What Was The Appeal of Ross Perot's Third Party Campaign?

Ryan Fan

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Photo of Ross Perot, Geroge H.W. Bush and Bill ClintonPhoto bythe George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

In high school, my favorite teacher, who I later learned voted for Bernie Sanders and had very socialist leanings, raved about a man named Ross Perot. He did so while lambasting the morality of Bill Clinton, the deceitful nature of Al Gore, and the stupidity of George H.W. Bush to my entire class.

The last person he could vote for, he told us, was Ross Perot — the 1992 independent candidate who was seen as a major spoiler for George H.W. Bush.

It’s interesting because Perot’s reputation is more on the right, whereas Bernie Sanders is obviously more on the left. As a billionaire businessman, he bears a lot more similarities to Trump than to Bernie. Perhaps my teacher just had a thing for anti-establishment candidates.

Right now, a lot of people don’t like Biden or Trump, and the No Labels party is threatening a presidential bid, much to the chagrin of Democrats and Republicans, but especially for Democrats. According to Jonathan Weisman and Luke Broadwater at the New York Times, the No Labels party is a bipartisan party that thinks both Democrats and Republicans have gotten too extreme — Republicans with trying to overthrow democracy and election denialism, and Democrats with growing restrictions on free speech and defunding the police. It’s a false equivalency since one party is trying to overthrow democracy and the other is not, but unfortunately, a lot of Americans think Democrats and Republicans are equally as extreme.

Their possible candidates include Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Larry Hogan, who don’t fit neatly into either end of the aisle. Democrats think a third-party candidacy of a more moderate candidate would do greatly more damage to Joe Biden than Donald Trump, as Trump’s base is more diehard than more lukewarm Biden supporters.

The No Labels party is seeing widespread condemnation, especially on the left, for being a spoiler in favor of those who want to overthrow democracy. It’s seen as an incredibly privileged thing to do to erode the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, even if you agree the left has gone too far against free speech.

This made me want to look back to Ross Perot, the third-party presidential candidate who won almost 20% of the popular vote (the most popular votes in history) and threw a major wrench in the 1992 presidential election.

Who was Ross Perot?

Ross Perot, like Trump, was a billionaire. According to Robert McFadden at the New York Times, Perot got rich off the tech industry and in computer services. His first company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), was eventually bought out by General Motors, and his second company, Perot Systems, would get bought out by Dell for $3.9 billion in 2009.

But Perot built a reputation as a self-made man. He was a newspaper paperboy as a child, an Eagle Scout, and later a student at the United States Naval Academy. After his time in the Navy, Ross Perot became an I.B.M. salesman in 1957, who apparently would fulfill his annual quotas in only a couple of weeks, becoming one of the best salesmen in I.B.M. history. I.B.M. eventually had to cut Perot’s commission and assign him a “reverse quota,” where he would receive no commission for sales above this quota. In 1962, he achieved this reverse quota by January 1962.

He wasn’t happy with the direction of the company, especially with its reluctance to get into software support. So he founded EDS in 1962 to sell computer services, and his company was especially known for operating payroll systems for health insurance companies. The company went public in 1968, jumping from $16 a share to $162 per share. During the success of his company, Perot made various ill-advised investments in Wall Street, losing millions of dollars for his company.

Perot gained special fame during the Vietnam War. He entered North Vietnam on a jetliner to secure better treatment for 1,400 American prisoners of war. Richard Farley at Time Magazine notes Perot had a special distaste for the growing militancy of the anti-war movement in America, and he organized a drive to take supplies and Christmas presents to North Vietnam himself. He called Pham Van Dong, the Premier of North Vietnam, to get permission to land his plane in Hanoi. He initially did not get permission, but he insisted on bringing many of the wives and children on the drive.

North Vietnam eventually responded, denying Perot permission to land his plane in Hanoi. Various exchanges occurred between Perot, North Vietnamese ambassadors, the pope, and the Soviets, but he would ultimately be unsuccessful.

He technically wasted $1.5 million on his quest, but a lot of Americans did not see it that way, since his diligent and dogged efforts were well-documented in the New York Times during the 1969 holiday season.

