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.