The economy was in the tank. the incumbent president’s approval ratings were below 50 percent and falling, angry activists were forming new organizations based on the sole premise of kicking out incumbents, and an untested governor from the south looked to be the most viable challenger.
It sounds a lot like today, but it was February 20, 1992.
In New Hampshire, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton had just engineered a suprising second-place finish in the Democratic field prompted him to rebrand himself the “Comeback Kid. On the Republican side, Pat Buchanan grabbed 40 percent of the vote against the incumbent president, causing embattled President George H. W. Bush to put out a statement, which read in part, "I understand the message of dissatisfaction.”
Texan billionaire Ross Perot was on Larry King. The businessman was already a political gadfly, winning fans with his populist economic message and down-home one-liners.
In the weeks before, Perot’s people had sensed an opportunity and had quietly started the groundwork of getting Perot on state ballots as an independent candidate.
When Larry King pushed Perot on whether he would run for president, he started off coy. “Number one, I don’t want to.” But then he dropped a bombshell call to action: “If you’re that serious, you the people, you register me in 50 states. And if you’re not willing to organize and do that, then this is all just talk.”
The reaction was immediate.
“The next morning the phone system crashed at the Perot office in Texas,” remembered Jim Squires, the campaign’s eventual press secretary. “By that afternoon they’re on the phone with me saying, we don’t know what to do. You got to come down here.”
And the Perot challenge was on. He had the money to do it on his own, but at the same time, he positioned himself firmly on the side of the American worker in his condemnation of the status quo. He called on corporate executives “to get out of the country clubs, get out of your jets, and get down there on the factory floor seven days a week, and don’t come out until it’s done!”
He condemned politicians for treating the federal debt like the “crazy aunt in the basement” that everyone knew about but no one acknowledged. And by hammering both the potential of American recovery and the responsibility of every citizen to pitch in, he “cornered the market on patriotism,” as New York magazine put it in 1992.
These messages penetrated, and the ragtag group of Perot supporters ultimately earned him 19 percent of the vote, the biggest percentage ever for a third party challenger who didn’t win any electoral votes.
And nearly twenty years on, when every political proposal on both sides of the political spectrum begins and ends with its impact on the federal debt, the slight, nasally-voiced candidate dismissed by many as a paranoid yahoo could be writing talking points for Obama and the Tea Party about the country’s fiscal future.
But Perot’s deficit message has so saturated the debate that it’s effectively eliminated the potential for a Perot-style challenge in 2012.
The Campaign: ‘Use Money to Run Against Money’
A few months before Perot’s star turn on CNN, the idea of an outsider campaign was hatched in the most elite of locations: A restaurant in Harvard Square. Ross Perot, a close Texas ally Tom Luce, and Jim Squires, a former editor at the Chicago Tribune, had met for dinner.
"We were talking about what a sad state it was,” Jim Squires said. President Bush seemed desperately out of touch, they complained, and Democrats didn’t look like they had a strong enough candidate to take him on.
“And somewhere during the night, Squires said, “he said he’d spend 85 million dollars to try to change things.”
Perot had been goosed by a Florida activist Jack Gargin, who had started running newspaper ads in 1990 under the banner of a group called Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out, or THRO. Speaking to the group in November 1991, Perot was already sharpening his critique of the status quo in Washington.
“If you and I need to resolve a problem, are we more or less likely to resolve it if I get up every morning and stick my finger in your eye? Pretty simple, right?” Perot told the group. “I don’t blame them for robbing the bank in broad daylight as long as we keep patting them on the back and sending them back up there,” he said to cheers.
After the CNN interview, Squires headed to Texas – and he and Perot made a pact.
“If we win, neither one of us is going to Washington. So it was a crusade,” Squires said. “Not for one minute was it a serious campaign to be president. Ross Perot did not want to be president.”
“Basically we were trying to reform the system, “ he said. “We were going to use money to run against money.”
Sound a little like Brewster’s Millions?
“No,” said Morton Meyerson, a business colleague of Perot’s whose first and only political venture was the 1992 campaign. He said their effort wasn’t just a means to a platform.
“This was a huge undertaking. Just to get qualified in each of the states was hugely expensive and difficult,” he said. “I don’t believe that Ross was doing it as a protest and not a campaign. I think it was a campaign. He made a statement. A lot of people responded to it. But not enough to be elected.”
Regardless of its origin, the Perot campaign intended to change the dynamics of the 1992 campaign. And it succeeded, but not in the way they initially intended.
The Message: From Campaign Reform to Deficit Reform
Long before he was a candidate, Perot’s critique of American politics was three-prong: 1. reform campaigns, 2. protect American jobs from foreign competition, and 3. reduce the national debt.
The original plan, Squires said, was to run an unorthodox campaign that would demonstrate Perot’s indictment of the system.
“We were basing this campaign on campaign reform,” said Squires. That meant proposals like term limits and other reforms to disrupt what Perot saw as a too-cozy relationship between politicians and corporate executives.
But there was a problem.
“That issue got no traction. None. No one cared about campaign reform. No matter what we said and did, we couldn’t’ get people interested in it,” he said. “So we had this other issue, which was the deficit and gridlock, so it didn’t take long for us to switch over.”
From February to June, with a renewed tweaked focus on the deficit, Perot support steadily grew, until leveling out at about a third of voters – which was enough to pull ahead of both Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush.
What enabled this surge, political scientist Ronald Rapoport said, is there was both dissatisfaction with the options offered by the two major parties – and issues that Perot alone was talking about.