“Perot represented an American ideal seemingly lost that winter: the rugged individualist, the Texas cowboy leading the cavalry to fix the mess the Best and the Brightest in Washington made of that decade,” Farley wrote.

About a decade later, Perot attempted a similar feat during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The story, according to Ron Rosenbaum at Esquire, is that Perot helped rescue two EDS executives. Two of his executives were jailed in December 1978, in Tehran, and Iranian authorities asked for $12.5 million in bail. Perot claimed EDS was targeted because the company serviced the overthrown Shah’s computers.

After multiple failed attempts to free the two executives, Perot eventually succeeded in soliciting the help of Rashid, an Iranian trainee at EDS. Rashid orchestrated a break-in of the jail to free the two executives, which was successful.

Then, the group needed to leave the country, which was much more difficult because the EDS executives didn’t have passports. Perot and retired army colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons organized a group to enter Tehran. Some people in the group were able to leave via plane, but others, including the two executives, had to leave through two Range Rovers that drove across northwestern Iran to Turkey. The plane and Range Rovers met in Frankfurt, Germany, then flew back to the United States.

The whole Iranian Hostage Crisis rescue mission sounds a bit too good to be true, but it was memorialized in Ken Follett’s 1983 book, On Wings of Eagles, which was later made into a 1986 mini-series that won an Emmy.

So it’s safe to say Ross Perot built a reputation as a wealthy, self-made folk hero prior to the 1992 Presidential Election.

Perot’s rise in the 1992 Presidential Election

“Now, just for the record, I don’t have any spin doctors, I don’t have any speechwriters. Probably shows,” Perot joked.

Prior to the 1992 Presidential Election, incumbent George H.W. Bush was quite popular. In March 1991, Bush’s approval rating was 90% following the U.S. entering the Persian Gulf War. By October 1991, that approval rating dipped to 64%, and in January 1992, it dipped to 43%. Bush’s approval rating dipped to 31% at its all-time low in July 1992.

A big reason for Bush’s dip in approval was that while Bush was seen as strong on foreign policy, he was seen as very weak in handling the economy. In the fall of 1990, Bush signed a bill that raised taxes to reduce the federal deficit. By mid-1991, the unemployment rate was 7.8%, and the economy was in a recession.

The Democrats nominated the young governor of Arkansas as their presidential candidate — Bill Clinton, with another Southern Democrat, Al Gore, as his running mate. Clinton was a charismatic Democrat whose conversational and relatable style and politics signaled a departure from New Deal-style liberalism, adopting more moderate views on the economy. Clinton even played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, appealing to millions of young and urban voters by doing something no presidential candidate had done before.

Despite Clinton’s appeal, he was marred by scandal. In particular, Bill Clinton, even in 1992, had a reputation for infidelity. In January of 1992, the Star broke a story about Clinton allegedly having an extramarital affair with Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas state employee for 12 years. Clinton and his wife, Hillary Clinton, went on CBS’s 60 Minutes, with an audience of 50 million Americans, to deny the allegations. Hillary Clinton was widely credited with restoring her husband’s reputation by standing by Bill Clinton.

At the time, Clinton seemed to have a superhuman ability to survive scandal that would have destroyed many other politicians — something that would persist well into his presidency.

With Clinton and Bush both known as career politicians and insiders, Ross Perot stood out as a complete anti-establishment outsider.

Kevin Prendergast at La Salle University notes Perot even entered the 1992 presidential race in a completely unconventional manner. Perot went on Larry King Live on February 20, 1992, and answered a question from Larry King about any scenario in which he would run for president. Perot said he did not want to run for president.

He did say, however, that he did not want to fail the everyday people that looked up to him and wrote letters to him. He said he would not run as a Democrat or Republican, and that if people really wanted him to run, they should register him in 50 states.

This came as a shock to many, including Larry King, and as you can imagine, voters did register Ross Perot in all 50 states. Perot would not accept any donations of more than $5, and “Draft Perot” committees started throughout the country. Perot started a phone bank to inform voters of how they could help, and tapped Naval War College president, James Stockdale, as his running mate. Stockdale was known for his experience as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years during the Vietnam War.

