Many Challenges Inhibit An Independent White House Bid Rachel Martin talks to political scientist Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan about the long odds against independent political candidates.
NPR logo

Many Challenges Inhibit An Independent White House Bid

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/689863613/689863614" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Many Challenges Inhibit An Independent White House Bid

Many Challenges Inhibit An Independent White House Bid

Many Challenges Inhibit An Independent White House Bid

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/689863613/689863614" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Rachel Martin talks to political scientist Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan about the long odds against independent political candidates.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The former CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, said on our program yesterday that he is considering running for president as a centrist independent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HOWARD SCHULTZ: I know for a fact that there are very good people on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, who unfortunately cannot vote with their heart and their conscience and do the right thing.

MARTIN: There are real structural challenges to any independent bid for the White House. And our next guest argues there just aren't enough voters out there who would align with what an independent like Schultz might offer. Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist at the University of Michigan, and he joins me now.

Good morning.

BRENDAN NYHAN: Good morning.

MARTIN: So every presidential cycle, the media gives a lot of attention to people pining for a third way, some kind of break from the duopoly that is the two-party system. Is there a real constituency out there for that?

NYHAN: It's much smaller than people think. Almost all Americans lean towards one of the two major parties and vote for them pretty consistently. They're, in other words, closet partisans. What that means is that the constituency for a centrist independent campaign is much more limited than you might think, especially the particular mix of issue positions that someone like Schultz is offering. The independent candidacies that have done the best often have had a kind of populist orientation or capitalize on a particular issue where the parties are out of step with the public.

It's not clear that either of those applies to Schultz. He's no populist. And the issue he's emphasized most in his initial conversations about running is the national debt, which very few Americans are interested in. And in particular, there's very few who are socially liberal like Schultz but economically more right of center.

MARTIN: Although we hear a lot of those people talk on TV, come on the radio - the punditry is often made up of people who are so-called fiscal conservatives but may be more socially liberal.

NYHAN: That point of view is highly overrepresented in the media and among Beltway elites. Those folks are often very excited about the prospect of a socially moderate, economically conservative candidate. But the public at large doesn't share their enthusiasm. And that's why, for instance, candidates like Michael Bloomberg, when they've taken a look at the polling over the years, have repeatedly declined to run. They've seen that the constituency for that kind of a candidacy is quite limited and there's not a clear path to victory.

The Electoral College is a winner-take-all system. You only get the votes if you win that state. And even if you succeed in creating an Electoral College deadlock, the House of Representatives is going to decide who the president is. And the House of Representatives is not going to pick a candidate who's not from either of the major parties.

MARTIN: Looking ahead to 2020, is it explicitly clear yet which party has more to lose from an independent bid from Schultz or someone else?

NYHAN: It's possible that he could run a campaign that would draw votes from Donald Trump. It's possible that he could run a campaign that would, on net, draw votes from a Democratic candidate. There are certainly reasons for concern. For instance, in 1992, there's research indicating that Ross Perot's candidacy, on net, drew votes away from Bill Clinton, who was the challenger to an unpopular incumbent. It introduces a lot of risk and uncertainty. 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.

The prospective winners here are Schultz's book publicist and his consultants, both of whom would be thrilled with the prospect of him running. Unfortunately, you know, billionaire neophyte political candidates often have people whispering in their ear about how they can win. And that may lead them down a road that ultimately isn't as promising as they were led to believe.

MARTIN: Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan - political science professor there - thank you so much for your time.

NYHAN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.