It is not uncommon for lesser known politicians or anti-establishment candidates to enter a presidential race in the United States in order to ‘shape the debate’ and have their issues heard. Often considered rank outsiders, any influence they may wield might not necessarily translate into a large vote share or success at the polls, in fact, it usually does not. However, their intervention might still alter the outcome of the election and the campaign period itself in subtler ways. In this paper I will assess the extent to which the candidacy of Ross Perot impacted the course and result of the 1992 presidential elections. The 1992 election is of particular salience because Perot procured 19% of the popular vote; the highest for a third-party or independent since 1912 (Grant, 1993, p.239). More pertinent still is that “it is the one election in recent U.S. history in which a third-party candidate has garnered more votes than the margin between the first and second-placed candidates” (Lacy and Burden, 1999, p.234). Throughout the course of this paper I will consider factors that mapped the course of the election campaigns in 1992, from the Democrat and Republican primaries to the general elections, with a primary focus on the state of the economy as the principle factor. I will place emphasis on the effect Ross Perot had on the campaign and the result. I will also engage with the 1996 election, but to a much lesser extent. The collective evidence will culminate to establish my multifaceted conclusion that firstly, whilst the intervention of Ross Perot helped structure the narrative of the 1992 campaign, he was not critical in altering the outcome of the election and secondly, that he was neither influential nor critical to the 1996 election.
There can be much speculation made as to whether George H. W. Bush would have gained re-election in 1992 had it not been for the candidacy of Ross Perot. There are questions that could be posed. Did Perot steal more votes from the Democrats or the Republicans? Did he crucially alter the narrative to the detriment of Bush or was Clinton headed for victory anyway? (Pan, O’Curry and Pitts, 1995, p.85). Regardless of hypotheticals, it is important to acknowledge that “we can never rerun the presidential contest without Perot as a candidate. His very presence in the contest may have changed its dynamics in fundamental ways” (Asher, 1995, p.170). What we can do, however, is scrutinize the amount to which Perot critically changed the course of the election as opposed to other factors. In addition to this, we can assess whether or not his intervention, combined with other considerations, ultimately contributed to the final result in a significant way.
Firstly, I will review the electoral statistics of the result of the 1992 election. Clinton garnered 43% of the popular vote (almost 45 million votes) and carried 32 states and DC, earning 370 votes in the electoral college. President Bush procured 38% of the popular vote (over 39 million votes) and carried 18 states which resulted in 168 votes in the electoral college. Perot was on the ballot in all 50 states, and although he failed to win any electoral college votes, one in every five voters backed him (McCann, Rapoport and Stone, 1999, p.1) and he obtained 19% of the national vote; little under 20 million in total (Brams and Merill III, 1994, p.39; Gold, 1995, p.751). This included an impressive second place in Utah behind Bush with 29% (Leip, 2016; Grant, 1993; Lacy and Burden, 1999). In their study on the vote-stealing and turnout effect of Perot in the 1992 election, Lacy and Burden find that Perot increased turnout by between two to three percentage points, also establishing that 19.8% of Perot voters would have abstained had he not ran (Lacy and Burden, 1999, p.251-252). Unlike many independent candidates, Perot had consistent nationwide support (Thorson and Stambough, 1995, p.211). More importantly, prior to academic scrutiny, the raw figures suggest that Perot’s candidacy could have potentially changed the outcome of the election, due to the large amount of votes he secured. Perot’s level of support would be particularly noteworthy if he gained substantial backing from traditionally Republican voters. This would be even more significant if that support was enough to hand the election to Clinton. Conversely, Lacy and Burden conclude that Perot actually drew more support from likely Democrat voters, ultimately meaning that his did not alter the result within itself (Lacy and Burden, 1999).
Whilst it is important to recognise that the 1992 campaign may have been fundamentally different without the candidacy of Perot, there is merit in ascertaining as to how members of the electorate who did vote for Perot would have voted had he not ran. Lacy and Burden determine that “36.1% would support Bush… [and] 44.1% would support Clinton” (Lacy and Burden, 1999, p.251). Alan Grant obtained slightly different results, finding that 15% of Perot voters would have abstained and support for Bush or Clinton would have been split at 38% each (Grant, 1993, p.250). What is more telling, however, is his claim that “analysis of exit poll data suggests that only Ohio would have shifted its electoral college vote from Clinton to Bush in Perot’s absence” (Grant, 1993, p.250). Ohio switching its 21 electoral votes would have resulted in a 349-189 Clinton victory, far short of the 270 votes Bush would have needed to successfully gain re-election. The evidence clearly shows that Perot was not ultimately critical to the result on election day. Therefore, it is imperative to explore the ways in which he influenced the narrative of the campaign in order to gauge whether or not his intervention was a determining factor in the election of the 42nd President of the United States.
