Ross Perot, the billionaire entrepreneur who in 1992 became the most successful independent or third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, has died at 89.
Many people say that Perot, running on an anti-deficit platform, cost President George H. W. Bush reelection. I don’t think so. The most impressive political prediction I ever made was around June 1992, when I saw a poll that showed Bill Clinton running third behind Perot and Bush (it was probably the Gallup Poll shown here, with Perot 39, Bush 31, and Clinton 25). I told colleagues then, “This poll shows that Clinton will win, because third-party candidates always fade and the most important number in this poll is that only 31 percent of voters want to reelect the president.” Clinton would have won a majority if voters hadn’t had a third option.
Perot has some obvious similarities with President Trump – a businessman with no political experience, who opposed free trade and the recent Gulf War, promised to go to Washington to “take out the trash and clean out the barn,” had a predilection for conspiracy theories, and was enough of a celebrity to announce his candidacy on Larry King’s popular CNN show. However, his big issue was the $4 trillion national debt – those were the good old days! – and the deficits being run up by both parties. And instead of insulting tweets and ranting speeches, Perot’s stock in trade was 30-minute television ads full of charts and graphs, backed up by a 50-page economic plan promising cuts in domestic spending and tax hikes on high incomes and gasoline.
Perot was reported to have spent $65 million of his own money on his campaign (the Democratic and Republican candidates got $55 million each in taxpayer money in exchange for pledges by the candidates to limit direct campaign contributions, but they still managed to raise about $60 million each in “soft money”). In one sense, Perot’s campaign was a perverse result of federal campaign finance regulations. The Federal Election Campaign Act severely restricted how much money one could contribute to a campaign – unless you were the candidate. You could spend as much of your own money on your own campaign as you wanted. So the only way that Perot could spend $65 million (he tossed around suggestions of spending $100 million) was to run for president himself. But maybe the country would have been better off if he had been able to donate that money to, say, the well-respected Sen. Warren Rudman of Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act fame. Similarly, maybe it would have made more sense for Steve Forbes to donate $38 million to supply-side evangelist Rep. Jack Kemp in 1996 rather than to run himself.
Ross Perot did have one positive impact on American politics. He made spending, deficits, and debt a real political issue, and that surely played a role – along with the booming economy – in bringing down deficits during the Clinton administration.
Perot also demonstrated that it’s ext