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Evans

Ross Perot Strikes Back

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 29, 2008

You remember Ross Perot don't you? The short, rich guy with the big ears who used charts to show the importance of the deficit and talked about it as the crazy aunt stuck in the basement. Well, he is not back but his ideas and supporters are and they help explain the gains that Democrats are making in the West this election.

In 1992, Ross Perot surpised everyone by running ahead of both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 and then getting 19% of the vote. This was especially surprising because he launched his campain on Larry King Live and volunteers around the nation worked hard to get him on the ballot and start the Reform Party.

In a recent work by political scientists Ronald Rappaport and Walt Stone, they show how Perot's supporters helped Republicans gain control of congress in 1994 and the White House in 2000 but how they began to drift toward Democrats in 2004 and helped them retake congress in 2006.

Perot's supporters were distinct from the two major parties because they took stands on issues separate from the two parties in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Their issues were a balanced budget, reform (term limits), and economic nationalism (limit foreign imports and decrease foreign involvement).

Due to Perot's strong showing, Clinton immediately tried to woo them with his economic plan of raising taxes to cut the deficit. While Perot supporters did not oppose raising taxes to do so, they were drawn more to the Republicans who offered an actual balanced budget with no taxes and overwhelming supported a balanced budget amendment to the constitution. The Perot voters also moved away from Democrats over Clinton's support for NAFTA, opposition to reforms and several Democratic corruption scandals (House Bank, Post Office, Rostentowski indictment, Clinton fundraising scandals, etc.) and his interventionist foreign policy in Bosnia.

The Republicans were better able to draw Perot supporters into their ranks due to their commitment to budget discipline and enacting a balanced budget. Moreover, Republicans designed the Contract with America with Perot voters in mind with their empahsis on reform (term limits, balanced budget amendment) and passing a law preventing the US military from serving under a UN command. Slowly, these voters came to identify with and support Republican candidates. George W. Bush reinforced this promising to restore dignity to the Oval Office and promising a more humble foreign policy.

However, events changed Bush's priorities and many Perot supporters began to move away from Republicans. The increased deficits due to tax cuts and prolifigate spending upset them. The continuing intervention in Iraq bothered them as the US got bogged down in a war than many thought we did not belong in. And the GOP got involved in many scandals (Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Mark Foley) that tarnished their reform image.

Meanwhile, their ideas started to line up more with Democrats. Democrats talked of how Republicans ruined the fiscal responsibility of the Clinton years. The Democratic plan to withdraw from Iraq and alter free trade agreements also appealed to them. This and the promise to clean up Washington helped the Democrats. In 2000, a Perot supporter was 1.5 times more likely to work for a Republican while the support for both parties was equal in 2004.

While their data does not cover the 2006 election, Iraq, scandal, and Republican pork barrell spending had to contribute to the large Democratic gains in congress, especially in the West where Perot had most of his support.

Going into the 2008 election, McCain can promise reform and fiscal discpline but Obama can too. Iraq and free trade becomes the tie breaking issue moving them toward Democrats, especially as the Republicans falter on a number of issues (e.g., banking crisis).

Looking to the future, the Perot voters should continue to be up for grabs. They should like Obama's plan to pull out of Iraq but they may not support more troops in Afghanistan. Moreover, a multilateral foreign policy, including creating a new Bretton Woods system to manage the interntional economy, should strike fear in the hearts of Perot supporters concerned about the US losing its sovereignty to corrupt, unaccountable international institutions. Also, his plans to increase spending by a substantial amount makes it difficult to balance the budget. Obama's large fundraising numbers may create a scandal when we know more about who gave and this could backfire on Democrats.

Republicans have to be careful also. Since they are likely to be a minority and have no responsibility, they can oppose spending and tax increases but they cannot look obstructionist as these voters want government to work. Their positions on free trade and Iraq are contrary to Perot supporters but when those issues fade away, Republicans skepticism of international institutions may help them make gains. Plus, most Republicans understand that their recent scandals have costs them dearly with voters so they are more inclined to emphasize reform.

So what does it all mean? Perot voters are starting to move toward Democrats but that progression is not guaranteed. Depending on the decisions by a President Obama or McCain and a Democratic congress, the Perot voters may be up for grabs again.