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Journalists Criticize CNN for Planning Journalism About Howard Schultz

Town hall pilloried because Schultz is undeclared, uninformed, unelectable...and because he might become the next—or help the current—Donald Trump.

||| CNNCNNCNN announced Wednesday that it will broadcast a prime-time town hall interview on February 12 with potential-but-not-officially-declared independent presidential candidate Howard Schultz, to be conducted by Poppy Harlow. The announcement was promptly ratioed on Twitter, and subject to sustained criticism from a curious source: journalists.

"Is @CNN consciously making the same mistake as in 2015-16 when it gave endless air time to Trump, down to fixing a camera on his idle plane, and starving opponents of deserved attention?" wondered former New York Times correspondent Clyde Haberman. "Schultz is rich, that's all. He's done nothing to merit this attention."

"This seems like a dubious decision," judged FiveThirtyEight numbers man Nate Silver. "A lot of other candidates are far more popular and/or more likely to become president than Schultz, but have received far less airtime. He's also not even officially a candidate yet. And he's not very well-informed on public policy."

"This giving air time to rich folks who think it might be fun to run for president thing is how we ended up with #Trump," concurred CUNY Newmark Journalism School Associate Professor Lisa Armstrong, adding: "#media #fail."

More like that from Soledad O'Brien, Matthew Yglesias, and so on.

Like a lot of aversion to Schultz from Trump-fearing Democrats, the basic critique from his media skeptics contains a paradox bordering on contradiction. He's got no constituency! Stop paying attention to him, or Trump might win! But in the name of both media literacy and a lower-temperature political analysis, it's useful to sort through competing claims and journalistic ref-working over Schultz coverage. Let's start with a major anxiety threaded through the criticism of CNN:

1) No, Schultz is not, and will not be, anything like the 2020 equivalent of 2015–2016 free-media king Donald Trump.

CNN and the other cable networks did indeed give "endless air time to Trump" last cycle, as Haberman says, but that's because Trump was a famous television star and oxygen-gobbling business tycoon who was saying and doing and proposing things that no one had ever really seen on a presidential political stage before. Viewers couldn't look away. As CNN President Jeff Zucker said in October 2016, "If we made any mistake last year, we probably did put too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run....Listen, because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on the air."

The journalistic propriety and campaign effects of those ratings-driven decisions are worthy of serious debate and criticism. But based on his early appearances and videos, it is impossible for me to imagine that Schultz, with his much less transgressive political ideas and manners, can make up the vast deficit in pre-existing name recognition with charisma like this:

2) No, Schultz has not "done nothing" to merit media attention outside of getting rich.

Hey, he screws his brand new jeans on one leg at a time, just like you. ||| AmazonAmazonSchultz's perfectly-timed-for-the-campaign book, From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America, debuted this week on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list at number three. Yes, the book benefited from that 60 Minutes profile (somewhere, Julián Castro is shaking his fist toward CBS headquarters), but take another gander at that NYT ranking: Four of the top eight titles are either about Donald Trump or by authors who would like to take his job. (Kamala Harris is down three slots this week to number eight.)

As has been evidenced by cable news ratings the past four years, bestseller lists the past two, and midterm turnout numbers last November, Americans are way keyed up about national politics right now. The early above-average interest in Schultz—and as critic Jack Holmes freely acknowledges in Esquire, "Not much of that coverage has been positive"—may well be correlated with what CNN's Harry Enten characterizes as "the unusually high percentage of Democrats who are prioritizing winning the general election than finding a candidate who agrees with them on the issues." Which is to say, Schultz might earn CNN some hate-watch ratings from viewers straining at the leash to take a bite out of Trump.

Schultz is not just some rich rando musing out loud about being a fantasy independent centrist without having thought through the problem for more than a few seconds. He's a rich rando independent centrist who has expressed willingness to spend up to half a billion dollars on the effort, and (per The Washington Post) "secretly undertook a months-long effort to prepare an independent presidential campaign against the nation's two-party political system, deploying more than six national polls and laying the groundwork for paid advertising that could debut in the next two months."

