Ex-Starbucks boss Howard Schultz's presidential rollout got tons of attention — and didn't go well at all

Key Points
  • Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is considering a run for the presidency.
  • Political analysts say his chances of beating President Donald Trump and a Democratic nominee are slim at best.
  • Experts say Schultz — who already was facing long odds of winning by saying that if he runs for the White House in 2020 it will be as an independent — hurt his chances during the week even further with a series of unforced errors.
Howard Schultz, Chairman of Starbucks at the grand opening of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, China on Dec. 5th, 2017.
Justin Solomon | CNBC

Former Starbucks chief Howard Schultz touted his background as a poor kid from Brooklyn during the rollout this week of his potential independent presidential run — but the billionaire's overall performance got a big Bronx cheer from political analysts.

Larry Sabato, the longtime University of Virginia political science guru, burst out laughing — at some length — when CNBC asked him to evaluate how Schultz did in introducing himself to the American public as the nation's next potential president during a whirlwind series of media interviews.

"I'm sorry," Sabato said, as he continued chuckling.

Why Starbucks could be impacted if former CEO Howard Schultz runs in 2020

"Long and short: The rollout has been good in the sense that he has been introduced to millions of people who have never heard of him," Sabato said. "I had to learn how to spell his name."

"But the downside of his rollout is that millions almost immediately took a strong dislike to him for different reasons, something that apparently Schultz and his high-paid consultants aren't noticing," Sabato added.

Those consultants include Republican strategist and former MSNBC commentator Steve Schmidt and Bill Burton, a former advisor to President Barack Obama.

"The truth is the guy has announced for president, gotten an enormous amount of coverage and doesn't appear to have support from anybody," Sabato said.

Sabato and others said Schultz — who already was facing long odds of winning by saying that if he runs for the White House in 2020 it will be as an independent — hurt his chances during the week even further with a series of unforced errors. The former CEO of the giant coffee chain also left opportunities on the table, they said.


Analysts interviewed by CNBC cited the fierce backlash Schultz sparked by committing to running as an independent, leading many Democrats to blast him for risking throwing the election to President Donald Trump by siphoning off enough would-be Democratic votes.

A day after announcing his potential bid Sunday, at a New York City event to launch his book, "From the Ground Up," Schultz was met with a heckler who shouted, "Don't help elect Trump, you egotistical, billionaire a-----!" The incident was widely shared on social media.

Potentially alienating voters

Analysts also noted Schultz's own strong criticism of the Democratic Party, which they said risks alienating many voters that he likely would need to be able to win the election.

"It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic Party are going so far to the left," Schultz said earlier this week. "If I ran as a Democrat, I would have to say things in my heart I do not believe."


And analysts said his focus on a platform committed to lowering the national debt is likely to fall flat with voters this election cycle, as opposed to the 1992 election, when independent Ross Perot caught fire with a candidacy centered on that issue.

Then there is Schultz's vast wealth, lack of political experience and his charisma — or what analysts said was his lack thereof.

A spokesman for Schultz did not respond to a request for comment.

Sabato said that Schultz and his advisors "didn't seem to understand that most Americans aren't looking for another white billionaire using bromides and buzzwords who has had zero experience in government."

"We've already got one."

A question of strategy

Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University professor who previously chaired the Department of Political Science there, said he believed Schultz may have made a strategic error by floating the idea of his candidacy too "early" in the election cycle.

"If you're running as an independent, you want to get attention, and you want to have voters see where you fit in the political space," Shapiro said.

That is usually easiest, Shapiro said, when an independent has a good idea of who his opponents will be.


While Trump is very likely to be the Republican Party's nominee in 2020, the Democratic field is completely wide open and still might be so a full year from now.

"It does raise the question of if Schultz's strategy would be better if he first ran in the [Democratic] party and then ran as an independent afterward" if he failed to secure the nomination, Shapiro said.

He and other analysts noted that it is possible for Schultz, or another independent, to garner a significant share of the popular vote. Perot got 19 percent in 1992, after actually leading in public opinion polls at some point that year.

But Shapiro pointed out that Perot received "no electoral votes" that year despite his relatively strong showing in the popular vote.

The Electoral College — not the popular vote — determines who wins the presidency.

It is possible for an independent to win electoral votes, as George Wallace did with 46 electoral votes in 1968. But if Schultz were to win enough votes to play the spoiler in 2020 and no candidate were able to score the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, the election would then be decided by the House of Representatives.

And "the House has Democrats and Republicans," Shapiro said.

David Barker, professor of government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said Schultz's "rollout went quite poorly." Schultz also seems to have overestimated the pool of voters who could be induced to vote for him, Barker said.

"The vast majority of 'independents' are simply ideologues who do not want to identify with their natural party because they believe that party sells out too much or is too interested with protecting its power rather than pursuing particular ideological goals," Barker said.

"In other words, they don't like the party because the party is not pure enough."

But "the group of pure independents who are truly up for grabs is about 10 percent, and most of them are quite disengaged from politics so not necessarily voters," Barker said.

'Didn't have that professional feel'

Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science and communications studies at UCLA, said she thinks that if Schultz "could have a do-over" for his possible candidacy announcement, "he probably would take it."

She said she was struck by the difference between how Schultz announced his potential run for the White House during an interview with "60 Minutes" last Sunday and how others announced their bids: Trump in 2015, and Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., this week.

"Those events" — the ones other than Schultz's — "looked like presidential campaign events," Vavreck said.

She noted that choices of the setting and production values, down to the music, used for the announcements of Trump, Harris and Booker seemed to reflect a serious level of planning by professional advisors around those candidates.

In contrast, she said, Shultz's interview "didn't have that professional feel ... I don't get the sense that he had a strategy or theme to his message worked out with a key core, a key group of people."

"It doesn't signal to me ... that he's put a lot of effort into thinking about the run," Vavreck said.

She also was critical of Schultz's messaging on "60 Minutes" and in interviews later in the week.

"Mostly what I heard from him was a reaction to Democrats and Republicans and everything they're doing wrong," Vavreck said.

She said that while it's true that Congress ranks low in terms of public opinion, and many people have criticisms of the major parties, it's a mistake to think that "I can go out and say those things and people will vote for me and I'll win."

Vavreck said presidential contenders have to have "a theme, a message."

"You have to give people a reason to vote for you, to be one of your team. Not just 'I'm that guy,'" she said. "People want to be with you for a cause. Not just because you're not something else."

'It's a vanity project'

Sabato, of the University of Virginia, said Schultz's failure to lay out a compelling message, or "a crusade ... that matters to people" and would get them to vote for him, indicates what is motivating Schultz to run as an independent.

"It's a vanity project, and that's his giant mistake," Sabato said. "Here's what surprised me, is that with all of that money and all of that time and all of those high-priced consultants, he comes on '60 Minutes' and he talks about the debt? He thinks that's going to win him the presidency?"

Sabato said that a number of his political science students "didn't even know about him," even after the "60 Minutes" interview.

Those students who did know Schultz were underwhelmed.

"This one young lady said, 'He left me cold. Because there was nothing there,'" Sabato recalled.

— Additional reporting by CNBC's Brian Schwartz