article or talking head is wrong. It is simply a reminder that Republicans (and their media allies over at Fox News) have an interest in arguing that Kavanaugh has changed the midterm dynamics no matter whether or not it has. And even the major mainstream electronic and print media have an incentive to raise questions about a so-called Republican surge.
President Trump certainly is trying to use wedge issues to energize his supporters, and there may well be an uptick in GOP enthusiasm after the recent Supreme Court fight. But based on the past, I’m skeptical the Kavanaugh fight will fundamentally change next month’s outcomes.
Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight, and they now have complete control of the federal government. Traditionally, anger, frustration, disappointment and fear are stronger motivators than satisfaction, relief and euphoria. Democrats and liberals simply are more desperate than are conservatives and Republicans, which is one reason I doubt GOP turnout will match Democratic turnout.
But there are other reasons why the Democratic grassroots advantage should appear on Election Day.
First, while Trump turned out his voters two years ago, allowing him to fashion a narrow win while losing the popular vote, Hillary Clinton lost some Democrats and liberals who saw her as equally flawed. Those Democrats voted for the Green nominee or didn’t vote at all, but they are now likely to turn out to vote against Trump and the GOP next month.
Second, Trump and his party have alienated the single most important swing group: college-educated whites in the suburbs. Many of those voters backed Trump because of their general partisan bent, their hope that Trump would bring about change or their dislike of Clinton. But those voters now dislike Trump and are likely going to vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.
Third, in addition to differences in base turnout, electoral waves can be produced by dramatic swings among independent voters. Those voters could well be crucial in 2018, as I noted in my May 30 column “Why You Should Focus on Independents.” So far, most polls show independent voters swinging strongly to the Democrats.
Finally, polls taken during the Kavanaugh fight probably don’t reflect what the political situation will be like in November. Veteran pollsters always warn that surveys are mere snapshots of public opinion, and dramatic events often produce misleading poll data.
It’s certainly possible that events over the last two weeks have had — or over the next four weeks will have — an impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout. But rather than relying on Rasmussen and Investor’s Business Daily generic ballot polling, I’d wait to see what the NBC News/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, Pew, Gallup and CNN polls show.
Right now, the House still looks poised to flip party control, while the Senate does not. That’s the way things have looked for months.
Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 9, 2018.
I don’t trust anyone who tells me they already know the makeup of the midterm electorate. We can’t possibly know who will vote in the fall, let alone how they will cast their ballots.
If I were going to focus on a handful of variables to understand how the cycle is unfolding, I’d certainly pay close attention to partisanship. But instead of focusing primarily on the percentage of Republicans and Democrats among voters, I’d pay more attention to the attitudes (and then the behavior) of self-identified independents.
I looked at recent national exit polls going back to the 2000 presidential race and found that the electorate’s partisan makeup doesn’t always explain an election’s outcome.
Sure, there were many more Democrats than Republicans in the 2008 (+7 points) and 2012 (+6 points) exit poll samples, when Barack Obama won the White House and was re-elected comfortably. But the 2006 exits showed Democrats making up only 38 percent of the electorate — to the GOP’s 36 percent — while riding a 31-seat wave to take back control of the House.
And four years later, in 2010, exit polls showed Republicans and Democrats each making up 36 percent of voters at the same time the GOP was netting 63 House seats in one of the biggest electoral waves in history.
In 2000 and 2016, both presidential election years, there were more self-identified Democrats than self-identified Republicans in the exit polls (by 4 points in 2000 and 3 points in 2016). But both times, the GOP nominee won the White House while losing the popular vote.
Obviously, if Democrats constitute a much larger percentage of the November electorate than Republicans — 6 or 7 points, for example — that would be great news for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. But how independent voters behave could well be the more useful indicator to watch.
One reason is that the percentage of self-identified independents has been inching up recently. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential contests and the 2006 midterms, independents constituted 26 percent of the electorate. But in 2012, they were 29 percent, in the 2014 midterms 28 percent, and in the 2016 presidential election 31 percent.
Obviously, those numbers change, depending in part on the appeal of the presidential nominees and the image of the parties. Some of the 2016 independents could well have been Republicans and Democrats who didn’t like the two presidential nominees, both of whom had unusually high negatives.
But the more important reason to pay attention to independents is that they often reflect the direction and magnitude of partisan changes.
The two big wave elections of the last 20 years were both driven by independents, who voted Democratic by a margin of 18 points in 2006 (57 percent to 39 percent), Republican by an equally large margin in 2010 (59 percent to 41 percent). During Obama’s second midterm, in 2014, independents also went Republican by a substantial margin (54 percent to 42 percent).
