Perot in ‘92?

How he could win-and how he could blow it.

June 1992By Comments

The next time Ross Perot appears on a TV talk show, try this experiment: Turn off the sound, take a good look at him, and try to remember when you last saw someone who looks so downright ordinary on television. When he listens to a question, his eyes glint warily and his forehead arches with suspicion, as if he were a character actor undergoing cross-examination on an old episode of Perry Mason. And then there are those ears. By all the conventions of the sound-bite era, it is impossible that Ross Perot could be elected president of the United States.

Yet it is precisely because Perot stands so directly in opposition to the conventional wisdom—not just about television but about all of modern American politics—that he has a realistic chance to win. Perot is the candidate of the disaffected, the disenchanted, the fed up: the people whose contempt for politics has passed beyond cynicism to despair. They instinctively understand that campaigning has supplanted governing as the primary focus of contemporary politics. They know that for today’s officeholders, polling has replaced judgment, pandering has replaced policy, and attacking the opposition has replaced debate. The Perot ground swell is a revolution against the way politics is practiced.

That is why Perot’s quirky television personality actually works in his favor. The adage “the medium is the message” does not apply to Ross Perot. He is the message. Now the question is, How many voters will decide to deliver it?

Spirit of the Times

All through the spring, polls and presidential primaries documented the dissatisfaction of the American people. Was the country headed in the right direction? In an NBC—Wall Street Journal poll, 70 percent said no; just 17 percent said yes. How interested are elected officials in solving the nation’s problems? Not very interested, said 64 percent of those surveyed by ABC News. Is the presidential campaign mainly about the nation’s biggest problems? No, said 71 percent of the voters in the same poll.

But it takes more than voter disgruntlement for an independent candidate to have a plausible chance to win. John Anderson—remember him?—stood at 24 percent in national polls in the spring of 1980, about where Perot stands now. On election day he had just 6 percent and zero electoral votes. Perot, however, has three advantages that Anderson lacked. First, he is not a politician; therefore he is a more credible insurgent. Second, he can finance a $100 million campaign personally, out of petty cash—a few months’ interest on his $3 billion fortune. Third, his personality fits the mood of the times. At a time of government gridlock, he projects an image of action. You can bet that Perot’s TV ads will recount how he led a mercy mission to North Vietnam to aid American prisoners of war, how he arranged to rescue two employees of his company from an Iranian prison, and how he spearheaded a reform of Texas education. “If the people don’t want action,” he told David Frost in a PBS interview, “if they don’t want these problems solved, if they don’t want aggressive programs to get rid of the violence in the communities, to rebuild the cities, to get this country back on track, to stop the deterioration of the job base and the tax base, they don’t want me.”

A pro—Bill Clinton political consultant was deeply impressed by that brief speech. “Notice how he puts the burden on the voter,” he said. “It’s just like his petition drive. The press makes fun of it, but Perot is saying, ‘I want you to decide if I should run. I am empowering you to decide.’ He makes voters feel that they are important to him.”

“Empowerment” is the fashionable word of the moment. It refers to the decentralization of authority: letting the people on the front lines participate in decisions. (Site-based management for public schools is an example of empowerment that is much in vogue.) Throughout his career, Ross Perot has always been ahead of the pack in deciphering the spirit of the times—the potential of computers, the danger of drugs, the failure of education—and empowerment is no exception. It was the root of his celebrated fight with General Motors in the mid-eighties. As a member of GM’s board, Perot came to the conclusion that executives paid no attention to what kind of cars customers wanted. When he kept making the point publicly, GM got rid of him by buying his stock for $700 million.

Few things are more powerful in politics than the sense that a candidate is right for the moment. Jimmy Carter went from being a former governor of Georgia to president of the United States mainly because the public wanted an honorable man (“I’ll never lie to you”) to erase the memory of Watergate. Ronald Reagan made the leap from actor to governor to president because the public wanted less government in their lives. Ross Perot’s early success is a measure of how well he fits his time. He is, at least on first impression, what the people say they want: someone who figures out what needs to be done without taking a poll, who doesn’t care about partisanship and blaming the other side, who is interested only in making government work. “I would disappear,” he said during an appearance on CBS This Morning, “if they [the Bush administration] would start taking action and quit talking.”

The Strategy

For a man who has made $3 billion in the computer industry, Ross Perot operates a surprising amount of the time on instinct and hunch. So it is with his campaign strategy. No one can sit down with a pencil and say, “Here’s how we get to 270 electoral votes.” In fact, the people close to Perot all talk about the same four states—California, Texas, Florida, and Michigan. California alone has 54 electoral votes, exactly one fifth the amount needed to win; together, Perot’s big four have 129  votes—almost halfway home. That’s a start, but it’s not a strategy.

