) -- The primaries were drawing to a close, populist anger over the deficit and foreign trade were reaching their peak and American voters were facing a choice between an incumbent they weren't keen on and an opposing field of candidates that wasn't providing much inspiration.
This was the backdrop Feb. 20, 1992, when Texas information technology billionaire H. Ross Perot went before the cameras of CNN's
Larry King Live
and strongly suggested he'd make an independent run for the presidency if volunteers would get him on the ballot in all 50 states. He'd never been a politician, but Perot shared burgeoning American sentiment against the nearly $300 billion national deficit, the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement and then-President George H.W. Bush's administration.
H. Ross Perot's third-party campaign offers Ron Paul and others both a way forward and a warning.
"There was a high degree of frustration among Americans with their government," says Carolyn Barta, political reporter and columnist for
The Dallas Morning News
, journalism professor at Southern Methodist University and author of the 1997 book
Perot And His People: Disrupting The Balance of Political Power
. "To most Americans, government is not working. They're dissatisfied with Congress, they're dissatisfied with the president, they're frustrated and Perot showed that government was growing irrelevant to Americans."
With little more than a phone bank, a field of volunteers and appearances on talk shows such as
The Today Show
Face The Nation
Meet The Press
-- where Perot's prickly temper first surfaced during an argument over budget numbers with host Tim Russert -- Perot took a platform of Medicare and Social Security cuts "for people who don't need it," limited Congressional spending, slashed government waste and tax reform that included a tax hike for the wealthy and a 50-cent federal gas tax directly to the public.
By May, Perot was not only on the ballot across the country, but was considered the front-runner by a
magazine poll that game him 37% of the vote and Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton 24% apiece. Gerald Posner, an attorney, investigative journalist and author of the 1996 Perot biography
Citizen Perot: His Life and Times
, says Perot is likely pulling his hair out amid a projected $1.1 trillion deficit, a diminishing American trade position and a campaign field eerily similar to the one he faced 20 years ago.
"He's one of my favorite characters, and it's so remarkable because it's so forgotten," Posner says. "1992 is like ancient history now by Internet standards, but if
and things like that had existed when Perot was around, he would have been a more powerful force. Though he might not have been using social media, social media would have loved him."
So why isn't there a Perot for the Internet era? Though he probably wouldn't share Perot's enthusiasm for the war on drugs or his tax plan, Texas Congressman Ron Paul may be the closest the current field comes. His huge online following that delivers both presence and "moneybomb" financing mirrors the Perot campaign's enthusiasm. What they lack is Perot's deep pockets, which nullified the professional fundraising of the major parties.
"What he has that Ron Paul doesn't have and that nobody's really had since is an enormously fat wallet," Posner says. "He scared the hell out of the Democrats and Republicans not only because he tapped into the discontent as Paul does, but because he could write a check to compete with the Democrats and Republicans if he wanted to."
Conversely, Paul also lacks the Perot persona. That plain-spoken, straight-talking Texas delivery made him relatable to a disgruntled American public despite his millions, but also made him a vulnerable and mercurial candidate. It helped draw volunteers, push unorthodox campaign strategy such as buying up half-hour blocks on major networks to spell out his economic plan with graphs and a pointer and win debates by parrying questions about his political experience with quips such as "Well, they've got a point. I don't have any experience running up a $4 trillion debt."
"In 1992, there was such a great opportunity to create a real-life third party if you had a charismatic leader," Barta says. "You had that leader in Perot ... right now the same sentiment exists with the American people, but there isn't a charismatic leader who can capitalize on it."
That personality also made him extremely sensitive to the suggestions of campaign advisers such as former Jimmy Carter adviser Hamilton Jordan and former Ronald Reagan campaign adviser Ed Rollins, who drew Perot's ire for demanding that he increase ad spending. The latter was accused by Perot of being tied to the CIA and running information for the Bush campaign. Though Perot was also bothered by the revelation he'd funded a private investigation of the Bush family in the 1980s and by a rumored Republican plot to disrupt his daughter's wedding, his insecurities about starting the race too soon resulted in his withdrawal from the campaign by July and his re-emergence in October.
Despite that calamity, Perot still managed to pick up nearly 20% of the presidential vote while spending less than $63 million. That was the best performance by a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt took 28% of the vote and 88 electoral votes with the Bull Moose Party in 1912. Though the standard line was that he took away votes from Bush and handed the election to Clinton, exit poll data showed that Perot pulled pretty evenly from both sides of the aisle. While Posner says Paul could have a similar appeal to disenchanted GOP hard-liners and disenfranchised young Democratic voters who cast their ballot for a revolution in 2008 and got an election instead, Paul's lack of Perot's Texas-sized personality and economic largesse may limit him to 4% to 5% of the vote at best in a field of well-heeled competitors.
