As Donald Trump flirts with an independent candidacy for president, one of the most enduring political myths of our time is returning to the surface.
Surely, you’ve encountered the claim recently – that Ross Perot’s third party bid in 1992 cost George H.W. Bush a second term and allowed Bill Clinton to win with a mere plurality of the vote. Typically, it’s invoked to underscore Trump’s potential to play spoiler next year, draining critical support from the Republican nominee. Once again, we are told, a Clinton may end up securing the White House by default.
But the comparison is bogus. Yes, Perot did rack up a significant share of the vote in 1992 – 19%, the best for an independent since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. But there’s never been a shred of evidence that his support came disproportionately from Bush’s column, and there’s considerable evidence that it didn’t.
Let’s start with the basics. Clinton was elected with 43% of the vote, to Bush’s 37.5%, a difference of nearly six million votes. To overtake Clinton in a two-way race, then, Bush would have needed to gain the lion’s share of the Perot vote, about two-thirds of it. But in the exit poll conducted on Election Day, just 38% of Perot’s backers said Bush was their second choice. Thirty-eight percent also said Clinton was. “The impact of Mr. Perot’s supporters on the campaign’s outcome,” wrote The New York Times, “appears to have been minimal.” The Washington Post’s conclusion: “Ross Perot’s presence on the 1992 presidential ballot did not change the outcome of the election.”
This is only part of the story. The Perot campaign was a soap opera-worthy saga that played out in multiple acts, and in each one there was no indication that he was disproportionately hurting Bush.
If anything, he started out as Bush’s ace in the hole. The Perot phenomenon kicked off on February 20, 1992, when the Dallas billionaire told CNN’s Larry King he would run for president if volunteers placed his name on the ballot in all 50 states. Perot had never before sought office, but he had folk hero status thanks to the daring rescue he’d engineered when some of his employees were trapped in Revolution-era Iran. That story was made into a movie, with Richard Crenna playing Perot.
A national grassroots mobilization ensued and Perot moved up in the polls – fast. By the late spring, he was running in first place. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in early June gave him 36% to Bush’s 30%, with Clinton back at 25%. Pundits teased the possibility of a deadlocked election being thrown to the U.S. House. Others wondered if Perot might just win outright. There had been serious independent candidacies in the recent past, like John Anderson in 1980 and George Wallace in 1968, but none had gained this kind of traction. It was a volatile and unprecedented situation.
But it was also clear at that moment that the main beneficiary of Perot’s rise was Bush, who was presiding over a dismal economy that only seemed to be worsening. That same ABC/Washington Post poll logged the president’s approval rating at just 35%. His rating for economic performance was even lower and unemployment was on the rise; it would spike to 7.8% by the middle of the year. In another June survey, only 33% of voters said Bush deserved a second term. Sixty-one percent said he didn’t. By every available metric, Bush was a profoundly vulnerable incumbent.
So Perot was doing him a huge favor: He was splitting the anti-Bush vote and cutting deeply into what should have been Clinton’s base. That ABC/Washington Post poll in early June found that among Democrats, Clinton was barely running ahead of Perot, 43% to 39%. Overall, 47% of Perot’s backers said Clinton was their second choice, compared to 31% for Bush. “[T]he poll suggests that Perot is now hurting Clinton much more than Bush,” the Post wrote.
This had to do with something that is often forgotten these days. The Bill Clinton of the spring of ’92 was regarded as a fatally damaged candidate who was doomed to lead his party to yet another national defeat. Against weak opposition, he’d endured a sex scandal and revelations of possible Vietnam draft-dodging to win the Democratic nomination. Already, Democrats had lost three consecutive national landslides and Republicans were widely thought to have a “lock” on the Electoral College. Clinton’s personal unfavorable rating was alarmingly high and the number of voters who called him dishonest was through the roof. Surely, even members of his own party had come to believe, the feared Republican attack machine would destroy him in the fall.
This was Act I of the Perot ’92 campaign: a stunning surge to the top fueled by voters who badly wanted Bush out but who also couldn’t stomach Clinton. This would also end up being Perot’s peak, because in Act II came a Clinton revival and a Perot crack-up.
