Death of an independent

Texas billionaire Ross Perot died yesterday, of leukemia, at the age of 79 89. Perot was a pioneer in the world of electronic data and lived an eventful life, but he is primarily remembered for one thing: in 1992 he won 18.9% of the vote as an independent candidate for president, the best third-party result since 1912.

Understandably enough, much of today’s commentary treats Perot as a precursor of Trump. There are certainly similarities: businessman-celebrity, anti-establishment, protectionist, conspiracy theorist. It’s not unfair to say, as the BBC’s Anthony Zurcher does, that “the ideological themes he built [the Reform Party] on would later be adopted by Donald Trump.”

But the differences are equally important. Perot was ignorant about a lot of things to do with politics, but he was an intelligent man – he built his successful business from scratch, not from inherited wealth. His campaign was marketed by way of long infomercials that engaged with the electorate rather than by crude sloganeering.

Perot was hardly a progressive. But he had no great affinity with the right either; there was little trace of that enthusiasm from the far-right fringe that Trump later attracted. He did not crusade against immigrants, and on some social issues, such as abortion, he was notably liberal.

Had he won the presidency, Perot would most probably have governed as a centrist. It was easy to see him as having an authoritarian personality, but he never expressed (as Trump has) outright disrespect for the basic norms of American democracy.

But Perot, of course, would have been constrained in a way that Trump has not: he had no party of his own (he later founded one, the Reform Party, of which Trump was briefly a member), so he would have depended on co-operation from the existing parties. Trump, however, won the presidency by first taking over the Republican Party.

Some Republicans made the opposite calculation: they thought that an independent Trump would be dangerous, but a Republican Trump could be tamed or controlled. And no doubt it’s true that Trump in office has pursued a few things that he would not have bothered with if he did not need to keep the Republicans happy. But in most respects he has made the party his own.

Because Perot did not run for a major party, his vote doesn’t look like a major party vote. He was strong in the west but also in New England; he was weak in both the mid-west and the deep south. Trump’s vote, on the other hand, reproduced much the same voting pattern as that of his Republican predecessors.

That raises a question much debated at the time: did Perot’s candidacy change the result of the 1992 election? Much of the Republican campaign to delegitimise Bill Clinton’s presidency (and by extension any other Democrat) relied on the claim that Clinton’s victory was a fluke, produced by Perot taking votes away from his opponent, George Bush Sr.

The claim was baseless. Clinton beat Bush by almost six million votes; he had 53.5% of the two-party vote and a 370-168 margin in the electoral college. It was not a particularly close election. Perot’s support would have had to be strongly concentrated among a particular type of voter for it to have made a difference.

And there is no evidence that it was: Perot took votes from both sides and from a broad demographic range. If anything, given the fact that both were running against the incumbent, Clinton and Perot were more likely to be competing for the same voters. One academic study found (somewhat implausibly) that Perot’s candidacy reduced Clinton’s margin of victory by seven points.

Perot ran again in 1996, but the novelty had worn off and he achieved less than half of his 1992 vote. He then retired from political life, and rarely commented on it, although he endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. There is no record of him having endorsed Trump.

4 thoughts on “Death of an independent

  1. I remain stubbornly skeptical about the claim that Perot’s voters would have split evenly. A lot of the support for that relies on honest self-reporting to exit pollsters, or after the election, and I suspect there are psychological barriers against right-wing voters telling a pollster “Yup, I thought Bush was not conservative enough, so I threw my vote away on Perot and helped elect that draft-dodging, dope-smoking socialist Clinton.” People who know they are splitting the vote have all sorts of incentives to play up their plague-on-both-your-houses attitude.
    Harder evidence for this comes from the elections for Congress on the same day, in 1992 – a purer two-way vote since, as you note, Perot had no party to head – where the Democrats’ vote was only 5% higher than Clinton’s but the GOP’s vote was 8% higher than Bush’s.The Democrats still won more votes and seats, but the GOP actually gained nine House seats (and tied in the Senate races) in a year when the Democrats beat their presidential candidate by a 5% margin.
    Caveat: if a lot of right-wing anger was aimed at Bush personally (for breaking the “read my lips” pledge), he may not have gained all the GOP’s congressional supporters had there been a runoff, or preferences, at least if either were optional. I do have a hunch that Bush might have won, or at least run Clinton very closely, had there been mandatory preferential voting or a runoff with compulsory turnout. (Both are political science fiction in the US, of course).

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    1. Thanks Tom. I think you can certainly make a case that Perot helped Clinton, but I find it very hard to see how the effect could be big enough to have made a difference in the result. As I said, it wasn’t a particularly close election. Exit polling isn’t always totally reliable, but it’s not *that* bad.
      (Incidentally, I’ve got no idea why your comments are going to moderation instead of being automatically approved. I don’t think it’s anything I did.)

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  2. And first-past-the-post voting also encourages third-party insurgents to play up the “to hell with both Tweedledum and Tweedledee” rhetoric, since they know that unless they come highest, they’re on a suicide mission (unless they poll too poorly to care about).
    With preferences or runoffs, the Australian DLP or the French Communists (for example) can tell their supporters “All right, Menzies/ Mitterrand is not perfect, but he’s better than the other lot, so after voting for us, make sure you vote for them too.” (See: Palmer, Clive, patching over to the LNP in the 2018 federal election) A more honest approach, but also politically an easier needle to thread, than (for example) the British Liberal/ SDP Alliance in 1983 having to sell the message that Thatcher and her right-wing loonies were the absolute worst politicians ever by a long way, and that Michael Foot and his left-wing loonies were just as bad.

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