An unrealistic alternative: Professor Nyhan's take on third party presidential candidates

February 1, 2019

As the field of Democratic hopefuls for the Oval Office in 2020 continues to expand, the potential for a third party dark-horse challenger is already emerging as well. Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, announced that he is considering an independent presidential bid as a centrist alternative to the GOP and Democrats.

Ford Professor Brendan Nyhan, however, places little stock in the odds of a successful independent presidential campaign. On January 30, 2019 in an interview with NPR Morning Edition's Rachel Martin, Professor Nyhan said that proportion of the electorate favorable to a candidate like Schultz is “much smaller than people think.” While some people support the idea of a candidate that balances between fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, “the public at large doesn’t share their enthusiasm,” according to Professor Nyhan. Despite the theoretical appeal of an alternative to two-party polarization, “the constituency for a centrist independent campaign is…more limited.”

Another issue with third party candidates is the ability for such campaigns to siphon votes away from the candidates of the major parties. Much like Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Platform and the candidacies of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader in more recent election, a Schultz candidacy has the ability to hinder both parties. “The odds of being a spoiler for a candidate like Schultz are much higher than the odds of actually winning, given the vast advantages the major parties have” Professor Nyhan stated.

Should Howard Schultz determine to declare a bid for the White House, the odds are clearly stacked against him, as well as the American people. For Professor Nyhan, the real winners are not the people, but “Schultz’s book publicist and his consultants.”

To listen to the full interview or read the transcript, click here.

Brendan Nyhan is a professor of public policy at the Ford School. Nyhan also serves as the co-founder of Bright Line Watch and is a 2018 Carnegie Fellow.