There's also one big difference between Perot's campaign and a potential third-party run by Paul: Perot wanted to fix government, while Paul wants to toss the parts he believes aren't working. Though GOP presidential candidate and former Louisiana Congressman Buddy Roemer has embraced a similar reform-minded platform while considering a third-party run, Paul's more libertarian stance has connected to a strong undercurrent of anti-establishment sentiment that's far more amplified than it was 20 years ago.
In Posner's view, Paul's approach is the next logical step after Perot's run yielded a handful of balanced budgets during the Clinton years, but not much since.
"That's the frustration level now after 20 years, that since it hasn't gotten fixed it can't get fixed," Posner says. "I think Obama's presidency has done that, especially among a lot of young people who felt he wasn't part of the system, and the fact that things haven't been shaken up indicates it can't get fixed -- so just throw it out. Of course, that's not the answer."
We spoke with Barta and Posner at length at different points leading up to the 20th anniversary of Perot's run and discussed candidate Perot, his legacy two decades later and the possibility of another third-party upstart in the current economic and political climate. While many of the issues Perot addressed remain, Barta and Posner agree that few of this year's candidates would refer to our nation's debt as Perot did: "A crazy aunt we keep down in the basement. All the neighbors know she's there, but nobody wants to talk about her":
We're coming up on Feb. 20, the anniversary of when Perot announced his candidacy on
. With two-year presidential campaigns slowly becoming a norm, is a late entry for a third-party candidate still possible and could a candidate start campaigning even later?
One of Perot's issues was that the way we elect our president is so foolhardy: Campaigning for two years to do it when we could do it in a shorter period. He thought a couple of months was plenty of time to let people know what you stood for. In part, he was trying to show that you could get out of the race, get back in and still get his message across.
A lot of these candidates in 2012 have been taking money since last spring and certainly last summer leading up to Iowa. Feb. 20 is not too late to start campaigning, though, and wouldn't be too late this year.
Given what we're seeing with people's dissatisfaction with these candidates, if there's an alternative out there he can jump in and make a big splash. The political consultants will tell you otherwise, but if you're running a nontraditional campaign and had money to fund it, you could start now.
Here, you had a candidate who jumped in on Feb. 20 and by May was polling as well as the major-party candidates.
When my wife and I interviewed him in 1996, he said he felt that one of his mistakes was coming out too early and that the process was built to chew you up and the earlier you're out, the more you get eaten up. You obviously have no choice if you're a Democrat or Republican and you have to run for those nominations forever, but as a third-party candidate he felt that if you had the money and somebody putting your name on the ballot, you could come out in the spring for the first time and make it a three- or four-month race at the very most.
It's made more difficult since Perot because the parties have been very good at inoculating themselves since Perot. They've come up with a vaccine against effective third-party runs. They've made some of the state rules for third parties require earlier deadlines if you're going to be on the ballot. In some cases they've made it so you can't change the candidate that you put on the ballot. They've changed the minimum numbers for the national debates so you have to poll a certain amount -- because Perot scored so well in the first debate that he moved up in the polls.
The two parties have changed the rules so that you have to show your hand early in the election so that they have a chance to beat you up along the way.
Getting on all 50 state ballots is an arcane procedure. You have to spend some money and you have to get a certain amount of signatures to get your name on the ballot in certain states. If you do that, you're going to be on everybody's radar. If
Steve Forbes had not run as a Republican and was seen as an independent or if
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was out there today saying he had no intention of running but wanted to keep his name on the ballot just in case the country fell into a calamitous situation, he'd be talked about daily.
It's hard to be a self-candidate.
Portions of Perot's economic platform, especially his focus on the deficit, are still very much in vogue in 2012. Did Perot's ideas have any impact at all?
It's back with us, the deficit he called "the crazy aunt in the basement." It went away with Clinton as a result of Perot's campaign. He impacted the Clinton's presidency and Congress as well, because there was an effort to eliminate the deficit. Now it's returned.
From that standpoint, he was successful in achieving that goal even though he wasn't the one to do it. It resulted, I think, from his presidential campaign. He put it on the table, and that's what third-party candidates do: They put issues on the table that the mainstream candidate or whoever's elected picks up because they've identified those issues.
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.
Perot was just a different kind of a candidate. He wanted to have a conversation with the American people and the way he did it was to buy the air time and get on TV with his charts and his pointer to go through what he felt was wrong with American and the American financial system and what needed to be done about it.
That was his campaign and that was the way he wanted to campaign. He thought it was so foolish to fly around from place to place and give a stump speech over and over again in different states to different people. He thought it was just so silly and it may be, but that's the way it's done by the other candidates. He saw what he thought was a better way.
Part of it had to do with his basic personality. He wanted to level with the American people and didn't want a lot of the campaign frou-frou that the candidates had 30 years ago and still do today.
