When Minnesota's colorful governor, Jesse Ventura, said recently that Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party are not a good fit, he was right on target. Pat Buchanan has nothing in common with the millions of Americans who voted for Ross Perot in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections. What motivates most Perot voters are issues such as balanced budgets, reduced deficits, campaign finance reform and term limits to restrain the power of a permanent political class. What does not interest them are divisive social and cultural issues.
In contrast to Buchanan's followers, Perot voters are centrists ideologically. The counties carried by Perot have rejected politicians perceived as too conservative or too liberal, opposing Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. Buchanan's brand of politics--his reputation for "populism" notwithstanding--will play no better with the Perot crowd.
Buchanan may try to run a campaign based on the economic issues dear to Perot backers, but his support for school prayer, public funds for religious private schools, and the abolition and criminalization of abortion should make him anathema to most Perot voters. Exit polling from 1992 and 1996 suggests that Perot voters were among the most secular of those who went to the polls. Compared with Republicans and Democrats, they said they attended church and participated in religious activities less often. Perot drew significant support from Protestants and Catholics who called themselves moderates in terms of religious practice, and from voters who described themselves as having no religious affiliation.
Reform Party supporters tend to be secular voters in the sense that Thomas Jefferson was. Generally, they do not want government dominated by sectarian religious agendas or the political system corroded by religious conflict. Nor do they want government to interfere with religious activity. Perhaps this is why Ventura was the only governor who refused to proclaim a National Day of Prayer in May, saying that it was not the responsibility of government to tell its citizens when and how to engage in religious activities.
It should be noted, also, that Perot and Ventura support abortion rights as a matter of personal conscience and moral autonomy, oppose required religious activities in public schools, and do not favor government aid to private religious schools. Those stances square with the views of most Reform Party supporters, but not with the views of Buchanan's traditional base.
If Buchanan takes a hard look at past voting patterns, he might begin to rethink his interest in the Reform Party nomination. For example, the towns Perot carried in Colorado voted 70 percent against tuition tax credits for private and religious schools in a 1998 referendum. They overwhelmingly opposed vouchers in a 1992 referendum in the same state. They also supported gay rights that same year. The towns Perot carried in California, Oregon and Washington state overwhelmingly opposed private school aid in several referendums during the 1990s, and the Perot towns in Washington also rejected a 1998 referendum that would ban late-term abortions. In Massachusetts, the strongest Perot towns voted 78 percent against removing a provision from the state constitution that bars public funds for parochial and private schools and 62 percent in favor of abortion rights during two hotly contested referendum elections in 1986.
There can be no doubt that Perot and Buchanan appeal to fundamentally different constituencies. This is dramatically illustrated by the returns from the precinct that includes Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist Christian school in Greenville, S.C. The precinct's conservative electorate supported Buchanan in the 1996 presidential primaries, giving him 49 percent of its votes. In the November general election, only 2 percent voted for Perot.
Buchanan may be able to impose his will on the Reform Party because of its fluid, almost anarchic, nomination process. Under its procedures, prospective presidential candidates must join the Reform Party and then secure ballot access in the 30 states where the party is not yet certified. If a candidate passes that hurdle, he or she is eligible to be included on the party's national ballot. The party's open balloting procedures--one doesn't even need to be a party member to cast a vote--make it possible for a candidate with highly committed followers to win the nomination. It would be ironic if Buchanan were the nominee of a party whose members disagree so vigorously with him.
The Reform Party has the potential to change America's political culture. Buchanan may need a new home for his political views and his presidential campaign now that he wants to bolt the Republican Party, but his nomination could destroy the Reform Party as a viable, credible reformist movement. Previous America First-type movements have divided the electorate and left wounds that took years to heal. If the Reform Party wants to survive and protect the country from discord, its members should send Buchanan a clear and convincing message: Thanks, but no thanks.
Albert Menendez is a political analyst and author of "The Perot Voters and the Future of American Politics" (Prometheus Books). He also is associate director of Americans for Religious Liberty, an organization that promotes the separation of church and state.