THE PEROT EXPERIENCE:
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE REFORM PARTY
James A. Schmitz
B.A., Colorado State University, 2000
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
James A. Schmitz
has been approved
Anthony R. Robinson
Schmitz, James A. (M.A., Political Science)
The Perot Experience: The Rise and Fall of the Reform Party
Thesis directed by Professor Anthony R. Robinson
This thesis attempts to answer three questions:
1. How and why was Ross Perot able to overcome the disadvantages that exist
for third parties?
2. Why was the Reform Party unable to build on its 1992 success and remain
3. Can a third party, which is competitive and routinely wins elections, be
Ross Perot in 1992 won 19% of the popular vote by breaking the
institutional (ballot access, winner-take-all voting) and cultural (two-party
expectations, vote-wasting) obstacles. Third parties are successful during times of
political crisis and major party decay. Perot pushed the deficit and government
waste as the crisis. Trust in the government coupled with weak candidates (Bush
Sr., Clinton) evidenced the decay. Perot overcame the obstacles by taking
advantage of the historical moment (struggling economy, invitation to debate) as
well as using his own unique personal characteristics (extreme wealth, new media
strategies). After Perots controversial re-nomination for the 1996 election, the
country had changed. The economy was better, the major parties had co-opted his
issues and Clinton was a stronger candidate. Perots reluctance to again use his
own money in conjunction with his lack of an invitation to the debates conspired
to lower his vote total. The historical moment had changed and his once unique
characteristics were no longer so unique. The Reform Party had one more chance
at establishing a permanently competitive third party: Jesse Venturas victory in
Minnesota. Using Perots basic gameplan, Ventura showed the plan could work.
However, schisms between Ventura and the national Reform Party wasted this
final chance at establishing a consistently competitive third party. The Perot
Experience shows that it is possible to temporarily break through the obstacles to
third party success. However, it also shows that it is possible only when specific
circumstances are present. Furthermore, Perots place in the history of third
parties shows that the likelihood of establishing a third party that is continuously
competitive on a national scale is basically nil. With Perots ability to overcome
the disadvantages and become temporarily competitiveif he could not do it, it is
likely that no one ever will.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Anthony R. Robinson
I dedicate this thesis to my family for their love, support,
and generally jolly dispositions.
(and, obviously, their good sense of humor)
Also... for a little certain somebody that I only found out a week ago was going to
change my life for the better. Best news Ive ever heard.. .1 love you already, my
little lentil bean.
And especially for Kathy,
With love and admiration...
this is for you.
Youll always be my baby girl!
I love you.
That my friend.. .is a shared moment.
I sincerely and respectfully thank the fine professors at UCD, who challenged my
thoughts and convictions about the world of politics and history: specifically Dan
Caldwell, Christoph Stefes, Mike Cummings, Thad Tecza, and Tony Robinson.
They taught me both to think and to challenge my convictions. They showed me
there is always more to learn and new ways of thinking about what I already
A special thanks to Tony Robinson, who more than any other, helped me organize
my rather scattered thoughts.
Thanks to members of the Reform Party, the American Reform Party, the
Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, and
especially Gov. Dick Lamm for answering my e-mails.
For my fellow teachers and my students who have to continually listen to rants
about the problems with the two party system and politicians in generalIm
genuinely sorry.. .and thanks for listening.
And since I only get one shot at this in my entire life...why not? For: Bob Kane,
Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, George Lucas, Jake, Elwood, Fletch, Carlin, Cosby, and
everybody else who makes life so entertaining.
Are you gonna stay for breakfast...or do you already know how to eat?
