Democrats across the country are worried that an independent presidential bid by former Starbucks CEO could make it harder for their party to unseat President Donald Trump, but Democrats in New Jersey likely shouldn’t share those worries.
“It’s hard to imagine Schultz doing better than the recent historical averages for third-party candidates. There’s nothing that leads me to believe that he’d do better than a Ralph Nader or a Gary Johnson or a Jill Stein,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute. “I don’t think New Jersey voters are going to have any shortage of centrist candidates at this point going into the presidential season.”
Since 2000, independent presidential candidates have on average won 1.6% of the vote, and Democratic presidential candidates have won majorities in the state since 1996, when independent candidate Ross Perot won 8.5% of the vote.
In 1992, 15.6% of the state cast ballots for Perot, but that wasn’t enough to stop former President Bill Clinton from eking out a victory over former President George H.W. Bush.
“You might make an argument that New Jersey is going to be similar to ’92 with Perot because there’re moderate Republicans that aren’t going to go, let’s say, with a liberal Democrat, but don’t want to go for Trump,” said Norris Clark, who was Perot’s 1992 New Jersey state director. “There’s a lot of people like that, including myself, in New Jersey.”
Moderate Democrats, Clark said, could also defect if their party’s candidate ends up too far to the left, and independent voters would also break off to back Schultz.
And, should he choose to run, Schultz would likely be targeting the same voters as Perot, at least if his early statements are any indication of his campaign strategy, Clark said.
“He said it’s fantasy to think we can give healthcare to everybody, free education to everybody. That’s exactly what Perot was saying,” Clark said. Schultz said we have a $20 trillion national debt and we can’t just afford to give free candy to everybody, there’s a limit. That was exactly the way Perot talked.”
Schultz, like Perot, has the ability to pour millions of dollars into his campaign, but it’s not clear how much of an advantage that funding would give him in an election that’s expected to be all about Trump.
“If he wants to spend his money on getting 15% of the vote in a state like New Jersey, then that’s certainly his right to do that — everybody can participate — but that puts him in the ranks of the five or six hundred other candidates who say they’re running in 2020, and maybe it puts him in at the front of that pack, but it still puts him in that pack,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen said he believed observers and wary Democrats shouldn’t too much from Schultz.
Unless Democrats lose the wind in their sails, they could bank on similar swells in voter engagement and turnout they saw in 2018, when Democrats claimed four of the state’s five Republican-held seats.
With Trump still in the White House, he said, New Jersey voters won’t risk pulling the lever for a third party, even if whatever candidate makes it through the primary isn’t completely to their tastes.
“I think that both of those sides are going to understand that the conventional rules of the game are red or blue,” Rasmussen said. “It’s a zero-sum game and one of those two sides are going to win, and you’re either for Trump or against Trump. There’s really no in-between.”
Even if some voters do end up breaking for Schultz, it may not influence the presidential race in the state all that much if they vote like they did in 1992.
“In New Jersey, Perot took equally from Republicans and Democrats and then got people who would not have voted,” Clark said.