For sure, it's Schultz's wealth that put him in position to consider a wallet-draining run against a two-party edifice designed to thwart all nonconformists. But there's a reason why only one other billionaire outsider—Ross Perot—has ever gone through with it: The fundamentals of such a challenge, particularly in a highly charged partisan moment like ours, are terrible. If Schultz takes the plunge, that's one helluva of man-bites-dog story.

Ah, but shouldn't those bad fundamentals steer cable networks away from providing coverage? I vote no.

||| Huffington PostHuffington Post3) Political journalists are poor judges of deciding which candidate doesn't have a chance. How many publications were predicting nine months ago that the Democratic Party's most compelling star would be a stylish young socialist from the Bronx? Remember when The Huffington Post noisily announced that it would only cover candidate Donald Trump in the entertainment section?

The rise of Trump and Ocasio-Cortez illustrate a point that is still poorly understood. Yes, the two-party arrangement of American politics is maddeningly strong, but the parties themselves are remarkably weak, vulnerable to local and even national takeovers by ideological insurgents. This makes for a dynamic, unpredictable electoral playing field.

Critics of both Schultz and the journalists who cover him are correct that the plurality of Americans who call themselves "independents" in fact tend to vote along partisan lines, but they're wrong to ignore that that same cohort is still more likely to switch teams or vote for third parties. And if we are going through some kind of ideological realignment, which is possible if not likely, then the role of nontraditional parties and politicians could easily prove greater than currently projected.

Or not! You'd think that the experience of 2016 would generate more humility among political prognosticators. In reality, much of the media thumbsucking about 2016 lessons learned has been of the dreary we-should-have-gatekeeped-harder variety, which if nothing else seems an odd response to an election marked by expressed anti-elitism.

One great recent example to the contrary of this commentary is this Michael M. Grynbaum piece in The New York Times surveying political reporters and a bunch of contrarian thinkers—Steven Pinker, Susan Fiske, Nassim Nicholas Taleb—about the internal journalistic challenge of questioning one's own assumptions, particularly when they align with conventional wisdom. "It's not that journalists missed the signs of Trump's rise," Taleb says there, "it's that journalists and the rest of us were not well equipped to understand the future." I'll say.

February 2019 feels a tad premature to declare just about any presidential campaign DOA, even Pete Buttigieg's or John Delaney's. Individual news organizations have to prioritize, and that's always going to be a series of judgment calls—declared candidates are generally ahead of exploratory-committee formers who are generally ahead of still-thinking-about-its, but that doesn't mean Andrew Yang is above Beto O'Rourke, or that anyone has any earthly idea what to do with John McAfee.

Luckily for candidates and consumers alike, we live in a time of highly distributed media competition, where one organization's biases are another's opportunity. Which brings us to...

4) Let the political media competition bloom. You know what one nickname for this Democratic campaign season is? The Colbert primary.

CBS's Late Show with Stephen Colbert is where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–N.Y.) kicked off her exploratory-committee phase, which was followed by an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow (who was not, as far as I can tell, criticized for giving air time to an unofficially announced candidate). Presidential hopefuls see prime opportunities in late-night anti-Trump comedy, and even high-listener podcasts.

In fact, the more specialized corners of the political/media press has been producing interesting analyses of how candidates are taking advantage of a diverse media landscape this cycle. "The days of a traditional launch rally are mostly behind us," a Democratic consultant recently told The Hill. "There are so many tools at our disposal, so many different venues to reach mass audiences beyond earned media alone, and we're going to see every campaign trying to out-innovate the others."

For sure, there will be a strong mutual interest between cable news and candidates to do more town halls. Why? Because the first such exercise this season, featuring Kamala Harris, drew record (if not quite Trumpian) ratings for CNN. If Schultz rates well next week, expect to see a lot more candidates on the airwaves. Speaking of which, a final—and overriding—point:

5) INTERVIEWS ARE JOURNALISM, PEOPLE.

Kamala Harris under cross-examination produced all sorts of headlines, many of them unflattering—about abolishing private insurance plans, about her controversial record as a prosecutor, and so on. The June 2016 CNN town hall featuring Libertarian candidates Gary Johnson and Bill Weld (which drew "good but not great" ratings) generated controversies that reverberate to this day. Joe Scarborough's exchange with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii) on MSNBC this week added dimensions to the foreign policy component of 2020 that we had not yet previously experienced.

