Posted on October 05, 1992 in Washington Watch

Ross Perot has once again crashed the party of American politics.

Since withdrawing back in July he has been abandoned by most of his former supporters who felt betrayed by his decision to withdraw without consulting them or even notifying them beforehand. While he was once over 30% in the national polls, he now registers at slightly less than 10%.

Perot was seen at the time of his entry into the race as a sort of political messiah by those who felt unempowered and voiceless within the system. Yet, by withdrawing, he did nothing so much as reinforce that sense of powerlessness, leaving those supporters angrier and more alienated than when he began. He claimed at one point during his (second) announcement speech this week that “the people” owned him, that he had gotten back in the race because “the people” asked him to—a claim no one took seriously. One major newspaper even ran the sarcastic headline “Perot Answers His Own Call.”

It is this unpredictability that is Perot’s single biggest negative—will he withdraw again after another barrage of negative press stories? Will he run a full campaign only to endorse Bill Clinton a few days before the election? No one knows the answer to these or countless other hypotheticals, which will make it very hard for Perot generate voter confidence or to win back much of the support he had at the height of his candidacy in June.

He will nevertheless appear on the ballot in all fifty states and will spend a reported $100 million on television advertising; and will, therefore, act as a disruptive force in the two-way race between George Bush and Bill Clinton—something he vowed not to do in the heady days of the summer.

Because his current level of support is so small, neither Bush nor Clinton will attack Perot directly. They will not alter their carefully-honed messages at this late date. Instead, they will continue to spar with one another and let the press attack Perot.

And the press will do just that. In some ways this is an act of repentance on the part of the media. It was the national press which built Perot into a mythic, larger-than-life figure in the beginning of his campaign. Then, toward the end of his glorious run, in late June and early July the press made an about-face and began to tear down the candidate they had helped to create.

Sharply critical stories that were to have run in July were put aside when Perot withdrew. Now those same stories will be pulled off the shelf, dusted off and updated, and then they will run. His corrupt business practices and dictatorial style of running his companies and even his friendships will be on the front pages once again.

The media that created Perot, as in somewhat horrified by what it wrought, will destroy him. Yet, even with this and in part because of it, Perot will alter the dynamics of the race.

Valuable time and energy of both campaigns will be directed away from addressing issues of national importance and will instead try to find ways to counter the effects Perot is having in key state races.

Already both major party campaigns have had to adjust their strategic thinking. Texas, for example, is a must-win state for Bush, and his campaign was feeling some confidence that it could win that state by a few points with a medium to light investment of time and resources. If Perot, a native Texan, manages to take even 3% of the Bush vote in Texas he is likely to shift the state to Clinton.

Similarly, Clinton’s campaign must now rethink its strategy in Ohio and New Jersey. These two states are key battlegrounds where Clinton was just developing momentum. Perot, however has maintained a strong following in these states. This may force Clinton devote more resources to them and thereby reduce his ability to compete elsewhere.

Likewise, press attention and resources will drift away from the serious national debate on issues in order to focus on the Perot phenomenon and document the foibles of its candidate.

Perot has exposed how vulnerable the U.S. political process has become to manipulation and exploitation.

Given the primacy that television has assumed in American culture, it is quite understandable that politics has become a media-driven enterprise. The most important people on a candidate’s staff are the media advisors, image-makers and message strategists.

Political parties, which were once genuine ideology-driven constituent organizations, have today largely been reduced to fund-raising machines. They raise the enormous sums needed to purchase the media advisors to create the television advertisements that require even more money to put on the air. This is called getting a message out.

Most candidates spend years fund-raising, through and with their parties, in order to acquire the respect and public trust which enables them to raise even more money to run for ever higher office. In recent years, however, a number independently wealthy millionaires have discovered and exploited a loophole in the campaign financing law which allows them to spend large sums from their own fortunes to fund their candidacies. This enables them to skip the party process and the years of rising through the ranks.

Perot, like a dozen Senator candidates before him, discovered that if you have big money you can play big politics.

He has so far spent $18 million to hire staff and, in some states, pay “volunteers” to collect the petition signatures needed to get him on the ballot. He has kept open 63 offices in all 50 states, and has now committed an untold amount to purchase large blocs of television time between now and November.

In his announcement, he described American politics as a process filled with “ego-driven, power-hungry men”—and if he’d added “rich” the definition would have fit himself perfectly.

Polls show that he cannot win—not now and certainly not after the effects of his millions of dollars of advertising have been neutralized by the brutalization he will undergo at the hands of the press.

But he will be a serious distraction. He will taunt both campaigns in attempt to force them to address his pet issue: the enormous federal budget deficit, which is an important issue and one that neither of major candidates has bothered to address. The federal debt now stands at $4 trillion. The annual interest on it alone eats up a portion of the budget equal to the entire defense appropriations in this year’s budget—something that makes deficit reduction measures difficult to carry out without staggering new taxes or equally painful spending cuts.

Certainly the issue ought to be confronted by the Presidential candidates and by the Congress—but it should not require the disruption of our entire presidential process to do so.