Ross Perot’s choice to run for president was born out of a dissatisfaction with the state of the economy. His viability as a candidate was contingent upon the American public’s negative view of ‘politics as usual’ and their doubts about both Clinton and President Bush (Grant, 1993, p.242). Perot’s campaign was predicated on the principle that “the country was in an economic mess, that politicians from both parties had fiddled while the federal deficit had climbed into the stratosphere” (Grant, 1993, p.242). The coupling of these factors created the perfect environment for an independent, antiestablishment candidate to capitalise. “Perot first appeared on the Presidential election scene in the spring with television interviews given on a number of chat shows and phone-in programmes” (Grant, 1993, p.242). By May, Perot was polling nationally at 33%, ahead of Bush on 28% and Clinton on 24% (Rafshoon, 1992, p.54). As the Democratic National Convention approached in July, Perot suddenly pulled out of the race. The main reasons stated for his withdrawal were that the Democrats had revitalised themselves and that both the parties were starting to address the issue of the deficit (Grant, 1993, p.242-243). The popularity of Perot allowed him to shape the conversation and place the economy and deficit in the centre of political debate as one of the primary issues of the election. Buchanan (1995) argues that the pressure applied by Perot on the establishment candidates resulted in a stronger, issues based campaign (Buchanan, 1995, p.307). Had Perot not ran “it is quite unlikely that either Bush or Clinton would have felt compelled to deal as forthrightly with tough questions like the debt and the deficit” (Buchanan, 1995, p.307). The timing of Perot’s withdrawal and the Democratic National Convention resulted in a considerable lift in the polls for Clinton. “He could now be portrayed as the only real agent for change, and post-convention polls showed him leading Bush by up to 24%” (Grant, 1993, p.243). Clinton never relinquished his lead throughout the rest of the campaign. Perot did re-enter the race in October, but failed to reach the levels of support he achieved in May. It leaves one to wonder what might have been had he not suspended his campaign for ten crucial weeks during the summer (Grant, 1993, p.243).
The fact that the economy and deficit were central to the campaign is evidence of the influence Perot had over the narrative of the 1992 election. It is in this way that Perot most hurt President Bush, due to the large role economics played in Bush failing to win re-election (Lacy and Burden, 1999, p.241). “During the four years of the Bush presidency the country had witnessed a substantial deterioration in general macroeconomic activity as unemployment rose and economic growth slowed” (Abrams and Butkiewicz, 1995, p.1). Furthermore, large states and key electoral areas had been hit hard by the economic conditions prior to the 1992 election campaign. The national average unemployment rate stood at 7.5% however it was 9.2% in California, 9.1% in Florida and 8.8% in New York (Abrams and Butkiewicz, 1995, p.1). In concurrence with this, 17 states had suffered negative real income per capita growth through the Bush presidency (Abrams and Butkiewicz, 1995, p.1). In juxtaposition, Hetherington (1996) argues that the economic environment in 1992 was seemingly positive enough to ensure reelection for Bush (Hetherington, 1996, p.372). “Neither inflation nor unemployment was high. Both were lower than in 1984 when Ronald Reagan won by a landslide” (Hetherington, 1996, p.372). Irrespective of the recession ending in early 1991 (Whitehead, 1993, p.38) Hetherington does concede that opinions on the economy can be more important than economic reality (Hetherington, 1996, p.372). After all, politics is perception and if the electorate views the economy negatively, any positive reality might not hold as much influence. “43% of voters said that jobs and the economy were the major influences on their vote, with the budget deficit being seen as the most important issue by 21%” (Grant, 1993, p.251). As mentioned previously, California and states in New England suffered greatly from growing unemployment and deviated away from voting Republican (Grant, 1993, p.251). Perot’s emphasis on the economy built the platform for Clinton to go on the offensive against Bush. Following the Republican National Convention in August, Clinton released a TV ad which concluded with him saying “Well, it’s four years on. How are you doing?” This proved effective, much as a similar line had done so for Reagan in 1980 (Grant, 1993, p.246).