Cable TV is the easiest target in the political-media ecosphere, but that doesn't mean the engagements there between journalists and candidates definitionally lack value. Let's have more of them, not less, and stop treating the airwaves of a number-three news outlet like some kind of faberge egg that needs to be protected and displayed just so, in the name of protecting democracy.

Photo Credit: CNN

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  • Longtobefree||

    "Schultz is rich, that's all. He's done nothing to merit this attention."

    Then how can he be a threat? Your insecurity is showing, socialists - - - - - -

  • Don't look at me!||

    As if getting rich is easy.

  • granite state destroyer||

    It is easy if you're Donald Trump, and basically just living off of Daddy's wealth. Schultz on the other hand worked his ass off.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Under this retarded assumption, then everyone's 1st million dollars requires the work. After that your just playing with the "government's money".

    Fucking Socialist retards.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Scissorfight?

  • JWatts||

    From a Left wing point of view, they all think they are just as smart, and probably a whole lot smarter than any given billionaire. The billionaire was just lucky.

  • Ray McKigney||

    Yep. Or they think the only thing that kept them from being rich was their refusal to compromise their principles.

    "I could've done that if I were willing to sell out!"

  • granite state destroyer||

    Most self-made billionaires actually are shockingly ignorant on most topics outside their immediate sphere of interest. It is not surprising that journalists, who have to be polymaths if they are any good, find billionaires kind of aspergery and weird. People who succeed like that usually do because they have a razor-sharp focus on their business and an incredible work ethic. That leaves them little time for intellectual pursuits or outside interests. That also makes them lousy politicians. A successful politician is usually a polymath like Winston Churchill (who often had money trouble), Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower or Thomas Jefferson (or Ron Paul for that matter). Not narrow specialists, but knowledgeable about history, science, agriculture, warfare, etc.

  • BigT||

    Most (insert occupation here) actually are shockingly ignorant on most topics outside their immediate sphere of interest.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    +100 BigT

  • Don't look at me!||

    ...not surprising that journalists, who have to be polymaths if they are any good,...
    I have yet to get the impression that any journalist was a polymath.

  • Ray McKigney||

    Or even a monomath.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Bingo. Dilletantes, perhaps, but not polymaths. In the days before hot takes, twitter, clickbait, outrage farming, etc, there was some really excellent, thoughtful journalism, and debate around various issues, but unfortunately it's all but extinct now.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    ps - that's "outrage farming" as in media cultivating outrage for clicks and shares, not the fantastical underground bunkers full of professional sock puppets like in season 6 of Homeland.

  • In Time Of War||

    I've known a journalism professor for a very long time. Journalism majors are the folks who couldn't handle the science requirements to become Phys Ed majors.

  • Sevo||

    granite state destroyer|2.8.19 @ 9:22AM|#
    "Most self-made billionaires actually are shockingly ignorant on most topics outside their immediate sphere of interest. It is not surprising that journalists, who have to be polymaths if they are any good, find billionaires kind of aspergery and weird."

    Most fucking lefty ignoramuses post piles of shit like this.

  • Overt||

    Please provide evidence that most billionaires are shockingly ignorant on most topics.

    The one billionaire I have met and interacted with on a regular basis (founder of the company I worked for) was extremely informed on all sorts of subjects. He was also more headstrong than most people, and thus was more sure of his confirmation bias. i.e. probably more informed than 80% of the people I know, but fallible like anyone, and yet more sure of himself even when he may not be right.

    Every one of the people you mentioned above was strong in some areas and weak in others (and Jefferson could easily have been considered a .001%er playboy in his day and age). Their power came not from knowing the answers to everything, but in being able to navigate the social tribes necessary to shore up their weaknesses and enact action. Washington is a perfect example of this. As a general, his strategies came close to disaster, with one good decision (Crossing the Delaware, and subsequent winter war). As a politician he was mediocre. And as a land owner he was aloof. But he knew how to get the soldier, political and aristocratic classes to work together, uniting the country.

