Howard Schultz: Presidential Hopeful, Ratio King

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has no reasonable chance of becoming president, but he’s already the undisputed champion of the Twitter ratio. Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is not going to be president. That much, at least, is clear, despite the outsize coverage of his apparent intentions to run. But in the three days—has it really only been that long?—since Schultz first announced that he was “seriously considering” a 2020 campaign, he has distinguished himself in another way entirely: as a pariah of unprecedented proportions.

Over the course of 12 tweets, Schultz has emerged a paragon of what Twitter obsessives know as “the ratio,” a term popularized by reporter Luke O’Neil in a 2017 Esquire post, “ How to Know If You’ve Seen a Horrible Tweet .” If a tweet garners more responses than likes and retweets, you’ve been ratioed. That may not seem so bad on the face of it; after all, platforms like Facebook and Twitter prioritize engagement above all else. But people don’t pile into someone’s mentions for a healthy exchange of ideas in the digital salon. If they wanted to agree, they’d tap the fave icon. A ratio is what happens when people start yelling. “The lengthier the conversation, the surer it is that someone royally messed up,” O’Neil wrote at the time.

For slightly dated examples of the genre, you can check out Ratio Bot , a short-lived Huffington Post project that tracked high-ratio performers. Donald Trump hits the ratio a few times a week, but even a tweet suggesting the entire intelligence community should “go back to school” (???) barely passed 2:1 for replies versus retweets.

Sorry for all the numbers, but it’s important context for understanding the extent to which Schultz has, in three short days, established himself as the Babe Ruth of ratios—or maybe, more accurately, the Joe DiMaggio, given his uninterrupted streak. Take his first tweet, a pretty straightforward example of the “I’m on Twitter now” genre, with a sprinkle of “centrist listening tour” tossed in for good measure:

https://twitter.com/HowardSchultz/status/1089633010293637121

Twelve thousand comments, 1,100 retweets, for a devastating ratio of 10:1. Even for notoriously bad tweeters, that would be a high-water mark. But watch closely: The next 11 tweets all hover around that same number. Schultz is a 10:1 tweeter whether he’s announcing that he might possibly consider maybe running for president, his most popular tweet:

https://twitter.com/HowardSchultz/status/1089675490707865603

Or halfheartedly promoting a Morning Joe appearance, his least:

https://twitter.com/HowardSchultz/status/1090711708555833344

In fact, no matter what Schultz says on Twitter, he gets immediately, incontrovertibly buried. Which says less about the contents of his tweets than it does about Schultz himself, and about Twitter, and the way those two have T-boned into each other at this particular moment in history.

Again, and this can’t be stressed enough, Schultz has no reasonable chance of becoming president of the United States, or even coming particularly close. The most successful third-party candidate of the last 150 years was Teddy Roosevelt, and he topped out at 29 percent of the vote. Schultz is no Teddy Roosevelt . (He does have a new book out, which all of this attention surely hasn’t hurt the sales of.)

Schultz is, though, a potential spoiler, or more to the point has been perceived as one by the political chattering classes. You know, the kind of people who spend all day on Twitter.

“The specific outcry and outrage at what he is saying is not necessarily being driven by the individual tweet itself as it is the general feeling that this election is a crisis turning point in our lifetimes, and that we need to be all hands on deck about getting Trump out of office,” says Caleb Gardner, who ran the @BarackObama Twitter account for much of the 44th president’s second term, and now runs digital strategy firm 18 Coffees. “That’s where Twitter tends to be a reflection of our political id instead of the quality or content of a given tweet.”

"It’s a shade of reality, and in that way helps drive what reality actually is."

Caleb Gardner

Schultz has given his critics plenty of ammo, whether through hazy policy positions or tweeting—then deleting—an article that called Elizabeth Warren an offensive name and Kamala Harris "shrill." What Twitter has rejected is less the words of Howard Schultz than the fact of Howard Schultz. He is on Twitter explicitly in support of his potential presidential run. A large number of Twitter’s most active users would rather he not. In that formulation, the mere act of tweeting itself is the primary offense. Ergo ratio, ad infinitum.

What’s debatable is the extent to which any of this matters. The question isn’t if it affects Schultz’s chances of winning, because again, he has practically none. But could hordes of indignant Twitter users shout Schultz out of the race altogether, ending the spoiler talk—and potential—for good? Well, maybe. In a way.

Twitter is not the US electorate. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that 24 percent of US adults use the service. Schultz’s worst ratio moment drew 47,000 replies. These are fractions of fractions of the people who will vote in 2020—and come from similar corners of Twitter, one might surmise, that assumed Donald Trump could never win the presidency. Which is to say, people being mad at Schultz online likely won’t, and shouldn’t, deter him in and of itself.

In fact, it could ultimately help Schultz. “Negative comments on Twitter aren’t necessarily a measure of the positive or negative impact of the tweet,” says Nicco Mele, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. He cautions that not only is it too early in the election cycle to read too much into what happens on Twitter, the platform itself hasn’t been around long enough to provide sufficient data points. “The real value of Twitter is probably less about the tweets and the tweet audience and much more about the resulting media coverage and broader conversation.”

In other words, even stories that focus on negative aspects of the Howard Schultz experience—like this one—keep his name in the news cycle. Mele points to Trump, who has repeatedly used negative stories to hijack national attentions.

Still, there are signs that the ratio streak’s historic nature may take a toll. “The story could become that Howard Schultz proposed a run, and the media backlash happens,” says Gardner. “It’s a shade of reality, and in that way helps drive what reality actually is.”

Indeed, the Twitter shaming has already started to seep through into the real world. On Tuesday, a heckler yelled at Schultz to “go back to getting ratioed on Twitter.” But the mainstream media backlash hasn't happened yet: On Wednesday The Wall Street Journal published an editorial decrying perceived attempts “to bully Mr. Schultz out of run­ning” this week, which Schultz himself then shared on Twitter .

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