As Howard Schultz ponders a U.S. presidential run, here's a look at other independent upstarts

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is teasing a 2020 presidential candidacy as an independent. If modern U.S. history is any indication, his chances of winning outside the two-party system are slim.

Despite hard-held opinions, effect of 3rd-party candidates debatable

Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, has shown interest in launching a U.S. presidential bid for 2020 outside of the Democratic Party primary process. (David Ryder/Reuters)

Howard Schultz, who helped turn Starbucks from a little-known regional coffee chain into an international food service powerhouse, said on Sunday he was pondering a U.S. presidential bid as a "centrist independent."

Schultz's name had been bandied about as a possible 2020 contender, though some assumed he would vie for the Democratic Party's nomination. This past weekend, he posted a series of tweets timed to coincide with a 60 Minutes appearance on Sunday, as well as a book tour this week.

The former Starbucks CEO has evidently decided he didn't have enough support within the Democratic Party. Prominent Democrats were quick to discourage him from an independent bid, believing — without any evidence — that he could siphon votes from the Democratic candidate in what they see as a winnable election (against, presumably, Donald Trump).

There have been significant barriers to candidates who don't secure the Republican or Democratic nomination, as the primary process caters to registered party voters. As well, each party has its own established fundraising operations.

Here's a look at the most notable third-party or independent candidates in modern U.S. history.

George Wallace, 1968

American Independent Party

Election showing: 9.9 million votes, 13.5 per cent of the total, five states carried

Former Alabama governor George Wallace ran on the slogan 'Stand up for America' in the 1968 election. (Preston Stroup/Associated Press)

Wallace, a Democrat in his home state of Alabama, was out of step with the national party owing to his segregationist views, just three years after President Lyndon Johnson unveiled a suite of domestic programs to improve the rights of minorities. Wallace's differences with the party were so pronounced that at the 1968 Democratic convention, fellow Alabama legend and Crimson Tide football coach Bear Bryant received more delegate votes for president than Wallace — and Bryant wasn't even running.

But by that time, Wallace had obtained enough signatures to put himself on the election ballot while leading the American Independent Party. It was a tumultuous year: President Johnson announced he wasn't seeking re-election and Democratic Senator Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. The Democrats' candidate ended up being Hubert Humphrey, then the vice-president. 

Wallace managed to pick up Alabama and four other southern states in the November election. But even in the unlikely event that all of those electoral votes would have gone to Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon would still have prevailed by a comfortable margin.

In 1972, Wallace was a significant factor operating within the Democratic primary process, winning six states. But then he, too, was felled by an assassin. It ended his campaign in May and left him paralyzed for life.

John Anderson, 1980

National Unity Party

Election showing: 5.7 million votes, 6.6 per cent of the total

In the 1980 contest, independent candidate John Anderson received a significant amount of support from socially liberal conservatives. (Ira Schwarz/Associated Press)

Anderson had a nearly two-decade record as a Republican congressman, but found himself at odds with what he called the hawkish direction of the party. He supported gun control measures and a co-sponsored a gay rights bill in the House. A bid for his party's nomination was not in the cards with heavy hitters like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the running.

The bespectacled, professorial Anderson set out on his independent bid as leader of the American Unity Party. He was seen as so liberal within his own party that some Republican operatives cheered him on, believing he would be more likely to receive support from Democratic voters disillusioned with Jimmy Carter's first term.

Anderson received 5.7 million votes, still the fourth-highest ever showing among non Republican, non-Democrat candidates.

Ross Perot, 1992 and 1996

Election showing in 1992: 19.7 million votes, 19 per cent of the total
1996: Eight million votes, eight per cent of the total

In 1992, Ross Perot hammered incumbent George H.W. Bush as the economy flagged. (Associated Press)

Perot became a billionaire by developing growing and selling Electronic Data Systems, and in 1992, the Texan opted to fund his own presidential campaign.

