The Hazards of Vanity Candidates

Most people remember that George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election after the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the recount process in Florida. Bush’s popular vote margin was less than 500, but there were serious issues, including numerous legal challenges, about the counting of the ballots.

An issue that received a lot of attention in 2000 but has receded from the popular discussion since then was the impact of a third party candidate, Ralph Nader, on the outcome. While both Bush and Democrat Al Gore garnered nearly three million votes each, Nader siphoned off 97,488, a figure that makes the ultimate 500 vote margin pale in comparison.

Nader never had a chance to win Florida, much less the presidency. His candidacy was purely an exercise in ego and vanity. He was never competitive, yet he may have determined the outcome.

The nature of the American electoral system makes it almost impossible–let’s continue to say “almost”–for a third party candidate to win the presidency. Teddy Roosevelt’s dramatic run in 1912 is fascinating to read about, but is a total outlier in terms of presidential elections. In modern times, only a couple of candidates–George Wallace, Ross Perot–have won large blocks of votes, but never enough to be serious contenders.

To believe that a third party candidate could actually win the presidency, you have to disregard both the structure of American elections and the history of politics in this country. First, and perhaps most important, the Electoral College system embedded in the U.S. Constitution means that the outcome is determined state by state on a winner take all basis. Accumulating votes doesn’t matter unless you are able to win a plurality in a state. Everyone else gets zero electoral votes.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a growing debate about whether the Electoral College mechanism should be replaced by a national popular vote. That would require amending the Constitution, a process that is incredibly difficult. Even the work-around proposals that have gained some support are pipe dreams.

Absent a change in how we elect presidents, third party candidates will continue to be, at most, spoilers rather than serious contenders. Despite the growing discontent with our current political parties, voters continue to rely on party identification as the key to their decision making. Ironically, the degree of partisan identification has actually increased even as we complain more vociferously about the negative consequences of partisanship.

By now, you’re probably thinking that this blog is about Howard Schultz. He has already been the recipient of a virtual avalanche of criticism for his candidacy – and all of it well deserved.

Schultz has no chance at all of being elected as an independent candidate. Despite his talk about wanting to represent the political moderates of the country, there is little or no evidence that such a group actually exists. Complaining about Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi does not mean you are ready to vote for an independent. You may find multiple examples of people willing to express their loathing of parties, but you will be hard pressed to collect enough of them at the polls or even on a nominating petition to impact any election.

Why is Schultz talking about running? If he can’t win–and if he doesn’t realize he can’t win, he’s more naive than I had believed–does he have other laudable objectives? The traditional answer of third-party candidates is that they want to raise important issues that are not being discussed by the two major parties. That actually can be done without running for the presidency, but never mind for now.

The most plausible answer to why he’s running–based on his comments as well as the history of previous candidates such as Ralph Nader–is that he believes his success in selling coffee and accumulating huge amounts of personal wealth makes him uniquely qualified to lead. After all, if Donald Trump, with his history of business failures, can be elected president, why can’t the former and successful CEO of Starbucks?

When you think about that rationale, however, it ultimately boils down to little more than an ego trip. Schultz believes his prior “fame” will translate into a popular following. His lack of any relevant experience and his fundamental misunderstanding of how the system of electing a president actually works underscores that his candidacy is nothing but an exercise in personal vanity.

Schultz, of course, is not the only person talking about running who is in reality a vanity candidate. All those people who’ve already had their season and can’t seem to relinquish the stage are running for the wrong reasons. My list starts with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Add whatever additional names occur to you.

There are, on the other hand, a large number of prospective Democratic candidates who could be strong nominees in 2020. I am not worried either than the field is large or that it has not narrowed as of now. There’s time. But a good first step would be to cull all the vanity candidates from the list of contenders.