In 2016 and 2000, independents voted narrowly for Donald Trump (by 4 points, 46 percent to 42 percent) and for George W. Bush (by 2 points, 48 percent to 46 percent). Given how close those two contests were, it probably isn’t a stretch to say that the two Republican nominees might not have won without their pluralities among self-identified independents.
The 2004 election was a bit of an outlier, I suppose. The presidential election was very close, and the electorate (according to the exit poll) had equal percentages of Democrats and Republicans. Democrat John Kerry won 49 percent of independent voters to incumbent Bush’s 48 percent. And yet, Bush won re-election narrowly, by just over 2 points.
Still, the competitiveness of the overall race and the closeness of the vote among independents does seem to confirm the usefulness of looking at how these voters perform to understand the kind of election we will have.
Watch the polls
Recent polling suggests the GOP has reason for concern about independent voters in the fall. An April 8-11 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found independents currently preferring Democratic control of Congress by 11 points, 38 percent to 27 percent. That’s a big margin.
A May 2-5 CNN/SSRS survey found independents preferred Democratic nominees for Congress over Republicans by a much closer 3-point margin, 43 percent to 40 percent. But since the 2016 exit poll showed Trump carrying this key group by 4 points, a Democratic advantage of 3 points would constitute a 7-point swing toward the Democrats.
Finally, Quinnipiac University’s April 6-9 national survey offers the strangest numbers. It found Democrats with a 3-point advantage on the generic ballot among all voters but Republicans with a 2-point advantage among independents, 41 percent to 39 percent. The idea that independents are more inclined toward the GOP than the overall electorate seems difficult to accept.
The attitudes of independent voters toward the president and control of Congress should provide a window into the midterms. Keep watching those numbers, especially when they come from national media polls.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 30, 2018.
In my last column, I wrote about Donald Trump’s job approval ratings among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, noting that his standing among all groups is important. But my primary focus for 2018 should be on Independents, who are likely to be the canary in the coal mine for the midterm elections.
How Independents vote, either on the presidential ballot or the national House ballot (depending on whether it’s a presidential year or not), turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the type of election we are going to have.
Since 2000, Independents have sometimes broken evenly between the two parties (2000, 2004, 2012 and 2016), sometimes given one party a clear advantage (2008 and 2014) and sometimes showed an overwhelming preference toward one party (2006 and 2010), according to exit polls.
When Independents break roughly evenly between the two parties, net House gains/losses are small. But when those voters overwhelmingly prefer one party over the other – as they did in 2006 when Independents heavily preferred Democrats and 2010 when they preferred Republicans – a partisan wave developed.
Since 2000 (and excluding 2002, when the exit poll was tainted), there have been four elections – all of them in presidential years – when Independents split roughly evenly.
Republicans had a narrow four-point advantage among Independents in 2016 (46%-42%), a five-point advantage in 2012 (50%-45%) and a two-point advantage in 2000 (48%-46%). Democrats had a mere one-point advantage in 2004 (49%-48%).
Not surprisingly, all four of those presidential contests were very close. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by just over two points, and Barack Obama carried it by just under four points. George W. Bush won by 2.4 points in 2004. Four years earlier, the presidential race was a virtual popular vote dead heat.
In other words, the tight contests among Independents reflected the tight races nationally.
Two elections, both midterms, were clear blow-outs.
In 2006, Democrats gained 31 House seats, in part because they carried Independents by a stunning 18-points (57%-39%), according to the national House exit poll.
Four years later, a Republican tsunami produced a GOP gain of 63 House seats. Independents preferred Republicans by 19 points (56%-37%).
Part of the reason for the two waves is that Independents acted more like partisans than they normally do. Their strong preference for one party or the other contributed to the wave but also reflected broader sentiment among the larger electorate.
Two elections, 2008 and 2014, were neither waves nor close contests.
Independents went Democratic by eight points in 2008 (52%-44%), which produced Democratic House gains of 21 seats. In 2014, Independents preferred Republicans by twelve points (54%- 42%), which resulted in a GOP gain of 13 seats.
So, how does all this history play in 2018?
Democrats need to net at least 24 House seats to take back the chamber, which means that they will need something approaching a partisan wave because of the way congressional districts were drawn at the beginning of this decade.
If you see Independents breaking narrowly toward Democrats (for example, in national generic ballot tests), you’ll know that it’s unlikely the House will flip. But if Independents are going heavily Democratic, in the 15- to 20-point range, the House is much more likely to switch party control.
Midterms have tended to produce much wider swings among Independents than have presidential contests, and that trend is likely to hold again in 2018. But we don’t yet know how big the Democratic wave will be.
Independent voters’ attitudes should be an early warning sign for both parties about the midterms. With any luck, a major media organization or two will conduct national polls with an oversample of Independents to help us track their preferences and intentions.