Perot preferred to relay his plain-spoken message in television interviews and infomercials, rather than pressing the flesh at diners and swap meets. He gained purchase by attacking George H.W. Bush's taxation and economic policies, including NAFTA, and became a cultural phenomenon in his own right, inspiring Saturday Night Live and other late-night skits owing to his elfin appearance and high-pitched twang.

Perot also revealed his flightiness — he dropped out of the race in July, citing the revitalized strength of the Democratic Party, before re-entering three months later.

Even so, Perot had more success than any third-party candidate in 80 years, and it has become an accepted narrative in some quarters that Perot cost Bush the 1992 election. One poll estimated that about 70 per cent of Perot voters had gone for Bush over Michael Dukakis in 1988. But in general, Perot did best in states that Bush carried in the winner-take-all electoral college system. 

Perot tried again in 1996, under the imprimatur of the Reform Party, taking eight per cent of the vote (eight million overall) but carrying no states.

Ralph Nader, 2000

Green Party

Election showing: 2.8 million votes, 2.7 per cent of the total

Ralph Nader has been adamant that his 2000 candidacy did not affect the result of the election, which saw George W. Bush edge Al Gore in the most contentious of circumstances. (Rick Bowner/Associated Press)

There was something in the air in 2000. Donald Trump, with adviser Roger Stone often at his side, teased a potential bid as a Reform Party candidate. He didn't end up going through with it, and that party ended up fielding right-wing firebrand Pat Buchanan, who had made some waves in the 1992 and 1996 Republican primaries.

Consumer advocate Nader was an easy convert to the notion of smashing the two-party system, having once backed Dr. Benjamin Spock of the People's Party in the 1972 campaign.

"They never tell us when we're permitted to engage in a protest candidacy," Nader said in a 2016 interview with CBC News. "When is the right time? It never is."

Democrats still fume about Nader's supposed negative impact on Al Gore's bid against Republican George W. Bush. Bush's victory all came down to a remarkable fight in Florida involving ambiguous ballots and a Supreme Court decision. 

Nader insisted the outcome had nothing to do with his voters. As Nader told CBC News, "a big bloc of my votes were voters who would have stayed home otherwise."

It's a contention backed up by at least one study of Nader and Gore voters from 2000.

Gary Johnson & Jill Stein, 2016

Johnson (Libertarian Party): 4.4 million votes, 3.3 per cent of the total
Stein (Green Party): 1.4 million votes, one per cent of the total

By historical standards, libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson received a healthy share of the 2016 popular vote for a third-party candidate. (Scott Morgan/Associated Press)

Outgoing president Barack Obama said any third-party vote in the 2016 election would be "a vote for [Donald] Trump." Bernie Sanders also urged his supporters to back Hillary Clinton, who had defeated him in a bitter Democratic primary. After all was said and done, Trump's razor-thin wins in a handful of battleground states gave Clinton supporters ammunition to suggest her bid to become the first female president was scuttled in part by independents, especially Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Jill Stein's campaign in 2016 was her second run as an independent presidential candidate. (Tae-Gyun Kim/Associated Press)

Both Johnson and Stein had had a run for president in 2012, but they seemed to get more media attention four years later, in a race without an incumbent, and two divisive contenders. Johnson's campaign included a notable gaffe in which he seemed to lack knowledge regarding Syria's war, but it's unclear if it moved the needle substantially on his ultimate performance.

With Johnson and Stein part of the equation, Trump won the presidency with just over 45 per cent of the popular vote vote, the lowest percentage for a winner since Bill Clinton in 1992.


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Anderson's party. While he ran as an independent in 1980, some states required party affiliation in order for a candidate to be placed on a ballot. Anderson's identification in those cases was the National Unity Party, not the American Unity Party, as the article previously stated. Anderson mounted another run in 1984 under the NUP banner - but by August of that year, he had endorsed Democrat Walter Mondale.
    Jan 30, 2019 11:00 AM ET

About the Author

Chris Iorfida

Senior Writer

Chris Iorfida has worked in TV news, radio, print and digital in his journalism career. He has been with CBC since 2002 and written on subjects as diverse as politics, business, health, sports, arts and entertainment, science and technology.


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