How Billionaire Ross Perot Brought Populism Back to Presidential Politics - HISTORY

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H. Ross Perot didn’t win the 1992 presidential election. He didn’t even capture a single Electoral College vote.

Nonetheless, the Texan billionaire’s outsider bid for the American presidency transformed the political and electoral landscape, in both the short and longer term. By capturing 19 percent of all votes cast that November—the highest percentage for a third-party or independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for a third term in the White House in 1912—Perot delivered a wake-up call to politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Perot followed the populist model set down by William Jennings Bryan in his (unsuccessful) campaigns for the presidency in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Like Bryan, Perot reached out to working-class and middle-class Americans who felt ignored by the political establishments within both parties. Bryan argued for what he felt was in the interests of the “common man,” advocating the creation of a silver standard and vilifying monopolies and the overreach of American imperialism.

Nearly a century later, Perot changed the dynamics of the race by focusing on similarly populist issues voters felt had been overlooked or discounted by both incumbent President George H.W. Bush and the Democratic Party candidate, Arkansas Governor William J. Clinton. “All he wanted was change,” argued Jim Squires, his former campaign spokesman, in a 2007 analysis.

READ MORE: Populism in the United States: A Timeline

Perot Directed His Message to the Masses, Using Mass Media

Ross Perot 1992 campaign

Texas billionaire businessman Ross Perot pointing to chart during a self-financed TV ad/program promoting his run for president as a third-party candidate.

The first sign that Perot’s campaign would diverge from any other Americans had encountered: He announced his candidacy not at a press conference or political gathering, but instead on a TV political chat show, "Larry King Live." Long before candidates like Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders turned to the Internet to transform their campaigns, Perot recognized that mass media—in the form of cable television and infomercials—had the potential to shake up the way candidates and voters connected. “If I want 100,00 volunteers more, all I need to do is go on some national show,” Perot said of his campaign. Millions watched his infomercials.

READ MORE: How the 1994 'Contract with America' Led to a Republican Revolution

Perot didn’t just change the way candidates reached voters. He also transformed both the style and substance of political campaigning. Discontent with “politics as usual” and the “establishment” have long been key elements of challengers’ political rhetoric, but Perot’s insistence on “taking the country back” and voters behaving like “the owners of this country” brought a new sense of empowerment to Americans who felt ignored by mainstream parties. In the midst of the campaign, political pundit and columnist Charles Krauthammer argued that Perot was the first to find a way to bypass “the great institutions—the political parties, the Establishment media, the Congress—that have traditionally stood between the governors and the governed.” He avoided big public rallies and emphasized direct outreach to voters. It was, Krauthammer said, “a geologic change in American politics.”

One element of this change: an emphasis on grassroots campaigning by activists. When Perot announced his candidacy on “Larry King Live,” he said he’d run if, and only if, volunteers in all 50 states campaigned and got enough signatures to place him on the ballot. Bypassing the conventional nominating procedure altogether, he called on individual voters to stand up and be counted. It was this voter engagement, rather than his heavy spending later in the campaign, that fueled his success—something later candidates ignored at their peril, argue Ronald B. Rapoport and Walter J. Stone, political science professors and co-authors of Three’s a Crowd, a book about the impact of the Perot campaign.

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WATCH: The Rise of Populism

Perot's Campaign Put the Deficit Front and Center

Perot also transformed the way outsider presidential campaigns—whether conducted as an independent or third-party candidate or within the two established parties—influenced the issues. “Neither party could afford to offend” the Perot constituency, whether in 1992 or beyond, Rapoport and Stone concluded, based on an exhaustive analysis of voter patterns.

During 1992, for instance, both mainstream candidates focused on economic issues in light of high unemployment and a sluggish economy. But it was Perot who concentrated his firepower on the ever-widening budget deficit, dubbing it the “crazy old aunt in the attic” no one was willing to discuss publicly. By making national debt a keystone of his policies, and winning such massive popular support at the polls, “Perot jammed a balanced federal budget down Washington’s throat,” asserted Squires.

Other themes that Perot raised during his campaign have outlived both his two candidacies (he returned to vie for the presidency in a less-successful 1996 bid)—and Perot himself. Arguing against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he insisted that the result of the trade pact would be “a giant sucking sound of jobs being pulled out of this country.” Free trade opponents from both parties have since invoked that phrase countless times, and subsequent administrations and candidates have continued to surface his concerns in trade policy proposals.

One of Perot’s most enduring legacies may be the resurgence of the Republican Party that began in 1994. Their “Contract with America,” endorsed by all but a handful of Republican candidates in the 1994 midterm elections, and the Tea Party movement, born in 2008, both reflect Perot’s strategy in both style and substance. Not only did they emphasize connecting with the grass roots and addressing a feeling of disenfranchisement of groups of working-class and middle-class voters, but they prioritized some of his ideas, such as fiscal discipline. “The Perot vote was responsible for producing historic Republican victories in the 1994 House elections and in the 2000 presidential election,” Rapoport and Stone concluded.

That GOP resurgence, and the subsequent polarization, remains one of the more ironic results of Perot’s insurgent campaign. It produced, Jim Squires noted, “some of the most rancorous partisanship in history and the very gridlock Perot had campaigned against.” 

WATCH: 'The Campaigns That Made History' premieres Tuesday, October 27 at 9/8c on HISTORY.

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