He was not just saying I’m not George Bush and I’m not just Bill Clinton. He was saying, I am someone who has a platform which encompasses issues that the other parties are ignoring,” said Rapoport, who co-authored a book on the Perot campaign called Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence.
If only the third party challenger is talking about the issue a voter cares most about, and by extension that there’s not much difference between the two major candidates, that also helps the challenger navigate an essential hurdle to attract voters: that a vote for a candidate outside of the 2-party system is not a wasted vote.
But that doesn’t mean it was easy for the campaign to handle Perot’s swelling ranks of supporters.
“They were, believe me, a sorted lot,” Squires said. “We had in that bunch of people Nazis, Klu Klux, all kinds of problems. And they were totally disorganized, running around using Perot’s name.”
By June 1992, the Perot team acknowledged they could use some help from some campaign professionals and brought in two political veterans as campaign co-managers: former Carter Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan and former Reagan campaign manager Ed Rollins, the current CNN analyst who most recently made news for abruptly leaving the Bachmann campaign. (A young Frank Luntz also worked on the campaign – “he was just a kid, and an obnoxious little bastard,” Squires said, but he knew his stuff, having already carved out an expertise in appealing to disaffected voters.)
The campaign had gotten mired in questions about Perot’s penchant for hiring private investigators, concerns that his plan lacked specifics, and even charges of anti-Semitism. At the time, Meyerson credited an updated Democratic platform that included many of Perot’s concerns. "The Democrats seem to be listening to the people, he told the Los Angeles Times.
Even out of the race, Perot’s support still hung around 15 to 20 percent in the polls. Through the summer, he threatened to rejoin the race if Bush and Clinton continued to ignore the deficit.
Perot was also furious with the Bush campaign for trying to fold in his supporters without changing their policies.
“They do it backwards and try to lure people with access to power. You have to lure them with a good program for the country, Perot told the Los Angeles Times in September 1992. “They don’t understand; they’re so remote. The way you get these people to support you is to face the issues.”
The Beneficiaries: The Republican Party Perot Rejected
“Third parties are like bees,” historian Richard Hofstadter observed more than 50 years ago. “Once they sting, they die.”
Perot’s sting was zapped after his strong showing in 1992, despite his efforts to formalize his platform into Reform Party ticket in 1996.
By that time, his platform got reappropriated – and not by whom he expected.
When Perot first dropped out of the race in 1992, it was because he saw Clinton taking up some of his positions on the federal budget. But it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who ultimately benefited from the Perot’s effort. George H. W. Bush’s aloofness may have been the impetus for Perot’s initial success, but Rapoport argues, Perot’s candidacy paved the way for the Republican resurgence through the 2000 election.
Part of it was intentional – when Newt Gingrich started holding meetings in Atlanta soon after Clinton’s victory to start building the framework for the Contract with America, Perot veterans were there, Squires among them.
Rapoport followed up with Perot voters, and found that by 1994, they were firmly in the camp of Republicans, and were key in helping the Republicans capture the House after more than 40 years of Democratic rule. It also helped George W. Bush best Al Gove in the electoral count in 2000. “Republican success in carrying a given state in 1996 and 2000 is strongly related to Perot’s 1992 support in the state,” Rapoport and a co-author wrote in a 2001 paper called “It’s Perot Stupid.“ “Perot’s legacy was to make the election more competitive than it otherwise would have been.”
In 2004, Perot supports moved again – this time away from George W. Bush – a trend that independent voters followed in the first year of Bush’s second term.
The Legacy: Perot v. 2012?
Nearly twenty years on, there is the same broad-based dissatisfaction among American voters, but this time around, every candidate within shouting distance of a pollster is making reducing the federal debt a central talking point.
“The conversation about deficit and the budget and revenues to the government. All of those issues were highlighted by Ross Perot in 1992, and seemed to resonate with people particularly in the middle.” Meyerson says. “I feel echoes of that today.”
Meyerson also sees the same leadership void today that he saw back then. He’s on the advisory committee of Americans Elect, the effort to put up an alternative candidate this year in all 50 states after an online nominating convention.
“Someone, I hope, will rise up and say, we have to sacrifice, we have to get our act together, clean the house, and get on with it. And I believe that we will do that," he said.
As for Squires, he counts himself as “a Barack Obama man.”
“I now think that the real problem is not gridlock, it’s obstructionism. It’s obstructionism that unfortunately that may have a racist root.”
Talking on his cell phone outside a horst tack shop in Kentucky, he called himself as “irrelevant as my dog,” he does have some ideas about the messages Obama should hammer on.
“I think the country needs a grand debate on whether anybody in this country believes in government anymore and whether you ought to pay taxes.”
And it’s here where Squires says the Republican debate today diverges the most from his former boss’ vision. “Ross Perot believes in government and paying taxes. And so should we all. It’s a privilege to have a country like this and pay taxes.”
“That opens up a potential support group for a third party,” Rapoport said. “You still have to define an agenda and a set of policies that will have t appeal to draw people in.”
“It can’t just be ‘Moderates of the World, Unite!’”
So, for all the clamoring for another independent option in 2012, it’s not enough for an insurgent independent to run on the message that Washington is broken and neither party’s shown they can fix it – that’s not enough. Neither is a bold call to tackle – because since the Perot campaign of 1992, that’s found its way into the regular talking points of both Barack Obama and every Republican who wants to knock him out of office.