Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the U.S. Presidency

Despite a somewhat eccentric campaign, Texas billionaire Ross Perot set a third-party record when he ran for the U.S. presidency, winning 19 percent of the vote. Perot’s candidacy showed that many Americans could relate to a “radical center” movement emphasizing economic nationalism.

Summary of Event

The American electorate’s mood in the presidential election year 1992 was weary and wary. After the breakup of the Soviet bloc in 1989, American voters felt free to turn to domestic issues that were affecting their own lives, and many did not like what they saw. George H. W. Bush, the sitting president, had focused on international affairs. His popularity peaked during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 but plummeted afterward as a recession set in. Bush’s pragmatic approach to taxes and the federal deficit had alienated Republican conservatives, members of the president’s own party. Many Americans doubted that Bush understood their problems, but many were also unsure whether the Democrats could make things better. At the beginning of 1992, the Democratic Party had no front-runner for the presidential nomination and had not put forward any comprehensive plan to deal with the nation’s ills. Presidential elections, U.S.;1992
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[kw]Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the U.S. Presidency (Feb. 20, 1992)
[kw]Third-Party Bid for the U.S. Presidency, Perot Mounts a (Feb. 20, 1992)
[kw]U.S. Presidency, Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the (Feb. 20, 1992)
[kw]Presidency, Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the U.S. (Feb. 20, 1992)
Presidential elections, U.S.;1992
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[g]North America;Feb. 20, 1992: Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the U.S. Presidency[08300]
[g]United States;Feb. 20, 1992: Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the U.S. Presidency[08300]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 20, 1992: Perot Mounts a Third-Party Bid for the U.S. Presidency[08300]
Perot, H. Ross
Bush, George H. W.
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Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;presidential elections

The time was ripe for an unconventional and forceful “outsider” to join the race, and H. Ross Perot, with his “United We Stand America” movement, stepped forward. Perot, a colorful Texan entrepreneur, had made a fortune by recognizing the profit potential in electronic data processing. His company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), processed Medicare claims and data in the 1960’s; Perot later sold EDS to General Motors and started other successful enterprises. Perot’s interests were not limited to business, however. During President Richard M. Nixon’s administration, Perot set up a group to support American prisoners of war held in North Vietnam (this was the original United We Stand United We Stand organization); he continued to agitate on behalf of the prisoners after hostilities ended. He also arranged for the daring rescue of two EDS executives from an Iranian prison in 1979. Perot had worked closely enough with high government officials to irritate them and to form his own ideas about what the country needed. Although he had always considered himself a Republican, by the time of George H. W. Bush’s presidency he was at odds with both Bush himself and the president’s policies.

President George H. W. Bush (front), Independent candidate H. Ross Perot (center), and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton (back) during the second presidential debate at the University of Richmond on October 15, 1992.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1991, Perot spent a considerable amount of time on the television talk-show circuit, criticizing the Gulf War and the growing federal deficit, and arguing that ordinary citizens needed to take back the U.S. government. On February 20, 1992, in an interview on the Cable News Network (CNN) program Larry King Live, Perot stated that if volunteers could get his name on the presidential ballot in all fifty states, he would run for president. The idea electrified part of the show’s large audience, and their excitement spread to other citizens. Thousands of spontaneous calls of support poured in to Perot’s office over the next week. Across the country, volunteers and Perot staffers joined in setting up the basics for his broad-based third-party candidacy. Although Perot had already laid some groundwork for a campaign, it is unlikely that anything would have come of it without this early outpouring of support.

Perot had little intention of running a conventional campaign. He was willing to spend some of his considerable fortune to run for the presidency, but he saw no reason to pay for television ads when he could get free airtime by making talk-show appearances, and he proceeded to do just that during the spring and early summer of 1992. He often presented charts and other visual aids during his talk-show interviews to illustrate his points about the U.S. economy. Among the issues he discussed were the problem of the growing federal deficit, the dangers for the United States of enacting the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement North American Free Trade Agreement (1993) (NAFTA), and the insulation of current officeholders from the worries of ordinary Americans.

Perot was not the only candidate focusing on these issues. Republican pundit Pat Buchanan Buchanan, Pat made an unexpectedly good showing in the New Hampshire primary by highlighting President Bush’s ignorance of paycheck realities, and former U.S. senator Paul E. Tsongas Tsongas, Paul E. won the Democrats’ New Hampshire primary by calling for fiscal sobriety. As Arkansan Bill Clinton racked up delegates and won the Democratic Party’s nomination, “It’s the economy, stupid,” remained his campaign’s watchword. Perot, however, pulled these strands together in a package that appealed especially to people who had become wary of both major parties. Despite Perot’s wealth, his folksy and plainspoken manner convinced alienated voters that he shared their values and concerns.

