Posted on June 01, 1992 in Washington Watch
Whether he wins or loses, Ross Perot has already changed U.S. politics in this critical election year.
The year began with Republicans confident of victory, gleeful over the final demise of the Democrats as a national party. The stagnant economy, the end of the Cold War, and the constant barrage of negative press on Bush, Congress and a seemingly endless series of political scandals and stories of corruption—these things have all taken their toll.
Out of all this chaos, the Perot phenomenon has emerged, and while some dismissed it at first, it must now be taken seriously as a genuine challenge to the American political system.
The Texas billionaire’s as yet unannounced candidacy has created and unleashed a volunteer army of white “Middle Americans”.
Determined to place their man on the ballot in all 50 states, Perot’s volunteers have already collected many times over the number of endorsements needed to get him on the ballots of thirty-five states, seven of which have been formally certified. And there is little doubt that he will qualify for the ballot in the remaining 15 states. Should he finally decide to formally announce his candidacy—and all recent signs point to him doing just that—he will be on the ballot in all 50 states.
Perot has done all of this by tapping into the core of voter frustration with government, and anger with politicians and politics in general.
The great American “middle” has long been with us as an ill-defined constituency that politicians have tried to court. They were Nixon’s “silent majority”, patriots who supported his Vietnam policy by sporting American flags on their cars and houses. They formed a part of the support for the “angry at Washington” George Wallace campaign in 1972. In the 1980s they were known as “Reagan Democrats”, the white suburban middle class who crossed party lines to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Democrats defined them as “swing voters” who, as opposed to hard core Democrats or Republicans, could vote for either party if the candidate was right.
This year both Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan tapped into this constituency and temporarily lifted their respective campaigns for a while but, as they say in the South, these voters were “ripe for the picking”. Ross Perot, with his folksy manner, simple wit and country style , not to mention the aura of his billions, has been able to “pick them”. As Perot rose, Brown and Buchanan fell into “the black hole of media obscurity” and their campaigns faltered.
In a way, Perot has managed to turn politics on its head. he appears to the people as “one of them”: simple and straight. “Now they’ll attack me,” he tells his supporters in a reference to politicians, “because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. But don’t believe them. I’m your servant. Tell me what you want and I’ll get the job done.”
Perot has been attacked for being vague and for not having a detailed plan.
But Ronald Reagan captured this same vote and the White House in 1980 without a specific plan and by playing a similar role. Reagan’s message was essentially: “I have a vision—trust me.” Perot twists this phrase slightly by suggesting: “You have a vision—trust me with it.”
The media, hungry for a new and interesting character, gave him a free ride for months. While there is now more media scrutiny of Perot’s controversial business dealings, these stories appear every day alongside stories detailing the latest Perot victory: 200,000 petition signatures in Texas, Perot leading in polls in nine states, Perot leading in national polls. In short, the momentum behind the Perot candidacy is growing and capturing new supporters even as he is being criticized.
One result of this growing phenomenon has been to throw the Republicans and Democrats into a real quandary.
Democrats had their strategy mapped out as early as the summer of 1991. They planned to target 17 states for a focused campaign. Assuming that they would win the eleven states Dukakis won in 1988, they targeted the 17 additional states for heavy campaigning in 1992. Their goal was to hold their core constituency of “blacks, Jews, labor and liberals” and win back the Reagan Democrat/swing vote with a candidate who could appeal to the middle. An anti-Bush message would be the theme of the campaign: they would describe the President as out of touch with the middle class, middle America, and use that message to try to bring back the middle.
Republicans also had an early plan based on winning the core of “Republican” states. In the six elections since 1968 the Republicans have won 21 states all 6 times, and another 12 states 5 times. The remaining liberal states, such as the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, West Virginia, etc., usually go to the Democrats and could be written off. Even as the President was dropping in the polls, his campaign team believed in a replay of 1988, when Bush surged in September to a lead he would never lose.