    Successful billionaires have often needed to do the same- navigating between marketing types, sales people, business operations folks, and finance people to keep a company running.

  • JWatts||

    " It is not surprising that journalists, who have to be polymaths if they are any good,"

    That's a very narrow definition of good. How many journalists qualify as polymaths?

  • NashTiger||

    judged FiveThirtyEight numbers man Nate Silver. "he's not very well-informed on public policy."

    Yeah, he's a Climate Denier who hasn't signed on to the Green New Deal yet. What an idiot!

  • Teddy Pump||

    To paraphrase one of our Dear Leaders: "You didn't make that money!"

  • Mickey Rat||

    Building a large successful company is nothing, but giving a long, boring speech at the Democratic National convention is something of merit., apparently.

  • JesseAz||

    This is the open elections and choice liberals are always saying they support. In the real world they prefer the democratic elections of Maduro and Saddam.

  • n00bdragon||

    Can we as a country just come to a gentleman's agreement to not bother with any electioneering until, say, January 1st 2020 at the earliest?

  • granite state destroyer||

    In a perfect world there would be no primaries. Just have conventions, that are not covered by the media, then the various political parties (ideally 6 or 7) would present their candidates on Sep 1, and we could spend two months thinking about it.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Public interest will be a good gauge of a candidate's viability. If CNN doesn't get the ratings, then their gatekeeping function will have been performed, albeit a little later down the lane than normal.

    The question for me is does anyone but Trump not actually mean anyone but Trump. Or is this just the fear that a spoiler - well, this spoiler - will hand re-election to the president? At some point individual journalists have to come to terms and fess up with what they believe is their role in politics.

  • Cyto||

    I too wonder why our fourth estate has abandoned the textbook definition of their profession. I would be hard-pressed to name a single reporter on any of the major television stations or in any of the major newspapers that I read that does not view themselves as an arbiter of Truth whose mission is to ensure that the right people are in charge.

    Even on something as insignificant in the grand scheme of things as the Catholic School Indian Elder kerfuffle, a large majority of the media viewed it as their mission to carry water for the DNC and ensure that a narrative was protected and furthered.

  • MoreFreedom||

    "I too wonder why our fourth estate has abandoned the textbook definition of their profession"

    Just like corporations capture regulatory agencies, the government has captured the media. And they've done it via various means such as broadcast licensing, limiting access to friendly media, and probably more important, promises of better paying jobs working for politicians in PR, Communications, and Speech Writing. There's a revolving door between media jobs and overpaid government jobs. And then, journalists' tendency to be liberal, leads them unconsciously or not, to support liberals and more government, joining what they believe to be the moral side (even though it's been shown by Dr. Jonathan Haidt that liberals don't understand conservatives' morality, while conservatives don't have that mental deficit - read Haidt's articles here in Reason about that).

  • granite state destroyer||

    Schultz is on the far left of Americans on social issues, and definitely to the right of most voters (including Trump voters) on economic issues. Somehow that makes him a "centrist"? "Independent Centrists" tend to be people who live in bubbles of affluence and have no clue how most Americans think. "Centrists" fail because they don't actually represent the political center, just an imaginary balancing of GOP tax policy and Dem diversity pandering that appeals to almost no one.

  • moneyshot||

    Schultz is on the far left of Americans on social issues, and definitely to the right of most voters (including Trump voters) on economic issues.

    Then libertarians should be supporting him.

    I know I would support him over Trump or the progressive offering of the day.

  • Cyto||

    Yeah, I liked a lot of what I heard from him.

    Which means he is not likely to garner any support from anywhere. In fact, he may be lucky if he doesn't end up living in some Central American Enclave spouting conspiracy theories.

  • Eddy||

    So long as he leaves the whales alone.

  • granite state destroyer||

    Libertarians are many things, but they are not "centrists". Most Libertarians are smart enough to realize they are not "centrists", Schultz may be the best thing on offer, but I am disturbed that he sincerely thinks he is a centrist. Too naive to win.

  • moneyshot||

    I don't use the word "centrist". I was quoting you in fact.

