When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he was thinking about running for president as a "centrist independent," he was immediately and vituperatively denounced as a billionaire jagoff riddled with narcissistic delusions of grandeur who nobody would vote for anyway so why is he even running in the first place and if he insists on running who does he think he is not to run as a Democrat in the Democratic primaries or work himself up to the job by running for Congress or something lower than president but of course as a Democrat because he must obviously be a Democrat because he believes in climate change and abortion and immigration but wait he's against Medicare for All and raising taxes to 70 percent and demonizing rich bastards like him who grew up in housing projects which proves that he's not a self-made success AT ALL because public housing is paid for by tax dollars so really if he's anything he's proof that the state really should be in charge of everything but I guess he should just STFU already about the national debt, which doesn't really matter because it's just money we owe ourselves and Starbucks is shit coffee anyways and always has been, right?
For Republicans and Democrats, the discourse around any independent candidate (even one who hasn't decided to run) immediately degenerates into the verbal equivalent of an evil pitching machine that becomes sentient and starts chucking everything it has at the batter, faster and faster and faster until the poor schmo is just a pile of bruises. That's because we currently have more types of hepatitis than we do viable major parties in the United States and the duopoly is committed to keeping it that way, thank you very much.
Schultz took a ton of fire from Democrats, liberals, and progressives because they assume he would steal votes from whomever their candidate ends up being and thus potentially help to re-elect Donald Trump. One independent poll of 1,338 likely voters conducted from January 31 to February 1 found that "Schultz's presence in the race makes Trump's margins between 2 and 4 points better than they would be without him in the race."
They might want to rethink those fears, especially if Schultz actually sticks around and builds his profile around the idea of being socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver ran the numbers for the 2016 campaign and found that socially liberal, fiscally conservative (SLFC) voters, who make up about 16 percent of the electorate, actually went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Using data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, Silver created a way to compare SLFC voters' reactions to various issues. What he found:
When choosing between the major-party candidates, these voters were more likely to go for Trump than Clinton. Among the 25 combinations of socially liberal and fiscally conservative views, Trump won the most votes 19 times, Clinton did so five times, and there was one draw. And on average between the 25 combinations, Trump won 52 percent of the vote to Clinton's 40 percent. That's not a huge margin: a 12-point edge among 16 percent of the electorate. But it adds up to enough voters that, if all of them had gone for a third party instead, Clinton would have won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida, and therefore the Electoral College.
Read the whole thing here. Silver stresses this isn't anything like a "comprehensive analysis of whether a Schultz-like candidate is more likely to help or hurt President Trump's re-election chances," which will also depend on what sort of candidate the Dems end up fielding.
But the counterintuitiveness of his take squares with deeper reads on how recent major independent candidates have impacted presidential elections. The conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. For instance, it's typically a given that John Anderson, a liberal Republican, cost Jimmy Carter reelection in 1980 by splitting the anti-Reagan vote. It's also routinely asserted that Ross Perot drained votes from George H.W. Bush in 1992, allowing Bill Clinton to win with just 43 percent of the vote. As Steve Kornacki wrote for Salon in 2011, that's just wrong. Among other things, both Anderson and Perot voters were split on who their second choice would be, suggesting that they drew votes away from all of their rivals.
Assuming Schultz or someone like him actually runs, it's likely that he will draw votes from both the Republican (presumptively Donald Trump) and the Democrat, if only because people really are sick of the major parties. Currently just 25 percent of Americans identify as Republican and 34 percent as Democratic. The largest bloc, at 39 percent, call themselves independent. In 2016, neither major-party candidate managed to get anywhere near 50 percent of the vote, and that was without a strong independent candidate. (The Libertarian Party ticket pulled a record-high 3.28 percent of the vote, another sign of dissatisfaction.) There's every reason to think the Dems and GOP will end up with repugnant candidates once again. Republicans and conservatives were mostly soft on or approving of Schultz when he emerged a week or so ago. If he is still around in a year's time, expect them to start bitching like crazy about him, as his threat to their position becomes clearer.
Related: Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate, misreads recent polling data about Schultz and concludes that SLFC voters make up a tiny fraction of the electorate:
One is the absence of socially liberal, economically conservative voters. These were the people Schultz thought he could appeal to; but basically they don't exist, accounting for only around, yes, 4 percent of the electorate.
This is simply wrong. As Silver notes, this group makes up about 15 percent of the vote. At times, Krugman conflates SLFC voters with libertarians, which is not unreasonable (if still imperfect), and declares us non-existent. That's wrong too, and simply a variation on the anxiety that duopolists exude whenever even the possibility of a different sort of politician is conjured. From Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute:
The overwhelming body of literature, however, using a variety of different methods and different definitions, suggests that libertarians comprise about 10-20% of the population, but may range from 7-22%.