Perot had to be talked into employing professional campaign staff. After he hired two experienced operatives—Democrat Hamilton Jordan Jordan, Hamilton and Republican Ed Rollins Rollins, Ed —he clashed with them constantly over strategy. Perot continued to schedule his own television appearances, and when the questions he faced in interviews predictably grew tougher, he blamed his consultants. Soon, Perot’s political staff started to leave the campaign. By July, when Perot had hoped to roll out a series of television ads, most of the staff had quit or been fired, and it was rumored that the campaign was falling apart. Perot himself thought so, and in mid-July, he announced that he was abandoning his presidential run. His stated reasons—concern for his children’s privacy and threats to disrupt his daughter’s wedding—seemed bizarre and added to the growing impression among many Americans that Perot was a “flake” with an explosive temper.

Actually, the campaign was suspended rather than completely closed down. State groups that were still seeking Perot’s inclusion on the ballot were told to continue, and Perot said he was “still in the stadium” if not in the game. In retrospect, it appears that Perot used the withdrawal to buy himself some time. He thus dodged increasingly critical press scrutiny and confounded political players’ expectations. On the day he qualified for the ballot in Arizona, the fiftieth state to include him, he invited Democratic and Republican delegations to meet with him, supposedly to help him decide which party he might support in the election. Instead, on October 1, 1992, he announced he was reentering the race.

From Perot’s standpoint, it was an optimal time to make this move. With no consultants, he now ran the campaign his way. He reentered the contest in time to participate in the three candidate debates. With his wry humor and plain speaking, he was easily the star of these, and his performance boosted the spirits of flagging supporters. On election day, Perot polled an average of 19 percent of all voters—the best showing for a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party run in 1912 and the most total votes up to that time for a third-party presidential candidate.

Perot’s very weaknesses accounted in part for his strong showing. In an era when political “spin” and double-talk had been honed to a fine art, many Americans found it refreshing when a candidate talked “off the top of his head” (or at least appeared to). Moreover, unlike most American third-party movements, which have built their appeal on minority ideological stances (such as Libertarians and Greens) or regional issues (such as the Dixiecrats), Perot claimed the broad middle ground of “sensible” positions: fiscal responsibility and economic nationalism. The major parties seemed to honor these in name only, while their policies tilted in other directions.

Perot wisely avoided taking on the era’s radioactive “cultural issues” (such as abortion and gay rights), and as a result he drew followers from both Democratic and Republican camps in approximately equal numbers. In addition, the anger among Americans that he helped to legitimate proved a powerful tool for energizing previously unaligned voters. Studies of those who voted for Perot have shown that a large proportion of them had weak ties, or no ties at all, to the other parties; this was the only way they differed markedly from other voters.


Perot was not done with politics after 1992. He was soon back in the public eye, speaking at rallies against NAFTA and debating Vice President Al Gore Gore, Al about the issue in November, 1993 (a debate that Gore “won”). In 1995, Perot set up the apparatus for another presidential run by organizing the Reform Party, Reform Party (U.S.)
Political parties;Reform Party (U.S.) and in the 1996 election he won 9 percent of the vote as that party’s candidate. Although the result was a disappointment to Perot, this percentage of the vote qualified the party for federal matching funds in 2000. Pat Buchanan secured the Reform Party’s 2000 nomination and came in a distant fourth in the general election. The party did have one electoral success when former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura Ventura, Jesse won the Minnesota governorship in 1998 on a Reform Party ticket.

American third parties have traditionally brought new issues into the mainstream, forcing major-party politicians to deal with those issues. Perot’s campaign served this function with the federal deficit, enabling President Bill Clinton to make deficit reduction a high priority and the cornerstone of U.S. prosperity in the late 1990’s. Perot’s campaign also showed how a third-party candidate can gain credibility by combining effective media appearances with the work of an army of enthusiastic volunteers. Presidential elections, U.S.;1992
Third-party presidential candidates (U.S.)[Third party presidential candidates]

Further Reading

  • Asher, Herb. “The Perot Campaign.” In Democracy’s Feast: Elections in America, edited by Herbert F. Weisberg. Chatham, N.J.: Chatham House, 1995. Examines data on Perot supporters and the campaign’s dynamics to explain Perot’s success.
  • Germond, Jack W., and Jules Witcover. Mad as Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992. New York: Warner Books, 1993. Readable history of the entire 1992 presidential campaign by two veteran political reporters.
  • Jelen, Ted G., ed. Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Collection of scholarly studies examines various aspects of Perot’s run and discusses the campaign’s impacts on independent and third-party candidacies in general.
  • Rapoport, Ronald. Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Presents a well-argued theory that Republican victories in 1994 and after owe a debt to Perot voters and their “issue awareness.”

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