Posted on April 27, 1992 in Washington Watch

Looming over the horizon of the 1992 Presidential campaigns of George Bush and his Democratic opponent (presumably Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton) is the threat of an independent campaign by Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.

At this moment, a virtual “Perot-mania” appears to be developing. Although two-thirds of all Americans say they know little or nothing about Perot or what he stands for, he is nevertheless receiving 20-25% support in many state and national polls. A recent poll put Bush at 40%, Clinton at 30%, and Perot at 23%. And a surprising mid-April poll of Texas voters by Texas A & M University found Perot winning in that very important state! The numbers were Perot 35%, Bush 30% and Clinton 20% (with the rest unsure or uncommitted.)

More than commitment to the man and a specific message, the potential strength of the Perot candidacy reflects deep voter disillusion with either the two major parties, Washington in general, or both. At present, Perot appears to be a perfect vessel for voter anger, perhaps because of his combination of folksy charm, enormous wealth, the way he uses his caustic wit to criticize business-as-usual in government and his promise to “clean house up there” (i.e., in Washington). Other factors may be his penchant for military adventurism (e.g., rescue missions in Viet Nam and Iran), or the substantial and favorable press coverage during his career which has given him a larger-than-life profile.

Public anger is deep this year. Jerry Brown’s campaign has been fed by it, and Pat Buchanan’s campaign has thrived on it. Two-thirds of the votes cast for these candidates have been characterized as `none of the above’ protest votes). And with the anger is a large measure of disillusionment and apathy: fewer than 20% of the eligible Americans have voted in the recent primaries.

Now it’s Perot’s turn to go to the well of voter disgust, and in his folksy style he has gone to that well often—with a big bucket of sarcasm. “In Washington,” he says, “you raise the problem, you have a bunch of lobbyists run up and down the halls, nobody who knows anything about the problem passes the laws and it doesn’t work.” The Texan charges, “What we have now is a system where if you have potholes in your city, all the politicians hold conferences on potholes.” Perot promises, “If and when I ever have to do this job, we’re going to get hot asphalt, get a shovel, fill potholes, move on to the next one a skip the press conference.”

He is pushing all the right buttons.

Perot has already invested nearly one half million dollars of his own money to create a virtual citizen army which is attempting to put him on the ballot in all fifty states. He announced that he would only run if the citizens created a mandate for his campaign. He has furthermore promised to spend up to $100 million of his own money to run his campaign and will take no federal campaign money, as Bush and the Democratic candidate will.

These pledges have raised public awareness of some aspects of our election laws and loopholes in them, which have, until now, escaped public scrutiny

Campaign funds

Under current federal campaign finance laws, individuals may contribute no more than $1,000 to a primary Presidential campaign, but the federal government will match the first $200 of every contributions. The intent of these rules is to limit the influence of major contributors, while at the same time encouraging small contributions—hence the matching funds. In the November general election, the nominees of the two major parties will each receive $55 million from the federal government to finance their campaigns, but they may spend no more than that amount. This public financing provision is an attempt to eliminate the need for (and the influence of) special interest money in the general election.

Perot represents a unique challenge to these laws. While the law has always permitted candidates to spend their own money for primary campaigns, those who have done so have used relatively small amounts, usually well under one million dollars, just to get their campaigns started, there is no limit to how much money they may use. The $100 million he has promised to spend on his own campaign, an amount equal to just a few month’s interest on his estimated $2.5-3.5 billion personal fortune, will almost equal the combined spending of Bush and his Democratic challenger. This is utterly without precedent in American history.

Ballot access

In order to protect democratic rights, independent candidates can get their names on the presidential ballot, but the procedure varies widely from state to state. In some states it is ridiculously easy to get on the ballot, making it equally available to serious and non-serious candidates alike. Tennessee, for example, requires only 25 signatures on a petition, while Louisiana requires no more than a $500 filing fee.