This clearly shows that by helping to place the economy at the centre of political debate during the 1992 election, Perot was fundamental, although not critical, in the process of electing Bill Clinton as the president of the United States. He was of paramount importance, but he was not the difference between a Clinton election and a Bush re-election. I will now turn my attention to other contributing factors to assess the extent to which they worked in collaboration with the intervention of Ross Perot and the economy to help secure Clinton the presidency.
Firstly, by quick observation, it would appear that the 1992 Republican primaries were a straightforward affair. However, this is not the case. Although Bush won all 50 states during the primaries, the challenge of conservative commentator Pat Buchanan was significant enough to portray the image of a President who did not have complete, unwavering support from his own party (Abramson et al., 2000, p.498). “When a President faces substantial opposition for the nomination, the divisions so created […] can, and often do, lead to defeat in the general election” (Grant, 1993, p.241). Buchanan focused on the fact that Bush had not kept a 1988 campaign pledge in which he said “Read my lips: no new taxes” (Grant, 1993, p.241). Although Bush ultimately secured re-nomination with relative ease, the damage had been done. Buchanan had helped form and highlight the vulnerabilities that would be capitalised upon by the Democrats (and Perot) in the general election (Grant, 1993, p.242). The Republican National Convention then added insult to injury by the way in which the party alienated female and moderate voters with elements of the party advocating a hardline approach to issues such as abortion (Grant, 1993, p.245). It “turned out to be a public relations disaster, giving the impression of a narrow and exclusive party that was not reaching out to the wider electorate” (Grant, 1993, p.245). The convention did close the gap between Bush and Clinton to around ten points, but it did not provide the bump the President needed to gain substantial momentum heading into September.
Secondly, the Democratic primaries, while more contested, although by a weak field of candidates, set Clinton up well for the Autumn campaign. He was forced to address a number of issues about his private life, such as alleged pre-martial affairs and speculation that he avoided the Vietnam draft (Grant, 1993, p.240; Renshon, 1992, p.541). The virtue of airing character issues during primary season is that they are often muted by the time the general campaign begins. This was the case for Clinton and it also allowed him to display resilience and an ability to operate in the face of crisis and scrutiny. More critical still to the triumph of the Democrats in 1992 was the success of the National Convention in July and the lessons the party learned from the catastrophic 1988 campaign in which Dukakis failed to exploit a significant post-convention lead. In 1992 the Clinton-Gore ticket united the party and projected the image of a positive image of a ticket with a credible chance of capturing the White House.
The last area of contribution to the 1992 election that I will discuss lies with the other prominent (or not) issues of the campaign cycle. An underlying problem the Republicans had was a fundamental failure to promote the subjects and agendas that would have benefitted them. This was partly because of the climate of post-Cold war politics and partly because of their inability to mobilise an efficient campaign strategy. Bush’s “lack of vision and core values meant that he looked as if he did not stand for anything” (Grant, 1993, p.252). Bush was undoubtedly a foreign policy president. Operation Desert Storm was the high point of his presidency and during the summer of 1991 he achieved up to 90% approval ratings (Waterman, 1996, p.337). The downside of this was that the collapse of the Cold War reduced the importance of foreign policy in the election; only 8% of voters viewed it as a key issue (Grant, 1993, p.251). It also highlighted Bush’s domestic shortcomings. The electorate began to wonder why his domestic policy lacked the sophistication of his foreign policy, and he was further hurt by failing to produce a coherent domestic agenda for the nation (Grant, 1993, p.251-252).
Abramowitz (1995) argues that abortion played a key role in alienated ‘pro-choice’ members of the Republican party defecting to the Democrats in 1992 (Abramowitz, 1995, p.176). This further evidence that Pat Buchanan and the national convention not only fractured Republican politicians, but also Republican voters. Furthermore, healthcare reform advocated by Clinton was supported by a large proportion of the electorate, a subject which Bush appeared not to have a comprehensive plan for addressing. The single largest weapon at the disposal of the Republicans was the character issue. Bush was partly successfully in painting Clinton as untrustworthy, however, the state of the economy submerged the electorates concerns. In a better economic environment, the character issue would have resonated more, perhaps enough for Bush to have won re-election (Doherty and Gimpel, 1997, p.177). The timing of the Democratic National Convention and the withdrawal of Perot were particularly significant in Clinton obtaining a lead in the polls that he did not relinquish. The primary campaigns and national conventions worked in conjunction with each other, as well as the intervention of Perot, the state of the economy and other (non) issues to create an ideal political climate for Clinton thrive in.