2. AMERICAN THIRD PARTIES AND THE PEROT PUZZLE................3
3. CHAPTER OUTLINE............................................8
4. THE TWO PARTY SYSTEM AND HISTORY OF THIRD PARTIES... 14
Modern Third Parties.............................23
What History Shows...............................28
5. OBSTACLES TO THIRD PARTY SUCCESS..........................33
6. PEROT OVERCOMES THIRD PARTY OBSTACLES.....................59
The Uniqueness of Ross Perot.....................68
7. THE ELECTION OF 1996......................................80
The No Longer Unique Ross Perot..................86
8. JESSE VENTURA.............................................94
The Historical and Political Climate in Minnesota.98
Political Crisis and Major Party Decay............100
The Uniqueness of Jesse Ventura...................100
9. THE FALL OF THE REFORM PARTY..............................108
10. COULD THE FALL HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?.........................124
11. CONCLUSION: THE PEROT EXPERIENCE & WHAT IT MEANS.... 131
Since 1860, either a Democrat or a Republican has won the presidential
election in the United States. With the sole exception of Teddy Roosevelts Bull
Moose candidacy, either a Democrat or a Republican has also come in second place.
Contemporary American presidential politics is clearly dominated by the two major
parties. However, they are not the only parties in the race; minor parties also compete
for the presidency. Nothing in the Constitution mandates the two-party system, but
that is exactly what developed. In America, the reality is that candidates who are not
members of the two major parties have little or no chance of being elected.
In June of 1992, H. Ross Perot was leading the polls against President Bush
(Sr.) and Governor Clinton, historically marking the first time an independent
candidate ever scored better than the presumptive or actual nominees of either party
in the history of polling.1 Perot would go on to earn 19,741,657 votes 19% of
those cast.2 In the three presidential elections since, no third-party candidate
(including a second run by Perot) has come anywhere near that vote total. Part of the
reasons for these poor showings by third-party candidates are the institutional and
1 William A.DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George
W. Bush, (New York, Gramercy Books, 2002), 719.
2 http://presidentelect.org/el992.html. Accessed 30 May 2005.
cultural obstacles. Perot and his Reform Party were able to partially overcome some
of those disadvantages in 1992, but were unable to capitalize on that success.3
3 William B. Hesseltine, Third Party Movements in the United States, (Princeton, New Jersey: D. Van
Nostrand Company, Inc., 1962), 13. Although the term minor-party is more linguistically correct, the
term third party is generally accepted as being synonymous. The terms will be used as equivalents.
Hesseltine writes, any party challenging the two major parties [is] a third party.
AMERICAN THIRD PARTIES AND THE PEROT PUZZLE
The political party is an integral piece of the American political puzzle,
performing various functions. Leon Epstein defines political parties as continuing
entities under whose labels candidates seek and hold elective offices[they] are
organizationally desirable and probably essential in a democratic nation.4 John
Bibby and Sandy Maisel write, Political parties are thus intermediaries between the
citizens and the government.5 Although not specifically mentioned in the
Constitution, political parties serve vital functions in American democracy:
They [political parties] aggregate the opinions and interests
of different elements of society; they socialize new citizens
into the political system; they recruit leaders to serve in the
government; they compromise competing demands among
their followers; they contest elections that in turn legitimize
the power of those in government; and they organize the
Lowi and Romance write that parties function by creating connections between the
populace and the government by seeking to promote their own interests of power.7
4 Leon D. Epstein, Political Parties in the American Mold, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1986), 3.
5 John F. Bibby and L. Sandy Maisel, Two-Partiesor More?, (Cambridge: Westview Press, 2003), 4.
6 Bibby and Maisel, 4-5.
7 Theodore J. Lowi and Joseph Romance, A Republic of Parties? Debating the Two-Party System,
(Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 1998), xi.
Moreover, parties are best seen as groups of ambitious men and women who band
together to achieve their political goals, the primary goal being power.8 Voters
depend on political parties to make sense of the issues and candidates and to give a
label to a core set of beliefs to which people can then match to their own.9 Once the
parties have defined their positions, people can accept or reject the ideas put forth by
a party based on their personal values. The give and take between the party and its
members is a dynamic feedback process, with people shaping the parties values and
in turn, the party promoting those values for the people. Political parties give
American voters a framework to understand the political system. With only two
major parties, this makes American politics an us vs. them, winner take all
system. The two-party system does not leave space for any other contenders to the
throne. Third parties are systematically left out of the political game.