California, a state partial to eccentric politicians, produced the most remarkable statistic of the primary season in a late April Los Angeles Times poll. Almost half of the people interviewed (49 percent) said they didn’t know enough about Ross Perot to express an opinion about him; yet Perot finished just one percentage point behind George Bush in the poll, with 32 percent to Bush’s 33 and Bill Clinton’s 26. Perot had the opportunity to influence how half the voters felt about him, and he made the most of it. By early May, he led Bush by six percentage points. Willie Brown, an East Texas emigrant who is now the Speaker of the California Assembly, suggested that the Democratic party consider drafting Perot as its presidential candidate. The California poll followed the news from home that Perot led in a statewide Texas poll with 35 percent, ahead of Bush, who had 30, and Clinton, who had 20. For the first time, the inside-the-beltway crowd in Washington began to regard Perot seriously. “If he comes across, I think he can win,” said 1988 Democratic presidential contender Dick Gephardt, now House majority leader. (It should be noted that Perot family members have contributed $20,000 to Gephardt.)

The polls were no flukes. Perot fits the myths of the West—fluidity, rebirth, opportunity, simple virtues—far better than Easterner Bush or Southerner Clinton. That is why Perot’s strategy for winning the presidency must eventually target the states west of the Rockies as his base—not just Texas and California but all of them. Even Hawaii, which voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, is possible Perot country; patriotism plays well in the only state that has been exposed to foreign attack since the War of 1812. Only Utah, where the economy has been propped up by companies fleeing California, may be too Republican for him to win.

Still, to become president, Perot will have to get more than half of his electoral votes from the eastern side of the country. He is counting on Florida’s 25 electoral votes because his strongest support comes from older voters with at least a high school education. Michigan (18 electoral votes) makes Perot’s short list because union workers will be reminded of Perot’s attack on General Motors management. (On the other hand, someone might remind them that Perot didn’t look kindly on unions at his own company, Electronic Data Systems.)

And then what? Possibly Pennsylvania, where the steel industry suffers from competitiveness problems and Democratic governor Bob Casey has openly questioned Clinton’s electability. North Carolina is a high-tech state where the president of NationsBank (formerly NCNB), Hugh McColl, is a longtime Perot friend. Maybe Okla-homa, where 1,600 people responding to a TV call-in poll gave Perot a whopping 69 percent of their votes. Probably not Illinois: The Chicago machine will be able to keep Democrats from defecting to Perot.

A presidential election is really fifty separate state elections. It is mathematically possible to win the presidency by carrying only the eleven most populous states. What’s more, in a three-way race it is not necessary to win a majority of the votes to carry a state. Just 34 percent will do, if the other two candidates each get 33. In practice, 40 percent of the vote would be enough to lock up any state for Perot. That figure is within reach for him in many states. An NBC exit poll of primary voters found that roughly one person in four plans to vote for Perot in the general election. He should do much better among independent voters who weren’t disposed to vote in the party primaries. All of the early Perot boom has occurred even though he is not officially in the race and hasn’t begun to woo voters. But he still must overcome the biggest pitfall facing every underdog outsider candidate. He must convince the public that he is not just a protest candidate but that he actually has a chance to win.

The Ferraro Factor

No one understands this better than Perot’s campaign manager, Dallas attorney Tom Luce. Reflecting on his own loss to Clayton Williams in the 1990 Republican primary for governor, Luce said, “I never realized how important it is for people to feel that their vote counts. I can’t tell you how many times somebody told me, ‘You’re the best-qualified candidate. It’s a shame you’re not going to win.’ I’d tell them, ‘If everybody who felt that way would vote for me, I might win.’ But they thought they would just be throwing away their vote.”

Washington-based pollsters Peter Hart and Vince Breglio call this phenomenon the Ferraro Law of Politics, in mock honor of Geraldine Ferraro, who proved to be a washout as Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential nominee in 1984. “For the unknown candidate, the faster and sharper the ascent, the greater the likelihood of a quick and sudden drop if the candidate does not meet expectations,” Hart and Breglio wrote in presenting an NBC—Wall Street Journal poll.

The lesson for Perot is that he must move to solidify his support—and move quickly. The public has shown that it likes him, but it also doesn’t know much about him. In the next few months, maybe the next few weeks, Ross Perot is going to be defined in the public’s mind. The only question is who will do the defining. Will it be reporters like Sam Donaldson, who said that Perot “would make an awful president” because “he doesn’t have the ability to understand that compromise is what makes a political system work”? Or will it be Perot himself?

You only need to look as far as Bill Clinton to see what can happen to a highly regarded but little-known candidate. It would be the news of the decade if Perot had any Gennifer Flowers or I-didn’t-inhale skeletons in his closet, but other potentially damaging incidents have already seen the light of day: dallying with Oliver North; lobbying for government grants, tax breaks, and contracts; calling for house-to-house searches for drugs; feuding with anybody who disagrees with him; prying into the personal lives of his executives at EDS by imposing a rule against marital infidelity.

The portrait that Perot’s critics will try to draw of him is that of a rich businessman who doesn’t know anything about government, whose business dealings are open to question, whose social attitudes are out of touch with reality, and who won’t endorse specific policies for fear of revealing his ignorance and committing gaffes. Does this sound familiar? It should: It’s exactly the portrait Ann Richards successfully drew of Clayton Williams, who was generous enough to supply ample quantities of paint.