Pretty quickly, Perot’s campaign blew up, largely fueled by his own money for campaign financing. According to Robin Toner at the New York Times, Perot was second in public opinion polls, tied with Clinton. In particular, Perot was leading in polls in Texas, Bush’s home state, and California, which were crucial states for any possible Republican presidential candidate. Contrary to present-day trends and attitudes around California, between 1952 to 1988, California voted Republican in every presidential election besides 1964.

Perot promised to balance the federal budget and railed against free trade, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Perot had a revolutionary way of reaching voters that traditional campaigns didn’t. He used television as a medium in using talk shows like Larry King Live for his campaigning, and he had significant anti-establishment appeal for those tired of both parties and political insiders.

Toner notes that both the Clinton and Bush campaigns were finally forced to take Perot seriously as a contender. Still, as a third-party candidate, many political consultants didn’t take poll numbers surrounding Perot’s popularity seriously because once voters realized the stakes of a presidential election on poll day, they probably wouldn’t vote for the third party candidate.

Perot himself hired several consultants who previously worked on the Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter campaigns. Elizabeth Kolbert at the New York Times also said that Perot refused to spend money for ads an advertising executive recommended, saying “why would I spend that when I could go on the Today show for free?”

Perot’s fall

But Perot himself would also have several missteps. On May 29, 1992, Perot did a talk show with journalist Barbara Walters on 20/20. Perot said it would not be “realistic” for homosexuals to be in the armed forces and he would not appoint any homosexual person to his top Cabinet jobs, stating that he did not want any Cabinet member who would be a “point of controversy with the American people.” This, understandably, caused the ire of many LGBTQ+ activists.

Still, Perot’s popularity was growing. A June 1992 Time/CNN poll found that Perot had 37% support from registered voters for president, while Bush and Clinton only enjoyed 24% support according to this poll. But the survey was cautious about Perot being the frontrunner as he had not made his stances on many controversial issues known.

On June 21, 1992, it was revealed that Perot had launched several investigations into Bush in the mid-1980s to turn up evidence of impropriety after Bush dismissed Perot’s plan to find missing servicemen from the Vietnam War. A few days later, Perot appeared on Larry King Live again and accused the Republican Party of “dirty tricks” against himself and his family.

The most notorious of Perot’s missteps came in an address at the NAACP. On July 11, 1992, Perot tried to give a speech on Black economic development and referred to his predominantly audience as “you people” and “your people.” Perot later apologized for this statement, stating he was unaware the statement would offend anyone.

Perot’s campaign, at this point, was in disarray. He reversed his position on appointing gay members to the Cabinet after pressure from activists. According to Michael Isikoff at the Washington Post, Perot’s advisors were dismayed that he never followed their advice, and didn’t spend money on things that actually mattered, and Perot started growing paranoid, requiring his volunteers to sign notarized loyalty oaths to him and his campaign.

Prominent operative Ed Rollins resigned from Perot’s campaign on July 15, and on July 16, Perot dropped out of the presidential race, saying he could not stomach politics and the supposed plots against his life and his reputation.

Perot’s re-entering the race

Despite Perot dropping out of the 1992 presidential election, Perot maintained double-digit support in polls. A September 29, 1992, ABC News-Washington Post poll found Perot had 14% support compared to 44% support for Clinton and 39% support for Bush.

He re-entered the race on October 1, and he famously campaigned in a different way than virtually every other presidential candidate. The Associated Press notes Perot only left his headquarters for debates and seven rallies. Every night, he came home. He treated running for president like a 9–5 job, where he could “go to the office every day, run for president, and go home and eat dinner,” according to the general counsel of his campaign.

Perot also spent $34.8 million, his most significant campaign expense, on his famous half-hour-long or hour-long commercials to highlight his economic plan.

Perot’s infomercials included charts on balancing the budget, and he would compare and contrast the ratio of CEO salaries compared to average worker salaries, show how “trickle down economics didn’t trickle,” the lack of spending on public investment compared to other countries, and growing poverty in the United States. He famously called Bush’s economic plan “voodoo economics” and referred to his stick directing attention to his chart as a “voodoo stick.”

These charts seem pedestrian for 2023 standards for what you can do on Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets, but for 1992, they were rarely used for political campaigns.