It's because Perot didn't use focus groups. He didn't rely on "experts" coming in to tell him how he should run the campaign.
All of the experts said the same thing: You don't buy half-hour blocks of time because that will only reach a small part of the market. Keep running ads. The consultants believe there's no single piece of TV that gives you states.
Perot said to hell with that. I'm going to go on, buy my TV time, hold up my charts -- which Rollins and others cringed at initially -- and people loved that stuff. A lot of people said it was too hokey and didn't like it and a lot of them weren't Perot voters in the first place, but the power of those was a testament to how you can change the way campaigns are traditionally done.
The caveat is that you just can't get up there and buy national air time and host half an hour if you're going to put people to sleep. If you're Romney, Gingrich or Santorum, you're probably not going to knock them out of the park, but if you're Herman Cain you just might out of curiosity's sake.
On the one hand, he only wanted to do live television or television time that he bought. He fought all the time with Russert, but live TV couldn't be edited, so if he screwed something up it was his fault.
The Sunday shows keep asking Romney to go on, but his handlers won't let him go on. Perot would have been jumping at that chance because it was free TV for him and free publicity -- you're out there and you're controlling the time yourself.
He didn't seem to want an echo chamber, though. He was putting his message out to people who were not necessarily followers or a traveling rally. Can a candidate even take that risk today?
I think it could be done today, but I think Perot was such a unique personality that he could get away with it. It would be harder to do so today.
He did not like the press, he did not like the media and he wasn't looking for the echo chamber. He wasn't looking for the media to filter whatever he was saying and spread his message. He was careful to spread it himself. The way he used the media was to go on shows like
Larry King Live
, where he had open-ended questions where he could say the same thing and not really get pinned down on his approach or get as hard a question as you would get from, say, the White House press corps. He pretty much had free rein to say what he wanted to say.
The 30-minute TV spots that he bought where it was just him talking and appearing on hosted shows was his way of getting the message out. The question is who today would have the credibility to do that? He had the credibility because he'd made a lot of money as a successful businessman, he'd given a lot back and he had this unique personality where he'd convince people that he was leveling with them and telling the truth.
Can another candidate do that? I don't know many other Ross Perots, and maybe that's a good thing. In the tradition of some of the more flavorful Texas politicians, he is an unusual person. It's hard to replace him with just a typical politician.
Who else could do it? Maybe somebody like Donald Trump. He has the money to do it and has the exposure, but he's already gone to the trough so often by saying "maybe I'll run and maybe I won't" and endorsing Mitt Romney. Now Mitt Romney has the personal wealth to do the same things that Perot did, but he doesn't have that personality that Perot had that made people believe he was doing it for the good of the people and not for political ambition.
Concerning Perot, it cannot be done if a candidate is concerned about building a base ... Perot was not concerned about building a base and was more concerned about not following the rules.
In the end, that did him in, because if he had in fact followed much of what Rollins wanted him to do and didn't spend $62 million but over $100 million -- which it would have required if he hadn't dropped out -- he could have run a much more rigorous, but not winning, challenge to the other parties. If you're building a base, your'e not going to do it that way.
If there comes a time when another third-party candidate comes in who has not just the whimsical approach of the libertarians who says "It's bad government up there now, how about we go with no government at all?" and actually thinks he can do much better by coming from the outside and shaking the hell out of it, you don't need a base. Because that's a movement ... and that's what it was with Perot in 1992, it becomes this movement, this train, this juggernaut that comes very fast and has this passion about it.
The question is, can you hold on for the few months of attempts to destroy your reputation and make you no longer the innovative outsider, but just another one of the flawed individuals running for office? Unfortunately, that's what it's about.
Perot really never had the chance to take that beating. Much of his campaign damage seemed to be self-inflicted. What did that say about Perot and what warning does it offer to those currently seeking the nation's highest office?
The thing that made him so strong was that he was so remarkably independent and strong-willed, but it was also his Achilles heel, because he couldn't take advice in the end.
He was very, very prickly, as many CEOs are. Heads of companies are used to running these mini empires with everyone taking their direction, but when they go into public life and there are people questioning whether they are right or wrong, there's a compromise or debate about it. You can no longer give an order or directive. People who are built for the CEO world are often not built for the political world, and that was certainly the case with Perot. He was much too prickly to real criticism.
When Russert challenged him on his deficit numbers, some of which were in fact wrong, instead of saying "I see what you mean by that" he fought him time and time again and gave him grist for the mill. In Perot's case, his unraveling was that the parties -- especially the Republicans in Texas -- realized what his weak areas were personality-wise, and they played to that. They put the bait in front of him and he self-destructed. He got out of the race and came back in and they played him like a fiddle. He had nobody to blame but himself.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.