The other debate that we should be having as a nation has also been brought to the front burner by Ross Perot, albeit indirectly and inadvertently. The need to simply confront and correct the two biggest flaws in the U.S. political process: the weakness and near-dissolute state of our political parties, and the need for real and radical campaign finance reform.

***

While one-half of the news stories this week focused on Ross Perot’s on-again candidacy, the other half focused on the fact that the long-awaited and twice-delayed Presidential debates were on.

After extensive negotiations the Bush and Clinton campaigns have arrived at a compromise arrangement of four debates, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, all packed within little more than one week in mid-October.

Although it seems very simple to organize a debate, the very complexity of the process just completed once again gives focus to the tremendous power that television has in the political process.

Younger Americans believe that televised Presidential debates are a part of the Presidential election process, but this is not so. After the first televised Presidential debate—the 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy—it was 16 years until before the next debate took place. The reason is simple. No candidate was willing to risk the danger that a single televised debate could undue an entire national campaign.

Remember that it is the televised debates of 1960 that established Jack Kennedy as a national leader. He looked so cool and confident, while Nixon perspired and seemed ill-at-ease. It is instructive to note that in polls done in 1960 Nixon was judged to have won the debate by those who heard it on radio. His arguments were better, his answers more complete. Kennedy, on the other hand, won easily among those who saw the debate on television—he looked better.

With that debate the came first glimpse and understanding of the power of television in politics. By 1968 Nixon had mastered the use of the medium, producing his own television commercial speeches and sometimes reading them 30 times before he was satisfied. But he never again risked a debate.

It was not until Carter faced Ford in 1976 that another debate appeared on television. That debate provided what was perhaps the most memorable moment of the whole year in Ford’s mistaken claim that Poland was free of Soviet domination—live on television before millions of viewers. He tried to correct the mistake later, but the most people never heard his attempts to undo the damage, and the news of his gaffe made their way around the nation.

Once again, in 1988 the two most vivid images of the campaign were the absolute humiliation of Dan Quayle by Lloyd Bentsen’s “I knew Jack Kennedy” line; and the self-destruction of Michael Dukakis as he emotionlessly answered a ridiculous hypothetical question about how he would respond to his wife being raped.

So powerful is the moment of live encounters on television that debates have become potential transforming moments in political campaigns.

After 1988, a bipartisan commission was formed to decide a format for the debates of the 1992 Presidential election. The process was fixed and the conditions were accepted by both parties. But President Bush himself refused to agree—not because he disagreed with the process but because, as the incumbent President, he wanted to decide by himself the conditions under which a debate should take place.

A key reason behind the President’s refusal to accept the first debates is a theory advanced by James Baker that the announcement of a debate “freezes” the polls. By this he means that between the announcement of a debate and the debate itself there is no movement in the polls, as voters hold back on changing their opinions until after they have seen the debate. Baker wanted the opportunity to make up ground in the polls before they got “frozen” by the announcement of any debates.

This probably also explains why there are going to be so many debates in such a short span of time. If Bush wins a debate, his standing in the polls will pick up in the day or two following the debate, then they will “freeze again before the next debate. If Bush should lose a debate, he can only fall so far in the polls before they “freeze” again, at which time Bush will have another chance at the next debate.

To have begun the debates in September using the Commission’s format—pitting the President one-on-one against a skilled and attractive opponent who is leading by 15% in the polls could have been fatal to the Bush campaign.

Finally, after weeks of stalling and two canceled debates, the President threw the Clinton campaign into chaos with a dramatic counter-offer.

The timing had much to do with Ross Perot’s expected reentry and the President’s need to assert some control over the campaign process.

The three Presidential debates, if the President gets his way, will feature President George Bush and two challengers. Even if Perot spends his time, as expected, attacking the President, it will distract from the time Clinton needs to define himself as the President’s equal, and may even generate sympathy and support for George Bush.

In the final analysis the issue behind the debates is the same as the issue raised by the Perot phenomenon, and that is the tremendous power that television has in American political life. It is a transforming power we are only beginning to understand—but have not yet begun to understand how to control it.

***

The Electoral Vote in a 3-Way Race

During the peak of his campaign in May and June Ross Perot not only led in national polls but in several state polls as well. There was panic in the media that Perot could take enough states to deny either Bush or Clinton the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. That, in turn, led to an examination of little-known Constitutional provisions that govern the process under circumstances of deadlock in the electoral college. I covered this subject in my article June 2.

At this point it seems highly unlikely that Ross Perot will win any states. He has nevertheless altered the state-by-state polls since now all polls must factor a three-way race. Only 33 states have done such polls in September, and of those Clinton has a clear lead in eleven state with 172 electoral votes while Bush has a slight lead in four states with 48 electoral votes. The only state that seems safe for the President is Dan Quayle’s home state of Indiana. Interestingly, Ross Perot’s entry takes enough voters from Clinton in Florida to put that state in Bush’s column. Clinton seems secure in California, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York and Washington.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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