Perot can explain away most of the criticism. Sure, he insisted on fidelity. “If your wife can’t trust you,” he said during the David Frost interview, “how can I?” Sure, he’s gotten rich on government contracts. He’s living proof that the government is as inept as he says it is; it had to hire him to process its own Medicaid claims. Sure, Alliance Airport, his latest deal, was built with $46 million in federal funds and is seeking $120 million more. But the airport is owned and operated by the City of Fort Worth, on land donated by Perot; he just retained the land around it.

The trouble is, political candidates seldom win by explaining. They win by giving voters such a strong sense of who they are and what they stand for that criticism has little effect. Remember Claytie. The real miracle is not that he lost, but that he almost won: The strong image he had built of himself through television shielded him from every attack except self-destruction. Perot needs to define himself right now, filling in the missing details of his life and personality, before he finds himself defined by others. As a onetime supersalesman for IBM, Perot ought to understand what is at stake. This is the moment to close the deal with his early supporters—or else risk a sharp dip in the polls that would render him just another victim of the Ferraro Law.


Ross Perot has been successful so far because he is not a politician. To start acting like one now would be the worst mistake he could make. His campaign must be different from what voters are used to; since television will be the heart of his campaign, his ads must be different. The typical thirty-second TV spot with a voice-over and shots of the candidate in his shirt-sleeves will not work. It is too slick.

A national Democratic consultant says that he would recommend that Perot do only long programs: a few two-minute spots, but mostly five- and even thirty-minute shows on network television. “He has to make himself larger than life,” the Washington-based consultant said. “Blanket the networks. Show that he speaks more loudly than the media.” Another consultant suggests live call-in TV. Whatever he does, however, Perot must do his own talking: no voice-overs. The more he sticks to simple, straightforward, informative ads about who he is, the more shallow and stupid the thirty-second spots used by his opponents will look.

Perot must also remember that his main opponent for the next few months is the media, not George Bush or Bill Clinton. The reporters are out to test him, to trap him, to define him. The big battle will be over the specifics of his programs, and it has already begun. Under the headline Perot Offers Less Than Any Politician, a columnist for the Portland Oregonian wrote: “It’s his airy disinterest in issues that makes Perot not the solution to our political problem, but a symptom of them.” A New York Times front-page headline proclaimed, Perot Goes Heavy on Drama and Light on Details. Meanwhile, Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal offered Perot a little advice. “A Perot drug plan will be examined and criticized—no question,” he wrote. “All the more reason for him to bring out the drug plan now, and any other specific ideas he has to deal with crime, budget, defense, jobs, housing, and Saddam Hussein.”

Hogwash. The only thing that getting specific will achieve is controversy, which is in the media’s interest, not Perot’s. The reporters will pick apart the proposals, the single-issue groups will be roused to action, and self-interest once again will dictate how people vote. Perot is finished if that occurs. He must focus the debate not on programs but on the things he believes matter more: leadership and will.

The final pitfall Perot must guard against is the fatal gaffe. He can get away with being testy with the media; he can get away with being vague on issues; but he cannot get away with a mistake that reveals him to be bigoted, selfish, petty, foolish, or weak—in short, anything diametrically opposed to the public image of Ross Perot. He already made one mistake when he engaged in self-serving criticism of the Bush administration for holding up funds for Alliance Airport. The strain of constant public scrutiny is a hard crucible, and Perot has never been through it.

The Odds

Can Ross Perot be elected president? William F. Buckley described the deluge of calls to Perot’s phone banks as “about as meaningful as a million calls proposing Vanessa Redgrave be named Queen of England.” That’s selling Perot short. Some of Perot’s close associates, on the other hand, believe his chance of winning to be as good as 50 percent. That’s too high. Too much can go wrong for an independent candidate. The president controls the national agenda. He reacts to a major event like the riots following the Rodney King verdict, and his every move is on television for days. Ross Perot issues a statement on the riots—a good statement, by the way—and it gets lost. Both Bush and Clinton have the advantage of widely viewed national conventions to kick off their campaigns. Perot has no margin for error: no mistakes, no poor commercials, no slumps in the polls.

Then again, he’s not exactly running against the likes of Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt. If Perot can remain a credible candidate through the fall campaign, and the economy and the world situation do not change, then the Perot camp’s odds are right: He is an even bet to win. He will have to hold his western base together, carry Florida, Michigan, and North Carolina, and then win some close battles in industrial states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, even New York. 

There is, of course, a third possibility: that none of the candidates will get a majority of the electoral votes. Then the next president would be chosen by the House of Representatives, where each state delegation would have one vote. The Democrats’ numerical advantage would seem to guarantee a Clinton victory, but … what if Perot leads in both the popular and electoral vote and Clinton finishes a weak third? Will Perot carry on the fight, setting off lobbying and maneuvering and deal making such as American politics has never seen? If so, the ultimate result of Ross Perot’s bid for the presidency, made for the purpose of restoring the public’s faith in the political process, would be to further erode it.

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