Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence
Remember the politics of the 1990s? Was there really such a time when Americans were asked to join a movement against runaway budget deficits and NAFTA and “politics as usual”? Was there such a character as Ross Perot let loose on the national scene? A billionaire who talked about cleaning out the barn and getting up under the hood to fix the American engine and said that after 45 years of worrying about the Red Army our new “number one preoccupation” was red ink? For a fleeting moment there was something called the Reform Party. A lot of serious people turned their attention to “third-party politics.” How long ago it all seems now.
Indeed, the nation’s mood has changed so dramatically in the last year that it takes a moment to wrap your mind around the subtitle of this book. Third parties and Perot and Republicans? How do they fit together? And what is this “Republican resurgence” of which you speak? Oh yeah. Not too long ago Republicans came to control all three branches of the federal government. There was a resurgence in there somewhere, I guess.
It is the novel theory of political scientists Ronald B. Rapoport and Walter J. Stone that Perot had much to do with the ever-improving fortunes of the GOP as the 1990s played out. (Disclosure: Rapoport, a professor at the College of William and Mary, is also the son of longtime Observer backer Bernard Rapoport, a proud parent and founder of the American Income Life Insurance Co. book club, which highly recommends this book! Stone is a professor at the University of California, Davis.) Building on the work of those who have studied the effects of third-party movements on the two major parties, Rapoport and Stone identify a consistent “dynamic of third parties” and make the case that Perot’s two presidential campaigns fit the dynamic pretty well. Quoting the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter, the authors note that third parties (by which they mean minor-party challenges or independent candidacies) are like bees: They sting and then they die.
Perot’s efforts carried more sting than most such campaigns and his movement had more staying power. When Perot ran for president in 1992 he ended up with almost 19 percent of the vote. In his second run in 1996 he won only 8.4 percent. The 1992 showing is second only to Teddy Roosevelt’s 27.5 percent in 1912. And, the authors note, “Perot’s was the first third-party movement to attract more than 5 percent of the vote in two successive presidential elections since the Republican Party emerged to supplant the Whigs” in the 1850s. So something was going on.
Rapoport and Stone make a persuasive case that the significance of the Perot movement has not been well understood. The conventional wisdom among media pundits and scholars was that Perot did what he did because he was willing to spend so much of his money. The authors argue that Perot’s success was due to “his ability to mobilize hundreds of thousands of volunteer activists who collected petition signatures to enable him to get his name on the ballot.” For a political upstart to get on the ballot in all 50 states, as Perot did in 1992 (and again in 1996), is a monumental undertaking. In Perot’s first run, when he made regular appearances on the Larry King show declaring he would be a candidate only if “the people” demanded it, the response led to a genuine grassroots surge. The petition drives “became not only a hurdle but an opportunity to generate a show of support and mobilize volunteers,” the authors say. Ultimately, Perot submitted 5.3 million signatures across the 50 states.
Rapoport and Stone began studying this movement from the git-go. In the summer of 1992, the authors were granted access by Perot headquarters to a computer file of more than 500,000 names—individuals who had called a toll-free number for information on volunteering for Perot. They later conducted a survey of a randomly selected group of these individuals to gain better insight into their motivations and opinions. By recontacting their 1992 respondents after the 1994, 1996, and 2000 elections they were able to understand the rise and fall of the Perot movement and to trace its impacts on the wider political developments of the 1990s.
There is much quantitative analysis of this data that will be interesting to political scientists. I don’t pretend here to assess their use of data and their data-driven conclusions. But this is a clearly written, workmanlike book and it makes a surprising claim—one that has perhaps become even more interesting in light of current partisan turbulence. The authors contend that Perot’s 1992 campaign set in motion events that “changed the political landscape in far-reaching and long-lasting ways.” And the major result of all that volunteer effort and all those millions spent by Perot on organization and infomercials was to bolster the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party.
This may seem, at first, counterintuitive. After all, the initial effect of the 1992 campaign seemed to be to take enough votes away from George H.W. Bush to allow Bill Clinton to be elected. That put Clinton in place to run as an incumbent in a time of prosperity and to win again in 1996. But in the background there was more going on. It is part of the dynamic of third parties that such movements arise out of widespread dissatisfaction with the major parties. This was a strong factor in the early 1990s. But after a third-party challenge begins to show some sting one of the dominant parties (if not both) will make a bid for the newly energized activists. When the third party collapses, as it inevitably will, its members are all dressed up and need somewhere to go.
Of course, there are always some who drop out in disgust. But Rapoport and Stone have found that the Perot activists were actively wooed by the GOP and that’s where most of them went. The authors claim that one of the reasons Newt Gingrich pushed the Contract with America in 1994 was to appeal to Perot voters, and that Perot voters were a major part of the Republican takeover of the U.S. House that year. “In short,” they find, “with no Perot campaign, there would have been little or no mobilization into the Republican Party in 1994.”
Once Perot voters had been drawn into Republican politics they continued to be a factor throughout the 1990s. Not the only factor, of course. It’s possible, the authors concede, “that the increased size and influence of the Christian Right in the Republican Party since 1994 surpassed the impact of the Perot movement,” and that may have blunted the Perot voters’ impact. Nor do they argue that the Republican Party as a whole adopted Perot’s planks—only “that the party was closer to Perot’s position than it would have been without the post-1992 influx of Perot supporters.”
But what about those Perot positions? Rapoport and Stone see evidence of a general Reform Party politics bubbling up in Pat Buchanan’s GOP primary campaign in 1996 and again in John McCain’s primary challenge against George W. Bush in 2000. As well, a new group of Republicans in Congress who might not have gotten elected without the support of Perot voters continued to push Perot-style policies in Washington.
And this is where the findings of Rapoport and Stone are most suggestive, in light of current American political alignments. Think again about that barn-cleaning Reform Party agenda. Nothing was more central to Perot’s campaign in 1992 than concern about the huge federal budget deficits racked up by the first Bush presidency. Then there was the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs being lost to globalization. Term limits and campaign finance reform appealed to the Perotistas, too. In short, Perot stood for a politics of fiscal probity and economic nationalism, with a little Washington “reform” thrown in.
Throughout their book, Rapoport and Stone are concerned with the way third party efforts can change the policies and behavior of the major parties. They conclude that the impact of the Perot movement “was dramatic, broadly felt in the two-party system, and of lasting duration.” As a political science finding, that seems well supported. But to a general reader thinking about politics, it may seem not quite right. The Republican Party today could hardly be more at odds with the Perot positions (as the authors acknowledge in their conclusion). It now seems that the GOP “behavior” of the 1990s was almost all rhetorical (as in the Contract with America) and electoral (in converting Perot votes to GOP votes) but not substantial. The Republican Party has exacerbated the deficit problem again (big time) and has no interest in domestic job protection or real reform. The Reform Party was swallowed up and so were the reforms.
Those hundreds of thousands of Perot volunteers and millions of voters can not possibly be happy today as Republicans. How can they not feel snookered? That moment in 1993 when Al Gore debated Perot on NAFTA and made Perot’s economic nationalism look silly all but guaranteed that Democrats were not going to win many Perot voters in the next political cycle. But looking back on the 1990s now, how can Bill Clinton’s policies not seem a better alternative than what the “Republican resurgence” has given us? It shouldn’t take much for Democrats to win back voters who want fiscal sanity and good government. Democrats have a chance now to run as the real reform party.
Dave Denison is a former editor of the Observer. To find a selection of his recent work, see www.davedenison.net.