“The American people are good…And yet over time we have created a country that’s a mess. We have a situation in which our President blames Congress, Congress blames the President, the Democrats and Republicans blame each other. Nobody steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for anything,” Perot famously said about the country’s economic issues.

Perot participated in all three presidential debates. It was the first time three candidates were in televised presidential debates in the general election, less than a month before the election.

The debates were more notable and dramatic for attacks Bush and Clinton made on each other. Perot used the debate stage to highlight his economic plan and anti-establishment platform against special interests and lobbyists. Perot struggled in the second debate when asked about term limits — Perot said he would not seek more than one term and would not take any salary while in office. Perot also took a chance to attack Bush on his policy towards Iraq in the last debate.

He was questioned on why he exited the race in July (and if it was a habit of abandoning voters during times of struggle). Perot responded:

“I’m here tonight folks. I’ve never quit supporting you … And when you asked me to come back in, I came back in. I’m spending my money on this campaign.”

CNN/USA Today polls taken after each of the debates found that pluralities of voters thought Perot won the first and third debates, while a 58% majority thought Clinton won the second.

His popularity went up to numbers around 20% nationwide. But around the same time in late October, seven former campaign volunteers held a news conference accusing Perot of conducting credit checks on them and being pressured to sign the infamous loyalty oaths.

Right before election day, Perot only attended a couple of rallies. And on election day, he earned 19,741,657 votes, which was 18.9% of the popular vote. He didn’t win a single state electorally, but he finished with 30% of the popular vote in Maine and over 25% of the popular vote in Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana, and Kansas. Perot did especially well in rural counties.

He spent a grand total of $65.6 million on his own campaign, according to FEC documents. He would earn the reputation as an election spoiler for Bush. However, exit polls from the 1992 presidential election show that, of people who voted for Perot, 47% said they would have voted for Clinton had Perot not been in the race, and only 41% said they would vote for Bush.

Takeaways

The No Labels party differs significantly from Perot in that the party is trying to run a moderate candidate that stands outside the traditional extremes of both political parties. This candidate is likely to be an insider rather than a political outsider, establishment rather than anti-establishment.

If anything, in the 2020s, politics has swung in the other direction from the political winds of Perot’s first presidential run. The argument and appeal of No Labels is that they will restore the balance against fringe forces. No Labels’s chair says it will stay out of the presidential race in 2024 if polling shows their candidate will just be a “spoiler.”

Today, Perot garners a lot of comparisons to Donald Trump. Both were anti-establishment, outsider billionaires that railed against the Republican establishment. Perot used infomercials to revolutionize campaigning; Trump used Twitter.

However, I don’t find that to be a fair comparison as Perot never rivaled the social conservatism and extremism of Trump, and was much more focused on the economy. Yes, Perot made significant blunders on social issues, but he never took extreme positions on social issues, nor did he say completely derogatory things that make national headlines every week like Trump.

Both populist campaigns tapped into a population completely disaffected with both parties and both parties. I don’t know if they tapped the same or different voter base, just on different issues and priorities, but both also had very anti-free trade views. Both have been labeled narcissists in the press.

It is undoubted that both Perot and Trump appealed to a population of voters that are more fiscally liberal than traditional Republicans and socially conservative than traditional Democrats. I just think Trump took it to a whole other level in his campaigning and was a lot more Machiavellian and cutthroat in his campaigning and appeal than Perot.

The appeal of a third party, perhaps, isn’t that the candidate is going to win and become president, which would be great, but is historically unlikely if not impossible. It’s not to spoil an election for one party or one side, although third parties earn that “spoiler” reputation, from Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in 2016 to Ross Perot in 1992, and garner significant criticism in doing so. I personally wouldn’t vote for a third party and feel like I’m doing something wrong — especially with the political stakes this high in 2024 compared to the seemingly lower in 1992.

So many people see voting for a third party as morally wrong, especially in the Trump era, and put pressure on third party candidates (who could garner significant support) to not run at all.

Still, voting for a party is seen as throwing away your vote and essentially casting a vote for the other side because the two-party system is so broken. Voting for a third party is to make a drastic statement of discontent with the status quo, to the point where your vote doesn’t decide the president. The status quo seems to have reversed from where it was in 1992, but many voters clearly feel strong enough to where they want to make a statement.

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