Remember when Oprah was running for president?
This guy, who famously called him a billionare asshole a few weeks ago while he was doing an event, apparently does not remember. (Although I’m all for calling billionares assholes and it was impressive how well you can hear him, so props to my guy anyway!)
The media apparently doesn’t either. CNN thought he was interesting enough to give him a town hall meeting yesterday. In fact, a quick google news search for Schultz shows he has in fact succeeded in garnering a pretty respectable surge of media coverage in the last month. Schultz garners about 7.9 million hits. By comparison, the Philidelphia Phillies baseball team garners about 6.9 million hits and the Boston Red Sox garner about 10.8 million hits, both teams with large fan bases that have been active int he offseason right before spring training is about to start. For political context, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who actually holds office and has been the limelight slightly longer, garners about 12.6 million.
Basically, if someone watches the news a lot, they’re probably going to get the impression Howard Schultz is going to have a significant impact on the 2020 election.
Now let’s look at frequency of google’s search for “Howard Schultz.”
But I haven’t quite addressed the biggest point. The fear isn’t, of course, that Howard Schultz is going to be the next president of the United States. As the lovely gentleman in the video I linked above pointed out, the fear is that Schultz will siphon moderate Democrat votes and hand Trump the election, and in fact, lots of early polling with left-leaning Democrat favorites such as Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren in a theoretical election versus Trump does show a Trump victory.
The Polls Don’t Matter (Yet)
The obvious thing to point out, of course, is that the election is more than a year away. This is why election forecast tools such as 538 consider the “fundamentals” of an election – who is the incumbent, what’s their approval rating, and the overall strength of the economy – far more than polling until the election is only a couple of months away. (We’ll talk more about fundamentals in a bit)
Not only that, but the Howard Schultz polls in particular matter even less than usual. The data presented is so incomplete as to be completely useless. Consider all the following information is missing.
- None of the polls show demographic data, which is extremely important because marginalized voters (minorities, young people) tend to be under represented in political polling. Prediction models (and many poles) adjust for this by tweaking the numbers to accurately represent who will actually be in the voting booth in November.
- In addition to demographics, we know nothing about the geography of the polled voters. Trump wins the popular vote in these polls, but they show nothing about whether he would win the electoral vote. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 2%, which savvy readers may notice is more than the margin that Trump is winning these theoretical popular votes. Without geographic data, these polls are useless.
- Nearly 20% of voters, when given the option of “undecided,” elected to go with that option. That’s obviously very important, and again, we know nothing about the demographics or geography of this undecided group. A lot of them, for example, could be moderate Republicans not sure if they’re going to stick with Trump again after actually seeing a term, or it could be a bunch of moderate Democrats who would vote for Biden but not Warren. My point is, we have absolutely no idea.
- There just aren’t a lot of polls out about Schultz. Electoral models use thousands of polls to come up with predictions. We’re looking at less than ten reliable pollsters.
TL:DR – polls that show Schultz swining the election to Trump mean literally nothing and shouldn’t be cited as valid evidence of Schultz’s impact on the election.
Back to Fundamentals
The best way this early in the race to make a semi-reasonable prediction is to look at historical president. First, the 538 fundamentals.
- Trump’s approval is consistently between 37-42%. Given the absurdity of his entire presidency from start to finish, I think it’s fair to say it will remain pretty stable. At an average of 39%, he has by far the lowest average approval rating of any president in U.S history since polling was a thing (FDR). (Truman/Carter are the next lowest averages at 45%) This is well below average.
- The economy since the 2008 recession “ended” has consistently been a pretty big wet “meh.” People under 30 will generally tell you it’s really awful while people over 30 are generally positive about it. Since the voting demographic tends to trend older due to lack of youth turnout, we’ll call this a mild to moderate positive.
- Trump is the incumbent. This is a pretty massive advantage historically. I’ll get around to this in more detail a bit.
Given these three fundamentals, if we scrub the name “Trump” out of our brains for a moment, we would expect it to be a toss-up election, probably with the current president as a light favorite.
Which is pretty much what the schultz polls show. If we remove the expectation of “who on earth would vote for this jackass?” that liberal pundits still seem to be stuck on two years after Trump won the 2016 election (kind of a big deal), Schultz’s presence in the polls don’t result in anything outside what we would expect to see.
The Anecdotal – A Final Consideration
It’s hard to find solid numbers on it, but the concensus is that both party voters are less concerned about their party becoming more extreme than they have in a very long time despite the increase in political polarization over the last decade.
Basically, that’s a fancy data-driven way to say that centrism is a dying breed, and that Schultz’s valueless unity based campaign is aiming for a niche that is continually shrinking. The odds of him garnering a significant portion of the vote a-la Ross Perot/George Wallace and swinging the election are basically none.
If we imagine a world where Schultz does carve out a enough of a niche to impact the election, I would argue that even in this scenario, the common concensus is totally wrong. Schultz is more likely to help Democrats win the election rather than Republicans.
Let’s consider all the different potential Democrat candidates as essentially two scenarios, and how schultz affects each.
Scenario 1: Mainstream centrist establishment Democrat wins, faces off against Trump and Schultz. By “establishment Democrat,” I mostly mean Joe Biden, who, assuming he runs, is an extremely heavy favorite to win the nomination. He has the best name recognition by far, the best fundraising apparatus thanks to a long political career and affiliation with Obama’s fundraising network, and is the clear cut favorite in polling – not to mention the demographics of important early states like Iowa and New Hampshire cut in his favor on top of everything else.
Which, by the way, is also completely ignored by Schultz fearmongers. The heavy favorite for the democrat nominee even in useless theoretical polling wins with Schultz running. You’ll never see a Biden/Schultz headline though, because Schultz is, I hope I’ve proven at this point, largely a media fabrication.
If a center Democrat is already running for the Democrats, then obviously, Schultz has extremely limited sway with centrist left-leaning voters. In this scenario, the extremely far-right Trump has more potential voters to lose than Biden or a similarly aligned candidate.
Scenario 2: Warren/Sanders style far-left candidate win and face off against Trump and Schultz. In this scenario, I want you to imagine the perspective of the moderate Democrat who feels alienated by our leftist candidate. Their options are
- A racist out of touch billionare who knows nothing about political policy and whose presidency has been a complete disaster.
- A (presumably) not racist out of touch billionare who knows nothing about political policy and is basically like candidate 1 without he racism.
- A candidate who knows about political policy and is not as out of touch with the average American as the aforementioned billionares, but who they feel is too far left on the issues.
I think, anecdotally, it’s safe to say given what we know about the “average” Democrat and what has happened over the last few yearsthat there is not a massive clamoring in the center of the Democrat party for another billionare president.
Comparitively, while the “#NeverTrump” coalition was massively overrated as far as its actual membership, it’s at least proven to exist. It’s an actual demographic, one I think it’s fair to say is significantly larger than the #NeverSocialism(?) segment of the Democrat party clamoring for a centrist billionare candidate.
EVEN in this scenario, I would anecdotally argue that in the unlikely event Schultz does swing the election, it would almost certainly be in the favor of Democrats.