Why America’s Strange Love For Starbucks Will Be Key To Howard Schultz’s Political Success

When Howard Schultz hinted earlier this month at the possibility that he might run for president, the idea that another billionaire with no government experience would have his eye on the Oval Office was met with a barrage of sarcastic comments on social media. “There are already several dark horse candidates for ’20,” David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former campaign strategist, tweeted. “How about a dark roast candidate?”

It turns out that Axelrod was making a more convincing case for why Schultz could win an election than he may have realized.

If Schultz chooses to run after having stepped down from Starbucks as executive chairman yesterday, there’s an argument to be made that his poll numbers could soar. That’s because Schultz knows, on a granular level, how to appeal to American tastes, having helmed Starbucks, the largest coffee chain in the world — with more than 14,000 stores in the United States -— for decades.

A big reason Starbucks is so popular, despite its pricey offerings, is that it sells strong, dark-roasted coffee, lower in acid than medium and lighter roasts, that goes extremely well with milk and sugar, two of the most delicious ingredients one can consume. Starbucks is often dinged for brewing coffee with a burnt or acrid taste, but the fact is that lots of people like it. “If anything, dark roast is the roast of purple America, something members of both sides can agree on,” says the eminent coffee critic Oliver Strand.

Schultz himself is a dark roast junkie — his favorite coffee is an aged Sumatra, full-bodied and low in acid—suggesting that he has more in common with regular Americans than his nearly $3 billion net worth indicates. It’s a leap, of course, to predict that Schultz’s taste in coffee, and his propensity for slinging it to over-caffeinated consumers, will extend to political acumen. But if he had the foresight to double down on dark roasts at a time when most American coffee was weak and indistinct, then it isn’t a stretch to imagine that he can successfully sell himself, too.

The most common rap against Starbucks as a brand is that it is the coffee chain of the yuppie. During the 2004 election, for instance, a survey found that George W. Bush was associated with Dunkin’ Donuts because it was “downmarket,” while John Kerry was “elitist like Starbucks.” Starbucks may very well have something of an elitist image, but the fact that it is spread so widely throughout the country (there are about 700 locations in Florida, a pivotal swing state) demonstrates that it may be less of a white-collar redoubt than it seems.

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Schultz can appeal to that notion in a race for the presidency, along with his working-class roots; he grew up in public housing in Brooklyn and began his career as a salesman at Xerox.

“I think Howard Schultz would make an excellent presidential candidate,” says Mark Pendergrast, the author of “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World.” “He is a scrappy Brooklyn native and shrewd businessman, so I guess he could in some ways be compared to Donald Trump. But unlike Trump, he is liberal, thoughtful, and steady.”

It remains to be seen if the socially progressive practices Schultz implemented at Starbucks -— including fair prices for producers and benefits for workers — will work to his benefit in the public eye, particularly in red states. But who knows? It may very well be the case that Schultz, like his preferred dark roast, will serve as a bold, refreshing chaser to the sour swill that is Trump.

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other places.

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