You’ve probably seen the clip at some point, Bill Clinton sporting a pair of sunglasses and playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on his saxophone on Arsenio Hall’s late-night show. It was one of numerous moments that spring that prompted Americans to give the Democratic candidate a second look and to discover the warmth and charisma that is taken for granted these days. Clinton’s poll numbers improved and Democrats began returning home. At the same time, Perot was treated to intense media scrutiny that he’d never before encountered, and he didn’t hold up well. He also created controversy, like when he addressed the NAACP convention and referred to his audience as “you people.”
By the end of June, Clinton had the lead, which started to grow. A poll released on July 16 gave him 42%, with Bush at 30 and Perot far back with 20. That same day Perot, battered by negative coverage and furious with the media, called a press conference in Dallas and abruptly withdrew from the race. The Democrats were holding their convention that week and Perot said he now believed they had “revitalized” themselves under Clinton, who delivered his acceptance speech that night.
For the next ten weeks, the presidential race was a two-man contest between Bush and Clinton, and at no point in this time – not even in the immediate wake of the Republican convention in August – did Bush overtake Clinton. Nor was it even close. In only one Gallup poll during this period did Bush trail by single digits (a 51-42 gap), with Clinton up by as many as 25 points. Nor was the race tightening as it went along. As October began, the Clinton advantage was 16 points, hardly surprising given the incumbent’s glaring weaknesses.
October also brought with it Act III of the Perot drama: his sudden re-entry. Initially, his support was low, owing to the bizarre and unnerving way he’d ended his campaign over the summer. Polls showed him in the single digits, drawing about evenly from the other two candidates. He was included in the debates, though, where he staged several breakthrough performances, winning back many former backers with his populist spirit and folksy one-liners. His support climbed into the teens and on Election Day nearly hit 20%.
In that last month, Bush narrowed the gap against Clinton from 16 points to the final margin of 5.5, and he did this even as Perot’s support rocketed up. But if Perot was stealing Bush’s supporters, how could this have happened? The answer, of course, is that Perot wasn’t drawing disproportionately from Bush at all. He represented a funky electoral coalition that included as many Democratic-friendly voters as Republican-friendly ones, and quite a few who’d previously been non-voters.
So where does the Perot myth come from? Some of it has to do with the very real anger that existed toward Bush on the right in ’92. Pat Buchanan, running on a platform that combined nativism and economic nationalism, embarrassed Bush with a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary and accumulated more than three million votes in the Republican primaries. These Buchanan voters are often seen as the backbone of the Perot movement, and certainly there was plenty of overlap. But Perot’s coalition also included frustrated Democrats who’d voted for Paul Tsongas in his primary campaign against Clinton. The centerpiece of Tsongas’s campaign was the exact same as Perot’s: a frantic warning about the nation’s skyrocketing debt.
It’s also true that Perot nursed an intense personal grudge against Bush. This made his campaign feel like a vendetta and may explain why when Bush was asked about Perot three years ago, he replied, “I think he cost me the election and I don’t like him.” On top of this, there’s the simple fact that attributing Clinton’s win to Perot made it easy for Republicans to dismiss his victory as a fluke. A generation later, it remains an article of faith on the right that Clinton only won because of Perot. And with so many voices repeating this claim so casually, it’s a claim that also seeps into mainstream accounts of the ’92 campaign.
This all helps explain the endurance of the Perot myth. There are also those who argue that Perot harmed Bush less directly, by ratcheting up the country’s anti-Bush mood. But this is a reach. Even before Perot stepped forward, Bush’s approval rating had fallen below 40%, and a poll taken the same week Perot went on “Larry King Live” found that a staggering 73% of Americans thought Bush wasn’t doing enough to improve the economy. All of the evidence indicates that Perot was a symptom of Bush’s weakness – not the cause of it.
Now consider Donald Trump for a minute. This week, a poll showed that in a two-way race, Hillary Clinton would defeat Jeb Bush by six points. With Trump added to the mix, though, her margin explodes to 16. This is clear and obvious evidence that Donald Trump, at least for now, would do serious harm to the GOP as an independent candidate. And now think about this: Never in the entire saga of Ross Perot’s candidacy – not in Act I, not in Act II, not in Act III – was there even a single poll that showed Perot doing the same thing.