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Howard Schultz and the Question of Self-Funded Campaigns

Widespread disapproval of the former Starbucks CEO’s 2020 run marks a change in public attitudes towards self-funders.

February 11, 2019

Histor­ic­ally, voters have been ambi­val­ent towards mega-wealthy self-funders in big-ticket polit­ics. This has often been true since at least 1958, when Nelson Rock­e­feller, who was heir to an oil fortune, defeated incum­bent New York Governor Aver­ill Harri­man, himself an heir to a rail­road fortune.

Two years later, John F. Kennedy received criti­cism about the money lavished on his son’s campaign in the West Virginia primary by his father Joseph Kennedy. Despite the criti­cism, JFK got away with joking that his father sent him a tele­gram, 'Don’t buy a single vote more than is neces­sary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a land­slide.'"

The affec­tion for self-fund­ing polit­ical figures in the 20th century like Rock­e­feller and Kennedy was partly rooted in the wide­spread feel­ing that they were “too rich to steal.” Some­how, you don’t hear that expres­sion much in the age of Donald Trump.

In light of former Star­bucks CEO and billion­aire Howard Schultz’s poten­tial inde­pend­ent bid for pres­id­ent in 2020, it is worth tracing the impact of self-funders on pres­id­en­tial polit­ics since the Supreme Court’s unfor­tu­nate Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976. Since the ruling, which struck down campaign spend­ing limits for wealthy donors, the mega-rich have been allowed to spend whatever it takes on campaigns.

Take, for example, Ross Perot’s 1992 third-party campaign, in which he won a stun­ning 19 percent of the popu­lar vote and helped make defi­cit reduc­tion a domin­ant polit­ical issue through­out the 1990s. Perot’s candid­acy may have also contrib­uted to Bill Clin­ton’s victory, although polit­ical analysts bitterly differ on this point.

More recently, in a losing 2008 bid for the Repub­lican nomin­a­tion, Mitt Romney spent $45 million of his own money — which helped set him up as the “logical” 2012 GOP nominee. And, of course, there’s Trump, the first self-fund­ing pres­id­ent in modern times, although his extra­vag­ant boasts about paying for the entire campaign helped fuel his initial boost of free satur­a­tion TV cover­age. In 2016, Trump actu­ally ran a Scrooge McDuck race, as the $66 million of his own money that he did spend amoun­ted to only 20 percent of his campaign expendit­ures.

In the cases of Perot, Romney, and even Trump, there were only muted complaints about the unfair advant­ages of being a candid­ate who could hold a fund-raiser star­ing at the mirror in the morn­ing. As Michael Bloomberg demon­strated during his three winning campaigns for mayor of New York, the anguished cry, “He’s trying to buy the elec­tion” has a limited track record of work­ing in polit­ics, regard­less of the legit­im­acy of the lament.

That’s why the wide­spread scorn for Schultz’s initial foray into the 2020 race marks an unex­pec­ted change in public atti­tudes towards self-funders. The former Star­bucks CEO aroused what journ­al­ists called “a Venti-sized back­lash” — both from Demo­crats who fear that Schultz would inad­vert­ently help reelect Trump and from heck­lers who ridiculed him as “an egot­ist­ical billion­aire.” Initial polls support the aiding-Trump theory: a national Optimus survey found that in a three-way race, Schultz would take away more Demo­cratic votes than Repub­lican votes.

Schultz’s tele­vi­sion blitz, which included appear­ances on 60 Minutes, CBS This Morn­ing, and Morn­ing Joe, promp­ted a chorus of who-anoin­ted-him cynicism about the level of atten­tion being lavished on someone who has never held public office. This billion­aire buildup reached Trumpian levels when CNN announced plans to feature Schultz in a town hall in Hous­ton, even though fewer than half the voters in the Optimus poll knew his name and Schultz’s actual support registers in the single digits.

Weirdly, Schultz (whose net worth is in the 10 digits) has objec­ted to being called “a billion­aire.” His public-rela­tions-depart­ment altern­at­ive to the b-word is “a person of means.”

In the end, most billion­aires (whoops, that should read “candid­ates of means”) running for federal office in recent years have crashed and burned. Repub­lican Linda McMa­hon, for example, blew through nearly $100 million in two failed efforts in 2010 and 2012 to win a Senate seat from Connecti­cut.

Many self-funders have an outland­ish over-confid­ence in the power of money in polit­ics — and the campaign consult­ants who grav­it­ate to these deep-pock­eted candid­ates have little incent­ive to tell them other­wise. Consequently, in 2018, 19 congres­sional candid­ates who squandered more than $1 million on their polit­ical ambi­tions in 2018 did not even survive their party’s primary.

But the unal­ter­able truth in polit­ics is that — all other things being equal — money trumps the lack of money.

Even though Greg Gian­forte pleaded guilty to a misde­meanor assault charge for attack­ing Guard­ian reporter Ben Jacobs, the Montana Repub­lican is currently serving his second term in the House after gener­ously bequeath­ing himself $2.4 million. And former Flor­ida Governor Rick Scott inves­ted $63 million in his own 2018 Flor­ida Senate race — which proved to be a major advant­age against the defeated Demo­cratic incum­bent Bill Nelson, who had to raise his money the old-fash­ioned way, one $2,700 contri­bu­tion at a time.

That’s why the anti-Schultz onslaught may have a far larger mean­ing than the fate of his indi­vidual candid­acy. Because of Buckley v. Valeo, social disap­proval is the only weapon avail­able to deter billion­aires from domin­at­ing polit­ics. It would be ironic if Howard Schultz’s contri­bu­tion to demo­cracy would be to perman­ently stig­mat­ize self-funders.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Image: Joshua Lott/Getty)