    If he is very liberal on social issues (less government) and wants to cut spending (unlike the two parties) then libertarians should support him en masse.

  • BigT||

    Are you suggesting he will take more votes from Trump than from the Donkey?

    That 3% should make Donkeys everywhere very happy.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Left vs. Right (US) Political Spectrum

    Fairly decent representative but does not specifically mention Libertarians in the center to right-leaning and Nazis on the Left Socialist side.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Centrist is totally subjective and personally I find it's usually used by people who are trying hard to make themselves sound reasonable and rational, when they absolutely not from my perspective. I'd never go anywhere near the term because it's absolute bullshit.

  • MoreFreedom||

    I can't support Schultz because he hasn't articulated his positions on many issues. I do like he's fiscally conservative (and perhaps more so than Trump, but it's hard to say because if in Trump's shoes, I know that fighting Congress over spending is likely to lose votes and make more enemies in Congress). Trump couldn't even keep the RINOs from breaking their promise to repeal Obamacare.

    Schultz is for a balanced budget, so where's he going to cut? He hasn't said. Where is he on NSA spying? What is his position on legal pot? Asset forfeiture? Military interventions in ...? SALT deductions? Immigration? Free trade? Running a business is quite different than wielding the force of government.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Relax, Matt, Politico's giving Howard PLENTY of attention. According to Seattle-based Eric Scigliano "You don't have to listen hard to hear a bad word about Schultz in Seattle. He's a favorite object of scorn here, just as Donald Trump is in New York."

    Sure, it's funny, though not surprising, to hear journalists say they ought to censor themselves and only cover "good" people, but, fortunately, there's a lot of bad in all of us. You remember the line about the higher the monkey climbs on the pole, the more you can see of his ass? It's still true.

  • Knutsack||

    Wait a minute. You're telling me that in a city of leftists, there is scorn for a guy that made a lot of money? I don't believe it.

  • BigT||

    They hate Starbux. It is known.

  • Brandybuck||

    In a time not too long ago the lefties used to worship Starbux.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Starbucks was majorly anti-Trump which turned out to be a smart business decision to regain some favor with anti-corporate people.

  • Brandybuck||

    Sidenote: A business should be neither for nor against a candidate, as a business practice. Businesses should be politically neutral, as a business practice. Taking sides will always end pissing off 50% of your clientele. Even in an ultra-leftie place like Seattle that could still be 30% of your clientele. And Starbux goes being just those who live in the Pike's Place neighborhood.

    Yeah, it may have helped them with the anti-business nitwits in Seattle, and may have saved them from some local retaliation for not being on talking point. But it did hurt them nationwide as they are now seen as a thoroughly partisan coffee company. After almost two hundred and fifty years after the first tea party, they may turn American conservatives back into tea drinkers because of it.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    According to Seattle-based Eric Scigliano

    Who?!

    *googles*

    Crosscut. Uh huh.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    The "journalists" mentioned are fine with lavishing attention on a candidate; it just has to be THEIR candidate.

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Actually, four years ago they were fine with lavishing attention on Trump because they hoped he'd win the nomination over "serious" GOP contenders.

  • eyeroller||

    Look, it's the prerogative of journalists to dictate who is worthy of people's attention.

    The journalists have decided Schultz is not worthy of people's attention.

    CNN is just causing trouble. Of course they need to be put in their place.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Right now AOC, Waters, Hirono, et al are their favorites, and seem to represent what the majority of US journalist believe; they will get the benefit of Pravda and not some damned spoiler who could mess up their plans.

  • Don't look at me!||

    It worked for Obama.

  • DajjaI||

    Criticism of Howard Schultz is perfectly valid, but we have to be careful it doesn't spill over into antisemitism.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    He's Jewish? Well that won't go down well with some of the more militant D candidates.

  • DajjaI||

    Yes there is a frightening rise of antisemitism in this country. We must remain vigilant and not be scared to identify it. We were powerless once, but today we have Israel to protect us. We must speak out courageously if we are ever to eradicate this vile scourge.

  • Eddy||

    Was Sgt. Schultz in Hogan's Heroes Jewish?

