Schultz 2020 is a possibility — but Democrats are skeptical

Key Points
  • Howard Schultz announced Monday he was retiring to pursue other opportunities, amid speculation that he could challenge President Trump in the 2020 election.
  • Should he decide to run, the longtime Starbucks executive's success and wealth would be assets in a campaign for the presidency.
  • But Democrats are skeptical of Schultz who would face formidable challenges in the race.
Howard Schultz
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After Donald Trump won the White House, even experienced political strategists hesitate to predict anything. But count Democrats skeptical about Howard Schultz in 2020.

The longtime Starbucks executive announced his retirement on Monday to pursue unspecified public service endeavors. As his interview with my colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin demonstrated again, he would bring important strengths to a race for the presidency.

Schultz has run an immensely successful multi-national company whose brand, should he run as a Democrat, would represent a major asset. He is bright and well-spoken about public policy.

His wealth assures him the opportunity to communicate a message. The Democratic field of 2020 possibilities lacks any front-runner and the executive-outside-politics resume Schultz boasts might find a niche alongside a pack of conventional politicians.

Yet Schultz would face formidable obstacles. He would begin the gauntlet of early contests – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina – without any experience competing for votes under intense scrutiny. Just because Trump's gut-level appeals worked among Republicans doesn't mean Schultz could persuade Democrats.

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His talk this week of healing political wounds offers "a great counter-point to Trump," notes former Obama strategist David Axelrod. But the Democrat who ultimately emerges from the pack needs the savvy to anticipate the mood of primary voters 20 months from now.

"The 2020 Democratic nominee is going to be like Wayne Gretzky," says Paul Begala, who advised Bill Clinton's winning White House campaigns. "Someone who doesn't skate to where the puck is, but to where it's going to be."

The policy issue Schultz emphasized this week – reducing the national debt – holds little promise of exciting Democratic activists eager to expand, not restrict, spending on education, training, health care and infrastructure. One potential billionaire rival, hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, has been pressing two hot Democratic buttons, environmental protection and impeaching Trump.

Schultz' bankroll makes it possible for him to consider an independent candidacy if he cannot identify a sufficient constituency among Democrats. His profile as a fiscally-conservative but socially-liberal executive – he recently shut down 8,000 Starbucks stores for a day of racial bias education – resembles that of Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who has also flirted with an independent run.

Bloomberg ultimately decided he couldn't find a path to an electoral college majority, even if he could manage the complex challenge of getting on state election ballots. The most successful third-party challenge in decades, by Ross Perot against Clinton and Republican incumbent president George H.W. Bush in 1992, drew just 19 percent of the vote and failed to carry a single state.

"I do think there can be a third party in 2020," observes Stan Greenberg, a pollster for Clinton that year. "But like Perot, it will start with mostly Republicans who can't stomach the Trump, Tea Party evangelical Republicans."

As a Democrat or an independent, Schultz could succeed as the exception who proves the rule nevertheless. And there is no doubt he will hear from political consultants that it's possible.

That's because wealthy novice candidates represent huge profit opportunities for people who conduct polling, make political advertisements and perform other campaign tasks. The moment for potential candidates to begin exploring political conditions has already begun; early entrants will begin actual campaigns in earnest soon after mid-term elections in November.

Some veteran strategists told me they expect Schultz, facing myriad challenges, to eventually back away from a presidential bid. "The question," says former Obama White House political director Anita Dunn, "is how long this will go on."

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