The 1992 election would have been sunshine, lollipops, and roses for incumbent President George H.W. Bush if it hadn’t been for one man who ruined it all and gave us Bill Clinton. That man was Ross Perot. If Perot hadn’t run and gotten 19% of the vote, Bill Clinton wouldn’t have been elected.
At least that’s how most Republicans tell the story. More critical analysis yields a different result. Steve Kornacki dug into the archives of actual news stories from 1992 as well as polls of Perot voters through 1992 and discovered that Perot hurt Clinton far more than he did Bush:
But it was also clear at that moment that the main beneficiary of Perot’s rise was Bush, who was presiding over a dismal economy that only seemed to be worsening. That same ABC/Washington Post poll logged the president’s approval rating at just 35%. His rating for economic performance was even lower and unemployment was on the rise; it would spike to 7.8% by the middle of the year. In another June survey, only 33% of voters said Bush deserved a second term. Sixty-one percent said he didn’t. By every available metric, Bush was a profoundly vulnerable incumbent.
So Perot was doing him a huge favor: He was splitting the anti-Bush vote and cutting deeply into what should have been Clinton’s base.
Indeed, Bush had a two-man race with Clinton all the way into October (when Perot re-entered the race) and Clinton had leads. Bill Pascoe, a former operative for President Bush, writing in the American Spectator pointed out that Clinton had a double digit lead in the Battleground poll that shrunk significantly in the final days of the campaign. Perot picked up votes mostly from Clinton, “To the extent voters left Bush and Clinton for Perot, those who left Clinton for Perot outnumbered those who left Bush for Perot by more than 4-to-1.” Without Perot in the race, Clinton would have won more decisively than he did.
While the Elder Bush is a good and honorable man, his 1992 loss was due to the failure of his own policies, his inability to provide a compelling vision for the post-Cold War world, and his breaking of his no new taxes pledge. Without this, there would have been little market for what Ross Perot offered the American people.
The myth may be a lie, but it’s a potent one for Republican Party leaders. “Voters must rally to support our nominee or it’ll be their fault if we don’t win.” Many conservatives and Republicans have preached the myth of Ross Perot, but it’s time to stop. It’s a dangerous idea that’s antithetical to the republican ideal.
The preachers of the Perot myth state, if you’re to the right of center, your vote is the property of the Republican Party and it is your responsibility to support whoever the Republicans nominate. The citizen is the servant of the party. If the party’s servants are bad and rebel by refusing to vote for their masters, then the country suffers because of these misbehaving voters’ wanton disobedience and shirking of their duty of absolute and unquestioned loyalty to the party.
What utter nonsense.
In a democratic republic, it is the duty of the party and its candidates to win the support of the people. If the party’s candidates lose, it’s the party’s fault for failing to persuade the electorate that their candidates can make our country better. It’s time for conservatives to reclaim the power of their votes.
By default, the vast majority of voters tend to support one of the two major party candidates because those candidates are most likely to win. In a presidential election, if more than one to two percent voters cast their ballots for a long-shot, minor candidate, it reflects serious failings with the candidates, not with the electorate.
Of course, it’s fair to ask what voters gain from casting a protest vote other than a clean conscience. What did people who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 or Ralph Nader in 2000 get out of the bargain?
Much of Perot’s government reform agenda was co-opted by the GOP for the Contract with America. Less than three years after Perot’s run, Congress was voting on a Balanced Budget Amendment and Term Limits. Within five years, the budget was balanced.
In 2000, Ralph Nader inspired less than 3% of voters to support his left-wing campaign against left-of-center Vice-President Al Gore. The Democrats negated Nader by nominating the senators with the most liberal voting records available, culminating in the election of Barack Obama. Without Nader, there would’ve been no Obama, only Center Left Democratic Leadership Council policies squelching the far left.
In regards to their agendas, Perot and Nader won despite their losses.
There’s a lesson to be learned for conservatives in the age of Trump. When a Republican nominee will move America in the right direction, it makes sense for conservatives to support the candidate. However, the unacceptable Donald Trump nomination offers conservatives an opportunity to stand and be counted and perhaps to move the party to the right in the same way Ralph Nader moved the Democrats to the left. At the very least, it’ll send a message to the Republican elites that millions of conservatives won’t be held captive by the myth Ross Perot cost Bush Senior his bid for re-election.