Now all bets are off. Both parties need to take a cold fresh look at the political landscape in the light of a three-way race. This is a frightening prospect for politicians and political professionals who have made a career wooing the middle. With these people suddenly sweeping toward Perot, the professionals don’t know what to do. A prominent Republican analyst lamented, “It’s a terrible, terrible kind of campaign to run. And all the conventional wisdom about how you target and how you run a presidential race is useless.”
To understand how much things have changed and how a three-way race can affect the election, it is necessary to understand a unique aspect of the U.S. political system, namely the electoral college.
The Electoral College
According to the U.S. Constitution, presidents are not chosen by the direct popular vote, but rather by what are called electors. Each state has as many electors as it has representatives and senators, the current number of electors being 538 including 3 from the District of Columbia. (So, for example, California, which has 52 representatives and 2 senators gets fifty-four electoral votes.) Each of the presidential candidates will make up lists of electors for each state. The winner of the popular vote in each state will have his electors chosen to represent the state when the electoral college meets on December 14.
So it is not a question of who wins 51 percent of the popular vote or who wins 34 percent in a three-way race, but who wins the right number of states and electoral votes in the state-by-state elections.
A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to qualify as president, and in a normal year each party concentrates on winning enough states to simply accumulate the votes of 270 electors. In a three-way race, however, it is possible that none of the three candidates will receive the requisite 270 electoral votes. This is already a real possibility since polls now show Perot winning enough states to deny either Bush or Clinton the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the election outright. If this in fact happens this year and the electoral college deadlocks, according to the Constitution, the newly elected House of Representatives will select the president, and the new Senate will elect the vice president.
The last time that this happened was in 1824. The way the Constitution reads, not every congressman votes, but each state gets one vote and must vote for one of the top three electoral vote winners. A majority of 26 states are needed to win the presidency. This means that the lone Representative from Vermont will have as much say as all 31 Representatives from New York. If a state cannot agree on its vote (say that the thirty-member Texas delegation splits 10 for each candidate) then it cannot vote.
From this point on, the process gets very complicated, since it is possible that no candidate will receive the votes of 26 states. In that case, the vice president, who the Constitution says is to be elected by the Senate, will act as president until the House of Representatives manages to agree on a choice. The Senate, however, may choose only from the top two vote-getters in the electoral college.
Each senator has one vote, and a simple majority is necessary to elect a vice president, although a quorum of 67 senators must be present before the Senate may vote. Thus, either major party could prevent the vote from taking place by simply staying away from the chambers. And it is at this point that things get very confusing and has led a number of articles written by political analysts from both parties making wild and not-so-wild speculation regarding potential outcomes. Among the more interesting possibilities are that Jean Kirkpatrick (who is rumored to be one of Perot’s top choices for vice president), Senator Robert Byrd or Secretary of State James A. Baker III could be named acting president. The bottom line is that since such an outcome has never before occurred, no one really knows what will happen.
This complex system has produced presidential campaigns which are not run as national efforts, but rather as individual state-wide campaigns. The themes and messages are national in scope, but the campaign efforts are focused and local with different approaches and strategies designed to satisfy the unique characteristics of voters in each region of the country: the liberal states of the Northeast, the mid-Western industrial states, the conservative states of the South, and the West.
Since 1968 Republicans have had what has been termed a “lock” on the electoral college, that is they were guaranteed victories in enough states to win almost any presidential election. By winning these states, even by small margins, they produced victories in the electoral college which appeared to give them a huge popular mandate.
In 1968 Richard Nixon beat out Hubert Humphrey by a mere one percent of the popular vote (500,000 votes), but his real victory was in the electoral college with 301 votes to Humphrey’s 191. And while Ronald Reagan is known for his landslide victory over Carter in 1980, he in fact won by 9 percent of the vote. The landslide came in the electoral college where he won 489-49. Even the Bush victory over Dukakis was less than 8 percent, but it gave him a 426-111 margin in the electoral college.
