Billionaire-turned-politician Howard Schultz began his Tuesday by announcing that he knows nothing about either American history or political science.
To become better, we must repair our broken two-party system. To those who say a third choice can't succeed, I say that's as un-American as you can get. https://t.co/GbTDyT5s5o
— Howard Schultz (@HowardSchultz) January 29, 2019
Someone less drunk on their own self-confidence might expect Mr. Schultz to cite a single example of an American third party prevailing in a presidential race before trotting out the words “as un-American as you can get.” But he can’t because no such thing exists.
To be sure, there are examples of major parties collapsing and eventually being replaced by a different major party — such as when the Whig Party disappeared and was eventually replaced by the Republican Party. But even this hasn’t happened recently. The two party contest between Democrats and Republicans has been remarkably stable since the Civil War.
This stability is not a coincidence. If Schultz wants to compete for the presidency (and label critics of his bid “un-American”), he needs to come up with a plan to repeal a phenomenon known as “Duverger’s Law.”
The “Duverger” in Duverger’s Law is Maurice Duverger, a French scholar and former member of the European Parliament who died in 2014. He is best known for his analysis of what happens in states that use first-past-the-post electoral systems — that is, a system that awards victory to whichever candidate receives a plurality of the state’s popular vote, regardless of how small that plurality may be.
Duverger’s Law provides that “single-member plurality districts produce two-party systems.” That is, when multiple candidates compete for a single job, and the job goes to whoever gets a plurality of the votes, the candidates will tend to sort into exactly two political parties. Third parties will vanish.
According to Duverger, this sorting happens because “the brutal finality of a majority vote on a single ballot forces parties with similar tendencies to regroup their forces at the risk of being overwhelmingly defeated.”
Consider, he wrote, “an election district in which 100,000 voters with moderate views are opposed by 80,000 communist voters.” In a two-party race between the Moderate Party and the Communist Party, Moderates will prevail, and the winner of the election will reflect the preferences of a majority of the district’s voters.
Now imagine that a second moderate candidate (perhaps motivated by the fact that they disagree with the Moderate Party’s position on taxation) decides to jump into the race as a third-party candidate. This candidate may have some disagreements with the Moderate Party, but they still hold moderate views on most issues. Thus, they will be likely to draw votes away from the Moderate Party’s candidate — and if they draw enough votes, they will wind up electing a Communist.
Duverger’s insight is that similarly-minded candidates have no choice but to join together into one of two parties, lest they wind up being divided and conquered. Similarly, third parties wind up undermining democracy because they often cause the candidate who is least preferred by a majority of the electorate to win the election.
The Bull Moose
There are numerous American examples of Duverger’s Law in action — that is, examples of third-party candidates who spoiled elections by undercutting the major party candidate they agree with the most.
The most famous example is probably Ralph Nader, the one-time consumer advocate who ran as a leftist spoiler against Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush in 2000. In the crucial state of Florida, where the official count showed Bush winning by 537 votes, Nader won nearly 100,000 votes.
As political scientist Gerald Pomper explains, Nader almost certainly cost Gore the election. Exit polls showed that “approximately half (47 percent) of the Nader voters said they would choose Gore in a two-man race, a fifth (21 percent) would choose Bush, and a third (32 percent) would not vote.” Had Nader not run, “Gore would have achieved a net gain of 26,000 votes in Florida, far more than needed to carry the state easily.”
By running as a third-party candidate, in other words, Nader elected the candidate most unlike Ralph Nader.
Similarly, in Maine’s 2010 gubernatorial race, Republican Paul LePage squared off against Democrat Libby Mitchell and Eliot Cutler, a former Carter administration official who primarily drew support from Democrats. The result was that LePage was elected governor of the blue state of Maine despite the fact the he won less than 38 percent of the overall vote.
Then, four years later, Cutler again jumped into the race against LePage and Democrat Mike Michaud. And, sure enough, LePage wound up being reelected despite the fact that a majority of the electorate voted for either Cutler or Michaud.
Indeed, American history suggests that not even world famous, widely beloved politicians — the kind of presidents who get their faces carved into mountainsides — can overcome Duverger’s Law.
When former President Theodore Roosevelt decided to seek a third presidential term in 1912, he was both the most successful living American politician and arguably the most popular man in the nation. During his last presidential bid, in 1904, Roosevelt crushed his Democratic opponent by nearly 20 points — shocking even himself. “I am stunned by the overwhelming victory we have won,” Roosevelt wrote to his son, adding that he “had no conception that such a thing was possible.”
Roosevelt claimed the “greatest popular majority and the greatest electoral majority ever given to a candidate for President.”
Though Roosevelt did not run in 1908 — largely due to a misguided promise not to seek a third term — the incumbent president hand-selected his protégé William Howard Taft as his successor. And the American people honored that selection by handing Taft a resounding electoral victory.
By 1912, however, Roosevelt grew disillusioned with Taft, who he viewed as insufficiently progressive, and mounted a third-party bid for the presidency. It ended in disaster. Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote, handing the presidency to Democrat Woodrow Wilson — even though Wilson received less than 42 percent of the popular vote.
If Roosevelt’s big stick energy wasn’t enough to overcome Duverger’s Law, it’s a mystery why a largely unknown businessman, who spent most of his career selling overpriced, burnt coffee, believes that he will succeed where Roosevelt failed.
Stupidity or malice?
The premise of Schultz’s doomed campaign is that there is a burning hunger for a candidate who combines Republican economic policy with Democratic cultural values. Think of him as Paul Ryan, but pro-choice.
But there’s no appetite whatsoever for this kind of candidate outside of a narrow band of Wall Street billionaires and cable news executives. A seminal study of the 2016 election plotted the American electorate on a chart measuring their views on economic and social policy. You see that quadrant in the bottom-right? That’s socially liberal fiscal conservatives. Notice that it’s almost empty.
Nor is there much doubt which party Schultz would hurt if he jumps into the race. In 2016, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contemplated an independent run for president. Like Schultz, Bloomberg is a billionaire perceived as socially liberal and friendly to business interests.
Yet Bloomberg ultimately decided not to run for two reasons. As hizzoner explained in a statement released shortly after Schultz announced that he is considering a presidential bid, “the data was very clear and very consistent.” It showed that “there is no way an independent can win.” And that “the great likelihood is that an independent would just split the anti-Trump vote and end up re-electing the President.”
There are only two possible explanations for Schultz’s flirtation with a presidential bid. One is that he simultaneously so ignorant of how politics works — and so high on his own arrogance — that he thinks he is a better politician than Theodore Roosevelt. The other explanation is much more insidious.
Howard Schultz, after all, is a white male billionaire. That makes him one of the very few people in the United States who’s actually benefited from the Trump presidency.
It’s possible, in other words, that Mr. Schultz knows full well that his candidacy makes it more likely that Trump will be reelected. That may be the point.