Alternate futures: Meet President Howard Schultz

Imagine it’s the morning of November 4th, 2020. After staying up late because the vote counting was going so slowly and too many states were still not called, you finally packed it in and went to bed. Then, wiping the sleep from your bleary eyes the next morning, you turn on the news to learn that President Trump has been defeated. But it’s not the Democratic nominee who will replace him. It’s Howard Schultz.

That’s the premise of an interesting and speculative piece from our friend Hugh Hewitt in the Washington Post this week. Sound a bit too much like alternate reality fiction? Well… you’re probably right. But Hugh does make a solid point about some of the oddly crafted portions of the Constitution and its amendments.

So, how could Howard Schultz become president?

Each week in The Post Pundit 2020 Power Rankings (in which I and nine other writers participate), I always list Schultz among the top 10 people likeliest to unseat President Trump. I do that because I know the 12th Amendment is out there, lurking. It is Schultz’s secret weapon. And it isn’t crazy, just improbable.

I asked Hank Adler, a retired Deloitte partner and now an accounting professor at Chapman University, to provide an explainer…

“If Mr. Schultz were to win in at least one state and neither President Trump nor the Democratic nominee were to achieve 270 electoral votes,” he responded in an email, “the election would move to Congress.” That’s the 12th Amendment kicking in, last seen in its more arcane operations in 1824.

So what this boils down to is a subject that’s become standard fare every election cycle. If an election is shaping up to be fairly close, analysts inevitably bring up the scenarios where it could be tossed to the House and the Senate to decide. The more likely (though still pretty unlikely) one is where the two major party candidates come in at 269 electoral votes each. But, as Hugh points out, if a spoiler like Schultz actually managed to win a handful of purple states – or, in theory, even just one – he could leave both the Republican and the Democrat short.

The main reason I bring this up is to point out one curious aspect of the 12th Amendment that doesn’t generally draw as much attention. In the event this happens, the House gets to pick from the three top vote-getters. (In our scenario, the third one would likely be Schultz.) But when the Senate picks the Vice President, they only choose from the top two, so Schultz’s running mate isn’t even eligible and only Mike Pence and the eventual Democratic nominee’s running mate would have a chance.

Then, if the situation in the House plays out as Hewitt suggests, it’s possible that neither major party candidate could amass the support of 26 state delegations by the March 4th deadline. At that point, the running mate of the candidate from the party that controls the Senate would be sworn in as Acting President. And how weird would that be? Talk about having an asterisk next to your presidency for all of history.

But, as I said, none of this is likely enough to make it more than a fun trivia game for political junkies. The odds of Howard Schultz being able to win even one state are way off the bell curve. But it’s fascinating to think that under the right set of conditions, assuming the GOP holds the Senate again in 2020, Mike Pence could become the 46th President of the United States in perhaps the strangest way possible.