Polls show that Perot’s putative candidacy changes all this. While Perot takes slightly more voters from Clinton than he does from Bush, he takes them in the core Republican states. Recent polls show Perot to be ahead in 6 of the states that Republicans have won all six times since 1968—Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma—which have a total of 88 electoral votes. At the same time, the Perot candidacy gives Bush leads in such traditionally Democratic states as New York, Minnesota and West Virginia, and even a chance of winning Massachusetts.
As a result of this profound shakeup of the political system, several new strategies have emerged.
1) Both Republicans and Democrats have decided to run active campaigns in all 50 states. This is much harder and puts both Clinton and Bush at a disadvantage inasmuch as they must deal with a great unknown.
2) Because a simple plurality and not a majority is needed to win this election, both parties have begun to abandon their appeals to the great middle swing vote and will focus more on their core constituencies. It was no accident, for example, to see side-by-side front page stories last week showing Bill Clinton with gay voters in San Francisco and Vice President Quayle criticizing a television show for promoting un-wed motherhood. Democrats would never have been so bold as to openly identify with gays if it were not for the reality that they are trying mobilize their core liberal constituents they need to lock into their camp. Similarly, the Republicans are moving more and more to the right with unabashed appeals to conservative “family” values.
This realignment—away from the middle and toward their natural core constituencies—is something that ideologues in both parties have long called for but never achieved while both parties competed for the middle they saw as necessary to electoral success.
With the prospect of a three-way race election, the race is on for each party to lock in the 33 percent, and fight for the additional margin that will bring victory.
3) New themes are emerging. In a period when anti-incumbent messages and running against Washington are hot strategies, Democrats find that Perot has taken their message of “change”. Clinton has, therefore, begun to adopt more of Perot’s message. He promotes himself as the proven candidate for change—pointing to his record as Governor of Arkansas—and has even adopted Jerry Brown’s “take back America” slogan and has his own Bill Clinton 800 number.
Republicans, after flirting with the idea of promoting Bush as a candidate for change, will most probably move soon to drop this feeble attempt to compete in a three-way race for the frustration vote, and instead will resurrect and run on Bush’s strong suit as a stable leader in a changing world. Once abandoned themes like Bush’s commanding leadership role in the new world order will soon reappear as Bush themes in the quest for votes.
4) The vice presidential search for both Clinton and Perot takes on a new importance as being more than simply selecting a strong running mate. Factors about a potential running mate’s ability to bring in a new constituency or regional strength to the ticket will also be important.
An example is that, in a two-way race Clinton never would have dreamt of picking Jesse Jackson for fear of alienating the white middle and many Jewish voters, a three-way race present different dynamics. If Clinton is to define himself as a liberal and win big with the core Democratic constituency, Jackson might actually help in a three-way to win all the southern states with their average 30 percent black vote, in New York City with its huge black vote, and in the liberal Northeast.
Perot, on the other hand, will most probably want his campaign to remain party neutral and so will seek a running mate not strongly identified with either the Democrats or the Republicans.
1992 will be a revolutionary year in U.S. politics. Whether Perot slips in the polls or remains a strong challenger to the finish, a genuine challenge to the entire political process is underway. The electoral college, long a tolerated but obscure aspect of our constitutional system is now under scrutiny. Cries of alarm are now being heard may in a short period of time force a change in this system.
Perot is forcing both parties to take a long, hard look at themselves, how they chose candidates and the issues they will run on. Not only Clinton and the Democrats, but the President’s team as well, seem stymied and frustrated. In order to get their messages to the voters through a hostile press, they must develop new strategies and tactics if they hope to win.
Even if Perot slips to 15 or 20 percent of the vote (some national polls now show him with 35 percent and leading both Bush and Clinton), he can still force a constitutional crisis—a shock not only to America but to a changing world looking to America for leadership.
While the actual dynamics of a three-way race are not yet clear, one thing is certain: the stakes are high and the fight to November will be intense. It won’t be pretty, but it will be interesting.
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