  • Ecoli||

    The antisemitism is rising in half the country. The Democrats own it.

  • MoreFreedom||

    I have to disagree with "3) Political journalists are poor judges of deciding which candidate doesn't have a chance."

    The way I see it, is they believe Schultz has a great chance in a crowded Dem field, because unlike all the rest he isn't about increasing government and soaking the workers. In a field where winner by plurality (and the 2 major parties certainly don't want anything like Instant Runoff Voting or Approval Voting, because it takes away power from party insiders like journalists) wins, the unique candidate often wins because the others split the socialist vote.

    While I agree with Schultz that the debt is the major issue, his stands on government policy remain to be seen IMHO. But that may be enough where the typical promise of prosperity without specifics is all it takes to win. At least Schultz isn't trotting out the tired, old, non-workable Democrat ideas. And he has liberal bonafides bases on his Starbucks policies (which are quite different than government policies where force is used).

  • Sevo||

    "Is @CNN consciously making the same mistake as in 2015-16 when it gave endless air time to Trump, down to fixing a camera on his idle plane, and starving opponents of deserved attention?" wondered former New York Times correspondent Clyde Haberman. "Schultz is rich, that's all. He's done nothing to merit this attention."

    Darn! The finally noticed that the hag lost because of media bias toward Trump!

  • DesigNate||

    Maybe the DNC shouldn't have colluded with the MSM to push Trump to the forefront of the primaries.

  • mtrueman||

    "Maybe the DNC shouldn't have colluded with the MSM to push Trump to the forefront of the primaries."

    Or Clinton for that matter.

  • ||

    The announcement was promptly ratioed on Twitter, and subject to sustained criticism from a curious source: journalists.

    The only need I have from a professional journalist is to provide me data. I am perfectly capable of making my own decisions. Instead the "profession" seems to be dominated by people who wish to make my decision for me. Not one of these journalists believe Schultz has a chance of winning. They fear he will do a third-party run and be a Democrat spoiler. William Jefferson Clinton very well would not have been elected president in 1992 without Ross Perot but I doubt they give a shit about all the free coverage he got.

  • Brandybuck||

    The more Democrats (and faux-independent Democrats) freak out over Schultz, the more I warm up to him. I may just slap his bumper sticker just to witness the carnage on the freeway.

  • Ecoli||

    Schultz is clearly not as smart as Hillary. Schultz made billions selling burnt-tasting coffee, which is almost as hard as selling ice cubes to Eskimos, and offering bathroom services to vagrants.

    Hillary, on the other hand, made hundreds of millions selling Uranium and cattle futures and the odd "favor" to tyrants.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    and offering bathroom services to vagrants.

    I see what you did there.

  • Brandybuck||

    No one will buy burnt coffee. But call it "French Roast" and they will buy it in droves. Because that's what French Roast is. After WWII the French couldn't get good fresh coffee, so they over-roasted their beans to hide that fact. And damn Starbucks for making so many people think that's how good coffee is supposed to taste.

    At least it's not Italian Roast. That stuff is indistinguishable from ground charcoal.

  • mtrueman||

    Vietnamese rat shit coffee. Which I've had.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I guess democracy doesn't die in darkness any more.

  • Eddy||

    Democracy needs to stop wearing such short, revealing dresses.

  • Brandybuck||

    Mmmm, me wanna get some of that democracy.

    "Hey, that Constitution looks pretty nice. It would look even nicer on my bedroom floor!"

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So it's just a big journo-cat fight.

  • CptNerd||

    When has CNN ever been guilty of comitting journalism?

  • mtrueman||

    It's pretty common for the second place finisher in the race to win the presidency. Isn't it about time that we let the third place finisher take the prize?

  • majil||

    what do you mean Silver that Shcultz has done nothing to warrant this attention. Schultz has yet to prove he is a lying piece of garbage politician, that is reason enough to go forward

  • Truthteller1||

    No interviews unless approved by the overlords.

  • Truthteller1||

    No interviews unless approved by the overlords.

  • ||

    Who is Nate Silver to decide who is relevant right now? He just is scared that Schultz will prevent the Democrats from winning in 2020.

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