H. Ross Perot, Reform Party presidential candidate in 1992 and 1996, passed away Tuesday at the age of 89. You’ll see a few obituaries. Invariably, they’ll mention how Perot presaged Trump. This isn’t wrong.
Elements of Perot’s populist message made their way into Trumpism. His “giant sucking sound” reference to NAFTA stealing American jobs, and sending them south of the border, predicted the outcome Trump railed against. Perot got tons of free media via CNN and other cable outlets, going over the heads of pundits, directly to the voters.
The linkage is easy. There’s even a connection through the Reform Party. After Perot’s second attempt in 1996, he stepped away, meaning the party would have an open primary in 2000. Pat Buchanan wound up getting the nomination, but not before Donald Trump contested the California primary.
He would drop out soon after, but the 2016 Republican race was technically not Trump’s first. By the time he rode down the escalator in June 2015, Trump had spent well more than a decade envisioning a presidential run.
If showing the way to Trump was Perot’s only major contribution, he’d be worth more commentary than he’s getting. There’s more to this though.
He was the first businessman to mount a legit campaign for the presidency since Wendell Willkie captured the Republican nomination in 1940. The normal rule was a serious presidential contender must have:
Served as Vice President and/or
Served in Congress, preferably the Senate and/or
Served as Governor and/or
Served as a high-ranking General in a big war
The only exceptions before Willkie were Herbert Hoover, who was a high-profile cabinet secretary for 8 years prior to running in 1928, and Judge Alton B. Parker, tabbed by the Democrats in 1904. There was no precedent for someone with zero public service experience getting picked.
Willkie ran a credible campaign, though he was defeated by FDR in an election that wasn’t very close. This seemed to put the kibosh on outsider candidates. Nobody tried again until the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1984. He finished third in the Democratic primary, winning two states.
Jackson gave it another try in 1988, and did better, winding up second, with 13 victories. He was joined on the Republican side by televangelist Pat Robertson, who finished second in Iowa, third overall, and won four states.
When Perot became the second businessperson ever to make a credible run at the White House it was a big deal. And unlike the model of a religious leader, which faded after Gary Bauer got very limited traction in 2000, the businessperson as a presidential candidate idea was just getting started.
Steve Forbes ran in the 1996 and 2000 GOP primaries, finishing third in the first of those attempts and winning two states. Herman Cain tried in 2012, and though he was forced out before voting began, due to allegations of sexual harassment, he actually led national polls for a couple weeks in the fall of 2011.
All this set the stage for 2016, when Trump was joined by ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina, and surgeon Ben Carson. You can argue whether Carson counts as a businessperson, but his candidacy was based on him taking his approach from medicine where he made things happen and applying it to the presidency. He was as likely as Perot to explain via aphorism. So I’m counting him as one of Perot’s political offspring.
At least on the Republican side, some version of Perot is now a regular part of the primary field. The 2008 race is the only contested one since 1992 that did not feature at least one entry from the Perot Family of Candidates.
Beyond messaging and using the media in new ways, Perot did two key things. First, he made it normal for someone with no political experience to run for the highest office in the land, using what they accomplished in their careers as both justification and logic for why they were a better choice than a traditional politician.
After two decades, this was normalized enough that Trump didn’t need to do much explaining for voters to start taking him seriously. Having the highest profile of any Perot Family entrant, he leapt to the top of the polls within weeks of announcing his candidacy.
Second, he made it clear the best path for a non-traditional candidate was through a traditional political party. Perot’s 18.9% share of the vote in 1992 was astoundingly good. He was the first third party candidate in double digits since Robert La Follette ran on the Progressive ticket in 1924.
The only third party candidate to ever get a higher percentage is Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. If the only person to do better is on Mount Rushmore, you probably did ok. Given Roosevelt’s status as a highly popular, recent ex-president, I’m comfortable declaring Perot the most successful third party candidacy in American history.
Between showing the opportunity for a non-politician, particularly one with a business background, and the lack of opportunity outside the existing party structure, Perot created an entirely new pathway to the presidency. Where Willkie was considered a one-off fluke, which passed without imitation, Perot was the beginning of an era.
When reporters get excited at the prospect of Michael Bloomberg running every four years, it’s because of Perot. When Bloomberg decides not to run as an independent/third party candidate every four years, it’s because of Perot.
For better, or worse, and odds are you think it’s very much one or the other, H. Ross Perot was one of the most influential losing candidates since the beginning of the Republic. He’s gone, but should not be forgotten. Just think of Howard Schultz, who overlooked the above lessons and paid the consequences before back surgery put his flailing campaign on hold.