On the other hand, some states make it extremely difficult to get on the ballot. In New York, a candidate has twenty-nine days to get 20,000 signatures including at least 100 signatures from sixteen of the state’s thirty-three congressional districts. Yet, experts on New York’s election laws suggest getting at least 50,000 signatures, since more than half of the signatures on any petition are usually invalid. This requires a virtual army of people just to get a candidate on the ballot.

In all, 754,000 endorsements are necessary to get on the ballot in all fifty states. To build this national effort, Perot has used an 800 (free phone line) system with 1,300 lines, on which he has received almost two million calls. The calls are coming in at an average of 30,000 per day, but that number more than triples on days following Perot’s appearances on national television talk shows. For example, after a March 25 appearance on “Donahue”, the phones lines received 18,000 simultaneous calls, and 56,000 calls over the next hour.

Perot says that if the people create a campaign structure in all fifty states, he’ll run. The statement sounds very democratic, but some worry that such a campaign may become just the opposite. Without a party or formal organization, without the need to raise money and woo supporters, he may be left very much on his own.

Yet despite this and other worries, most notably a lack of specificity regarding any question of policy, Perot’s movement is growing. But who is Ross Perot?

Perot likes to joke about his reputation, saying in one recent speech, “I am not a legend. But I am a myth.” There are a number of things about Perot’s life which do lend themselves to myth-making.

He grew up in Texarkana, a modest city in northeastern Texas, and earned an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Although he was an average student, he was elected president of his class. After fulfilling his commitment to the military, Perot worked for a time with I.B.M. But the company discouraged one of his entrepreneurial ideas, so in 1962 Perot founded his own company—Electronic Data Systems (E.D.S.) with $1,000 borrowed from his wife’s savings. He sold the company in 1984 for $2.55 billion.

Critics contend, however, that Perot made his riches largely from government contracts. By 1984, when E.D.S. was sold, it was the largest processor of Medicare and Medicaid claims in the country. In the early 1970s he was investigated by a Congressional subcommittee for allegedly garnering excessive profits from those government contracts, although the subcommittee never found any evidence of wrongdoing by Perot.

His activities outside of business earned him even more notoriety among the general public. In 1969 Perot sent $1.5 million dollars of food and medical supplies for U.S. prisoners of war held by North Vietnam, hoping to help them and at the same time publicize their plight. Ten years later he hired a retired Viet Nam veteran to recruit a team and lead a rescue operation for two E.D.S. employees from a Tehran jail. Perot bankrolled the effort, which helped spirit the two men out of the country after a riot at the jail freed them from captivity. And in the mid-1980s, Perot was even exploring a possible independent effort to rescue the American hostages from Lebanon, though no action eventually emerged.

The same year that he sold E.D.S., 1984, Perot headed a state commission charged with advancing proposals to improve education in Texas. He helped ensure the passage of the bills through the Texas legislature, and even paid lobbyists supporting the reforms with his own money. Today, the picture of reform is mixed, and some of the measures have been repealed. But even Perot’s critics cite improvements in educational indicators.

While they are the stuff of national folklore, actions like the Tehran rescue or the proposed Beirut mission are not legal under American law. Perot’s free-lance style of decision-making worries some people, especially those who remember past American Presidents who took the law into their own hands to fulfill personal foreign policy goals—no matter how noble.

Despite its fascinating content, all this information still leaves an enormous gap in the public’s knowledge: what does Ross Perot stand for?

Perot has offered just a few policy tidbits—he is in favor of gun control and keeping abortion legal, for example. And while he is known as a staunch supporter of the military, he opposed the Gulf War, arguing that the Emir of Kuwait was not worth fighting for. In response to the Iraqi aggression, Perot proposed that a commando team, possibly with Israeli help, be sent out to assassinate Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, during a crime wave in Dallas in 1986, Perot proposed cordoning off minority neighborhoods and making a door-to-door search for weapons and drugs.” Later, in 1989, he argued that suspending the Constitution and declaring martial law would be an effective way to combat the drug trade. And while he has said virtually nothing about the Arab-Israeli conflict, even to the point of refusing to comment on whether he would support continued U.S. aid to Israel, Perot raised some concern when he said he admired Ariel Sharon’s style of “cowboy” adventurism—a style reflective of his own.

