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Third-Party Fantasyland

The absence of major party support blocks virtually every path to the White House, as even Teddy Roosevelt discovered. Howard Schultz has yet to figure that out.
February 13, 2019
Third-Party Fantasyland
Howard Schultz. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The national rolling-out of Howard Schultz’s campaign continued Tuesday night in a prime-time CNN town hall, featuring questions from both host Poppy Harlow and selected members of the live Houston audience.

Schultz repeated his themes about the inadequacy of Trump’s presidency, the bankruptcy of the two-party system, and the need for a centrist alternative—presumably himself. Without established plans, he instead relied on questions like “How can you spoil a system that is already broken?” and “What better expression of our democracy than giving Americans a better choice?” He also emphasized that he would “not do anything whatsoever to re-elect Donald Trump.”

The billionaire former Starbucks chairman has attracted support, or at least serious attention, from serious folks. Steve Schmidt, operations guru for the 2008 McCain campaign, signed on with Schultz’s effort. On an episode of The Bulwark Podcast two weeks ago, former Rep. David Jolly praised his combination of strong personal narrative, strong centrist political message, and robust reserve of cash to throw into a campaign. Jolly, in fact, calls Schultz not a spoiler but a “contender.” Here at The Bulwark, Charlie Sykes noted how Schultz could yet prove at least plausible and relevant.

The question for Schultz—or for Michael Bloomberg, or for any other billionaire interested in providing a third option in 2020—remains: How do you plan to get to inauguration on January 20, 2021? If a candidate can’t lay out a reasonable road to victory, even a well-intended campaign seems destined to join two centuries’ worth of failed efforts to win the White House without major party support.

Presidential election victories come in three main flavors, none of which bode well for Howard Schultz.

First, a successful candidate can win in the most common way: by taking the national popular vote and triumphing in the Electoral College. Only the latter ultimately matters, of course, but achieving both popular and electoral victories confers great legitimacy upon such a winner.

This, however, remains an unlikely route to the presidency for a third party candidate. Gathering that many votes in that many states requires either broad personal popularity, extensive party organization, or both. Even a challenger with exceptional wealth and potentially wide centrist appeal faces a nearly insurmountable challenge without an institutionalized ground game.

The most successful third-party run, Theodore Roosevelt’s bid to return to the White House in 1912 as a “Bull Moose” progressive, had the right man for the job: a former president who retained much support within the Republican party. Indeed, he won many more popular and electoral votes than mainline Republican candidate William Howard Taft.

But Roosevelt nevertheless handed the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who garnered a majority in the Electoral College despite winning less than 42 percent of the popular vote. And say what you will about Howard Schultz; he’s no Teddy Roosevelt.

Second, a candidate can lose the popular vote but succeed in the Electoral College anyway by picking up enough of the right states. (In fact, current electoral vote apportionment would allow a candidate to win the presidency by losing badly in 39 states but winning a slight majority in just 11 states.)

Taking the prize through electoral votes in this way has happened four times, giving popular vote losers Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump the presidency for four years instead of Samuel Tilden (1876), Grover Cleveland (1888), Al Gore (2000), and Hillary Clinton (2016).

This starts to look a bit more realistic for a third-party candidate. After all, Strom Thurmond took four states and 39 electoral votes in 1948 as a Dixiecrat against Democrat incumbent Harry Truman. George Wallace ran as an independent in 1968 against Republican incumbent Richard Nixon and won 46 electoral votes from five states.

But those were strong regional candidates, with no plausible role beyond spoiler. No third-party contender—not even Roosevelt—has ever threatened to win outright in the Electoral College.

Third, a candidate can play for the Hail Mary: seeking to get just enough electoral votes to prevent either major party candidate from achieving a majority of appointed electors. Under Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, as amended by the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives then chooses the president from among the top three electoral vote recipients.

We’ve done this twice, but it’s been a while. Representatives in 1801 took 36 ballots to select Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr after an Electoral College tie. The 1824 election saw the electoral votes split between four candidates; the House rejected popular and Electoral College winner Andrew Jackson in favor of John Quincy Adams.

So, in theory, Schultz or any other candidate could campaign hard in a few states—just enough to throw the vote into the House of Representatives. Here’s the catch: Each state’s delegation gets one vote, almost certain to go to the candidate of whichever major party controls the most congressional seats. The only plausible path for a third-party candidate to peel away states that he did not win would involve a lucky break, perhaps catastrophic scandals striking both the Republican and Democratic candidates between Election Day and the House vote. Fat chance.

Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they want a third party; voters’ actions say otherwise. Even in 2016, with historically low approval ratings for the major party candidates, the Libertarian and Green nominees fizzled.

Maybe Schultz will shine as the best third-party candidate since Roosevelt, able to mobilize the great middle ground between Trumpified Republicans and free-everything-for-all Democrats. But until Schultz and his supporters can lay out a way to actually win, skepticism remains warranted.

David Priess

David Priess, chief operating officer of the Lawfare Institute served during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a CIA officer and daily intelligence briefer, and as a State Department desk officer. His new book is How To Get Rid of a President: History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives.