On 20 February 1992, Ross Perot announced on the Larry King Show that he would run for President of the United States. Unsettled, in particular, by rising government deficits and frustrated by the policies of both major parties, he laid out his own plans to reduce the deficit, protect American jobs, and revitalize America's democratic processes.
An Eagle Scout, graduate of the Naval Academy, and hugely successful Texas businessman, Perot could hardly be described as unconventional. But there was nothing conventional about his candidacy for the presidency. For starters, he had never run for public office before. He had been appointed to several commissions by the governor of Texas during the 1980s—one engaged in the war on drugs and another aimed at reforming the state's school system. But he had never so much as run for the local school board. In addition, his campaign for the nation's highest office would be waged as an independent. He would not seek the nomination of either political party; instead he would form his own campaign organization and spend his own money in pursuit of the presidency.
By May, Perot was leading in the polls using these unconventional tactics. Learning more from the Hair Club for Men than the major parties, he bought half-hour blocks of airtime and ran infomercials, complete with charts and graphs, to lay out his policy proposals. Ignoring the fundraising methods of other candidates, he financed more than 90% of his campaign with his own money.9
But in July, despite still leading in the polls, Perot suddenly withdrew from the race, explaining that political enemies had threatened to release compromising pictures of his daughter. His critics ridiculed the decision, and his supporters felt betrayed. Nevertheless, when Perot changed his mind and resumed his campaign in October, he recaptured much of his earlier support and in the November election he won nineteen percent of the vote—more than any independent or minor party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
Four years later, Perot launched another bid for the presidency. This time, he organized his grassroots supporters into an actual political party—the Reform Party. But this campaign was less successful. Perot polled only eight percent of the vote and subsequently returned to private life as his party faded into obscurity. But he gave the other parties—and political analysts—a lot to think about.
For many observers, Perot's campaigns confirmed much of the conventional wisdom about minor party or independent candidacies. Like previous political insurgencies, Perot's campaign was grounded in the major parties' failures to address large public concerns, and, as in the past, the major parties responded by adopting some of Perot's methods and positions in order to siphon off his supporters. Immediately after the 1992 election, both the Republicans and the Democrats made a play for Perot voters—but the Republicans seem to have been more successful. In fact, many believe that the Republican victories in the 1994 Congressional elections were rooted in a successful appeal to Perot supporters. The Republicans' "Contract with America" effectively aimed at Perot supporters who demanded greater accountability from government officials. And the Republican decision to de-emphasize social issues, such as abortion and prayer in schools, was made in hopes of appeasing Perot supporters who had been particularly irritated by what they perceived as distracting side issues.
Similarly, these analysts argue, Perot left to the major parties a few fresh ideas about political advertising. His innovative use of the media—his emphasis on corny charts and infomercials—is now commonly imitated. Perot taught candidates and elected officials what any schoolteacher could have told them: that visual aides can be useful in reinforcing a message. The poster-on-the-easel has become a common backdrop to press conferences and campaign speeches. And in 2008, Barack Obama bought a half-hour of TV time—just before a World Series game, no less—to air a final infomercial summarizing his campaign themes.
But other analysts have argued that Perot's campaign taught the major political parties another, more unsettling lesson. He demonstrated that a candidate could run an effective campaign without a political party. He managed to climb to the top of the polls by the summer of 1992 without the assistance of the elaborate party machinery formerly believed essential to political success.
We can only guess at how many votes Perot would have won had he not withdrawn temporarily from the race during the summer of 1992. Party traditionalists might argue that his support would have faded regardless as the November election approached—that without a network of party loyalists to contact voters directly and get out the vote, Perot's actual vote-count would have fallen short of his polling numbers. But others find in the Perot campaign further evidence that the future of the political party is uncertain—that if Perot could muster nineteen percent of the vote despite running a herky-jerky campaign, there's no telling what a more seasoned independent could do.