I will now turn my attention towards the 1996 election. In doing so I will justify its underrepresentation in this paper. The reason for this, is that Ross Perot and his Reform Party, were neither critical over the result nor influential over the narrative of the campaign. President Clinton secured reelection with 49.23% of the popular vote (almost 47.5 million votes) and 379 in the electoral college. Republican candidate Bob Dole won 40.72% of the popular vote, which translated as just over 39 million votes and 159 votes in the electoral college. Perot was a distant third with 8.4% of the popular vote (just over 8 million votes) and failed to carry a state. More conclusive still, Perot did not secure more votes than the difference between Clinton and Dole (Leip, 2016). Although Perot did win more votes than the gap between the two other candidates in some states, these were places such as Montana and Wyoming. Therefore, it did not significantly impact the electoral college (Leip, 2016).
December 15th 1995 was an important day in Clinton’s re-election campaign. It was the filing deadline for any Democrats hoping to internally challenge the President in the primaries and the day Clinton learned that no-one would challenge his re-nomination (Walker, 1996, p.660). In 1995, Clinton appeared vulnerable. His administration was engulfed by scandal and in stark contrast to the 1992 election, the incumbent looked beatable (Walker, 1995, p.660). The Republicans were buoyed by their crushing victory in the 1994 mid-term elections which saw them take control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years (Walker, 1996, p.657; 661). “The new Republican moment was a complex phenomenon” (Walker, 1996, p.661) and held its roots in a number of conservative principles. Irrespective of this, they were unable to unite behind one leader who could incorporate all elements of the party and remained “bitterly divided between its various factions, until it finally rallied around the most familiar candidate in something close to desperation” (Walker, 1996, p.661).
The hardball tactics employed by congressional Republicans in this period had begun to backfire by the start of the primary campaign with opinion polls were turning against them. They “appeared heartless, and Clinton was able to portray himself as the defender of the elderly, of education and of the environment” (Walker, 1996, p.662). Hindered further by fielding a team of controversial and unpopular candidates, the Republicans looked disorganised and divided. All this contributed to Clinton holding a double digit lead in the polls during the period (Walker, 1996, p.662).
Perot did hold some influence during the election. However, it was drastically less significant than in 1992 as he was not afforded the opportunity to shape the conversation as he had done previously. “Perot’s main impact in 1996 was to keep alive the controversy over free trade, which menaced Clinton, and also to keep stressing his chosen theme of the menace of the federal budget deficit, which threatened Dole” (Walker, 1996, p.670). What is critical to acknowledge is that due to the strength of the economy and the ever-shrinking budget deficit, Perot’s key issues and strategy were muted in impact and even then, only helped highlight the economic success of the Clinton Administration and the incompetence of the Republican economic platform. Moreover, “the striking feature of the 1996 election campaign, which suggested that the new consensus on foreign and domestic policy was already coalescing, was how little argument eventually emerged between the parties on these grand themes” (Walker, 1996, p.658). The primary consequence of this was the inability for the Republicans to produce and effective campaign that highlighted the main differences between the parties and convinced voters to elect a new president. The election was in Clinton’s hands and his remarkable recovery between the mid-terms and the start of the campaign meant that by the national conventions, the result was never really in doubt.
To conclude, in 1992, Perot helped facilitate Clinton’s election through establishing the economy as the main focus of the campaign. However, there was already a tide of consent moving away from President Bush. Research has shown that whilst Perot drew support from both Democrats and Republicans, it is likely that he reduced Clinton’s margin of victory. Although removing Perot from the equation would alter the election in fundamental ways, I believe that whilst aided by Perot’s emphasis on the economy, Clinton still would have been elected President, by virtue of the fact that it still would have been a prevalent issue (Alveraz and Nagler, 1995, p.714) as evidenced throughout this paper. Perot was merely the catalyst by which it was placed at the forefront of the debate. The character issue would have been much more detrimental to Clinton if the economy had been strong. With the ending of the Cold War, the electorate was focused on domestic problems and the shortcomings of Bush’s Administration. Multiple factors aligned at the correct time to create the perfect conditions for Clinton and the Democrats to break the electoral college lock (Brunell and Grofman, 1997, p.134). As for the general election in 1996, it is apparent that Perot failed to gain the momentum of four years earlier. He was neither decisive in the result or influential in framing the conversation of the campaign. Finally, Perot has provided the blueprint by which independent candidates in future years will follow, notably, the potential candidacy of Michael Bloomberg in 2016. Although he was not critical to the election of Clinton, Perot’s intervention did play a role in advancing the primary issue that prevented President Bush from winning a second term; the economy, stupid.
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