American history has shown that there are basically only two political parties
at any given time with any realistic chance of winning a presidential election. There
are always minor parties of various political persuasions running against the two
major parties, but they are rarely, if ever, significant factors in the election. The
obvious major exceptions to this are Lincoln (Republican) in 1860, Roosevelt (Bull
Moose) in 1912, and Perot (Independent, later Reform Party) in 1992 and Nader
(Green) in 2000. Of these exceptions: Lincoln was victorious, Roosevelt came in
8 Lowi and Romance, ix.
second, Perot placed third with a significant percentage of the popular vote, but no
electoral votes, and Nader possibly changed the outcome in 2000. The point being,
that the final fate of third parties in presidential races is most likely one of failure.
The reasons for the failure of third parties to emerge victorious are numerous.
It is generally agreed that third parties fail because they are unable to overcome the
systemic and cultural barriers that come with bucking the two-party system.
Systemic barriers include the Electoral College, ballot access, funding, incumbency,
winner-take-all voting, and non-inclusion in debates. Cultural barriers include the
two-party expectations of the voters, instinct for party loyalty, being taken seriously
by the media, and the perception of vote wasting.
It is these obstacles that frustrate third parties and their followers. Taken
together, these barriers are formidable opponents that must be overcome by the third-
party candidates if they are to win or even to be competitive. In order to do this; there
must be a perfect storm scenario. The historical moment must be just right,
requiring a confluence of political crisis and major-party decay. Moreover, third-
party candidates must have unique qualities that set them apart from both their major-
party adversaries as well as other minor-party candidates. These factors conspire to
keep the U.S. a virtual two-party oligarchy. 9
9 Bibby and Maisel, 5.
The incredible rate of election failure by third parties in presidential elections
makes the run of Ross Perot all the more remarkable. A Texas billionaire with no
political experience was able to stand toe-to-toe at three presidential debates with
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Becoming a factor in the 1992 elections and
winning 19% of the popular vote vaulted Perot into the political spotlight, only to see
him follow the historical trend of third parties. His second run at the presidency,
while impressive by third-party standards, paled in comparison to his previous run.
Less impressive still, in terms of possibly being elected, were the runs of his Reform
Party successors, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, whose runs more closely mirrored
the traditional no chance stigma of third parties.
However, the success of Perot in 1992 gives sufficient reason to revisit the
role of third parties in American history and what the Perot experience means to that
role.10 The Perot experience provides a new political puzzle to be analyzed and
applied to the future of third parties in the United States.
In investigating the successes and failures of the modern Reform Party
experiment, this paper will address several questions.
10 Daniel A. Mazmanian, Third Parties in Presidential Election, (Washington, DC: The Brookings
Institution, 1974,) 4.
The term success is used if the third party: 1. Wins the election, such as Lincoln in 1860. 2. The
presidential candidate gains a significant number of votes. This number (5.6 % of the popular vote)
was established by Daniel Mazmanian and is used to identify the most successful third party
candidates compared to their third party peers. 3. The party was able to create political change, such as
Perots 1992 run when the Democrats and Republicans began focusing on Perots pet issue of the
1. How and why was Ross Perot able to overcome the disadvantages that exist for
2. Why was the Reform Party unable to build on its 1992 success and remain
3. Can a third-party that is competitive and routinely wins elections be permanently
CHAPTER 4: THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM AND THE HISTORY OF
This section will present the evolution of the two-party system as well as
examine the nature and consequences of different third-party movements throughout
the nations history. In this section, historical themes emerge showing patterns for
third parties. For example, third parties that are successful in one election rarely
improve upon that success in the next election. Also, there has never been a
permanent and competitive third-party that regularly won elections and only two have
ever replaced a major-party.11 This shows a strong history of third parties being
unable to break through the two-party structure.