It is clear that even with these few specifics about his policies, it is still hard to understand Perot. He does not fit any classic niche on the political left or right. No one knows how to define him, which in a sense is all very well and good for his campaign. For the moment, at least, Perot represents nothing so much as the idea of change. As a self-made billionaire, he projects an aura of power, decisiveness and success. Yet, he also maintains an image of being “the common man”. For example, he eats with his employees and volunteers in the cafeteria.

For information he relies on a network built up over the years among members of the American business community, much like other candidates for national office. But Perot also counts on input from a further network of law enforcement, military and, it appears, intelligence personnel. A study of these individuals provides no further insight into his ideological outlook or policy preferences.

Nonetheless, as was mentioned above, voters do not need much information about the man in order to support him. At this time his momentum still seems to be growing, though it is a support pollsters would describe as “thin”. Right now, given his lack of issue specificity, the appeal of Perot is not based on support for his proposed solutions to U.S. problems. His appeal right now is his “outsider” status, his image, which can change after a few weeks of press scrutiny. The depth of Perot’s support is a symptom of very deep voter dissatisfaction.

With this in mind, it is time to look to the fall, and how a Bush-Perot-Clinton match-up might look.

Clinton receives positive ratings from voters who are looking for someone to be an agent of change, and/or for someone who is concerned about the needs of the average voter. Both of these issues are themes that Clinton is hoping to use against Bush in the fall. He is hoping to steer the debate toward those issues, and away from issues where voters find him lacking, such the areas of political leadership, honesty, and demonstrating strong convictions.

Voters perceive Bush as being strong in the realm of foreign policy and as a world leader, and the believe that he has demonstrated strong convictions. These are the areas which the Bush campaign is already trying to stress. But voters rate Bush poorly with regard to being out of touch with and not caring about the needs of the average voter. These are issues which the Bush campaign is hoping to downplay in the campaign.

Since Perot has already given large hints that he will campaign as an agent of change, he will likely pull more support from Clinton and the Democrats than he will from Bush. Some have argued that Perot will pull support from business leaders, since Perot is a business leader himself, but this is not likely to be a significant factor. For while Bush may speak of changes, and he is in fact trying to argue that he is the candidate of change, he is maintaining a rock-solid base of support in the business community and those related to government, who don’t want any significant changes and who, in any case, do not want to risk electing a Democrat.

At this point Perot is still an unknown quantity, with no defined strengths or weaknesses. This will not begin to change until the press begins to investigate his business career with some degree of thoroughness. Until that time, he will continue to rise a little or hover at his current level of popularity. It is impossible to predict for certain what such an investigation would do to his popularity.

If he does become a candidate, both the Democrats and the Republicans will attack him, and will definitely make an issue out of the fact that he has never held government office before and would be unable to accomplish much even if he won. As one former congressional leader commented, “In his business, there’s a hierarchy. In Congress you have 535 people … and you’re not their boss.” While such arguments have been used effectively in the past, one cannot know whether political inexperience, even on the presidential level, will be more of a virtue or a liability.

What is certain is that his wealth will buy him a lot of television air time, which he can use to define himself and deflect attacks from the press while at the same time attacking his opponents. His 800 number has created a database of nearly two million potential campaign volunteers in all fifty states.

With resources like that at his disposal if he runs, Ross Perot will be a factor in the race. He will be able to help define the terms of the debate and influence the outcome. He may even prevent either of the two parties’ candidates from winning a majority of electoral votes.

All of this has shed light on another facet of the American electoral system which is not well-known: the electoral college. The candidate winning the majority of the popular vote does not necessarily win the presidency. It has been more than a century and a half since no candidate has won a majority of the electoral votes, and though that possibility is unlikely, it is still drawing attention.

I will examine this important and complex issue in a future article.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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