In the first Clinton administration, Perot deserved quite a bit of credit because the parties were concerned that if they didn't do something about the deficit, they could get Perot back or someone like it back. People see that 20% number and think that it's the most a third-party candidate can get, but people don't go to the polls in November to go and waste their vote.
People want to go to the ballot box and vote for someone they know is going to win. If you go and vote for Perot that year, you know he's not going to win and it is a wasted vote, so you go with none of the above. Twenty percent were willing to do that. If Perot had been vying for a possible victory, that number would have been up. It's amazing that 20% were willing to go out for him after all of the disasters the year before in dropping out and everything else.
But Perot amounted to more than an issue candidate, especially at the outset. He was a legitimate threat and was polling ahead in the early months.
He didn't get in it just for the issues. In May or June, he was polling equally well as Clinton or Bush. His idiosyncrasies came into play and he sort of sabotaged his own campaign. As a result of getting out and getting back in, there was no way he could win.
Had he stayed in the race the whole time and ran a campaign throughout the summer, he might have had a chance. As it was, he still got 19% of the vote, which was the most since Teddy Roosevelt had 27% and 88 electoral votes in 1912. There was no question that he was the most viable third-party candidate in recent history and was certainly more viable than, say, George Wallace with the American Party -- but he was such a regional candidate.
In the end, though, I don't think that winning was a realistic possibility.
In discussing economic issues, Perot had tools at his disposal that no other candidate has really used before or since. He was able to take his thoughts on the budget and NAFTA, put them on air and take them directly to the American people via half-hour infomercials aired in prime time. Why have we not seen a candidate attempt this again?
I don't know why we haven't seen a candidate today buy 30 minutes of air time and speak directly to the voters about what their plan is. I guess because they feel they don't have to buy the time and can do it with debates and ads, but I don't know.