History is likely to remember H. Ross Perot as a self-made billionaire and an eccentric presidential candidate with the largest third-party vote in the last century. The 19 percent of the popular vote he received in 1992 is second only to Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party run for president in 1912.
Although Perot’s Reform Party had little staying power, his contributions to our politics are his real legacy. Perot, who died on Tuesday at 89, ushered in a new era of grass-roots political participation — in part by tapping into new channels of communication, including the era’s version of “reality television.”
In the spring of 1992, Perot appeared on “Larry King Live” following the emergence of a grass-roots “Draft Perot” movement. King repeatedly asked him if he would run for president, and finally — on the fifth ask — Perot said that if volunteers got him on the ballot in all 50 states, he would run.
Such a challenge seemed difficult, given that no third-party candidate had been on every state’s ballot since at least 1920. But Perot’s 1992 campaign was unique in its unprecedented mobilization of volunteers. Instead of a barrier, it was an opportunity for Perot’s supporters to show their commitment to the cause. And the outpouring of support was unprecedented.
After the King appearance, calls coming into Perot’s business office overwhelmed their capacity, and by March, Perot hired the Home Shopping Network (with 1,200 phone lines) to handle the dramatic volume of calls from potential volunteers. After a single appearance on “The Phil Donahue Show,” more than 250,000 people called the Perot 1-800 number to volunteer. Two-thirds of those who called had no prior experience in political parties or volunteering for political candidates, a stunning response from previously unengaged citizens. Perot pioneered the use of mainstream consumer infotainment in political campaigns — the first part of his political legacy.
The “Draft Perot” movement sprung up spontaneously across the country with virtually no organizational help from the candidate or those around him. In California, for example, Perot volunteers collected 1.4 million signatures with only a single visit from one paid Perot staff person. In mid-March of 1992, he was drawing only 9 percent support for president, but by late April (only two months after the King interview), he was at 27 percent. By early June, he held a commanding lead over both major party candidates — George H.W. Bush (by 8 percentage points) and Bill Clinton (by 14 percentage points).
Conventional wisdom holds that Perot’s money made him a popular candidate, but it was the volunteers that made the early campaign. By the time he led the field by more than 10 percentage points, Perot had spent less than a third of the two leading candidates (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton), and he’d even spent less than the two major party challengers (Republican Pat Buchanan and Democrat Paul Tsongas). At the end of the day, Perot submitted 5.3 million signatures across the 50 states and the District.
Perot’s supporters continued to stay involved long after Perot’s campaign ended. Despite opposition from Bob Dole and the Republican establishment, Newt Gingrich courted Perot and his supporters — going so far as to model his “Contract with America” after Perot’s campaign manifesto. Two years later in the 1994 midterm elections, Gingrich’s courting paid off. Perot voters — despite being split evenly between the parties in 1992 — went 2-for-1 for Republican congressional candidates.
Today, Perot’s legacy lies in the economic nationalism ascendant in the Republican Party. Two of President Trump’s signature issues have roots in the Perot movement. After the election, Perot decided to focus on the trade and anti-NAFTA parts of his platform. Vice President Al Gore challenged Perot to debate the merits of NAFTA on Perot’s favorite show, “Larry King Live.” Despite Perot’s disastrous performance, his arguments began to gain traction in the traditionally free-trade Republican electorate. Perot supporters also stood out for their overwhelming support for decreasing immigration.
But not all of Perot’s agenda has carried over. The issue most near and dear to Perot’s heart, and central to his campaign, has been ignored by both parties since Perot’s candidacy: reducing the federal deficit. Since Perot’s 1992 campaign, the federal deficit has grown from $290 billion in 1992 to $779 billion in 2018. Even in 1994, most of Perot’s supporters favored both raising taxes and cutting services to balance the federal budget. Perot’s other signature issue — reforming Congress and campaign finance — has also languished.
Even still, Perot showed a lot of Americans that despite having no political experience, they too could make a difference. His encouragement of audacious aspirations — put me on the ballot in all 50 states, and I’ll run — was a lesson that Trump took to heart. Perot inspired millions of Americans to become more active in our politics while offering a political harbinger of things to come.