CHAPTER 5: OBSTACLES TO THIRD PARTY SUCCESS
This section will detail the barriers faced by third parties. It will be divided
into institutional disadvantages (i.e., winner-take-all single member district system)
and cultural disadvantages (i.e., public perception of third parties, instinct for party
loyalty). The institutional section will also include how the major parties
manipulate the rules (public financing, ballot access, and debate access). This section
11 The Whigs replaced the Federalists and the Republicans later replaced the Whigs.
will establish just how difficult it is for third parties to succeed, illustrating the
significance of Perots run.
CHAPTER 6: PEROT OVERCOMES THIRD-PARTY OBSTACLES
This section will show how Perot was able to beat the system and become a
contender in the 1992 election. First examined is the historical context. Perots
ability to take advantage of the situation (weak opponents in Clinton and Bush,
growing cynicism, his perception as an outsider, public discontent during a
recession year) was critical to his success.
Next, I will examine Perots personal characteristics. Perot was able to
overcome these disadvantages with his political ideas (populist, common sense,
down-home approach, return to traditional American values). I will also examine
the effect of Perots enormous wealth on the campaign. Further, I will examine his
innovative media strategies, such as appearing on Larry King and his unforgettable
infomercials that had him using a pointer and pie-graphs to set him apart from the
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I will examine Perots inclusion in the
presidential debates. Perots being invited to participate in the presidential debates
gave voters the perception that Perot was a legitimate candidate, an advantage most
third parties do not enjoy. It was not just his invitation to the debates that helped him
gain legitimacy; it was also his credible performance in the debates. Being invited to
the debate was a rather surprising change to a critical institutional barrier and also a
strategy that backfired on President Bush.
CHAPTER 7: THE ELECTION OF 1996
The section details how and why the Reform Party did not improve upon its
success, by comparing the 1992 and 1996 campaigns: Perots ideas were co-opted
by the Democrats and Republicans (which shows success in its own right), the
historical context had changed, and the publics perception of Perot was turning
negative. This will include the publics perception of Perot as a demagogue.12 It
was the 1996 election that showed the Reform Party would be another in a long line
of third parties unable to capitalize on their success.
CHAPTER 8: JESSE VENTURA
The gubernatorial victory of Jesse Ventura in Minnesota could have been a
new beginning for the Reform Party. Ventura proved that a third-party candidate
could win a major office by employing some of the same tactics that Perot used
(innovative media strategies and down-home talk). Ventura faced many of the
same challenges as Perot and was able to get elected using many of Perots strategies.
However, it was the clash between Ventura supporters and Perot supporters (as well
as other Reform Party factions) that sounded the death knell for the party.
CHAPTER 9: THE FALL OF THE REFORM PARTY
This section will chronicle the other Reform Party presidential candidates, as
well as one man, Governor Dick Lamm, who was unsuccessful in winning the party
nomination. It also compares the campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader to the
original Reform candidates, and why the differences showed the Party did not have
a core set of beliefs. It is this lack of a foundation of beliefs that is key to
understanding the fall of the party. The Reform Party, like other third parties before
it, could not recover from this deep schism between members. Regardless of whether
Ventura became the head of the party or not, Perots vise-grip on the party gave the
impression that he was not willing to make the necessary changes to make the Reform
Party a lasting political party. All political parties must deal with tactical mistakes
and divergent personalities, but third parties also have to contend with the structural
obstacles. Major parties are able to withstand mistakes, both tactical and personal,
because they are favored by the institutional/cultural bias. It is the intersection of
mistakes, personalities, and barriers that conspire to destroy third parties and keep
them from becoming consistently competitive. The Reform Party was not able to
overcome these factors and eventually regressed to a non-competitive status. 12
12 Carolyn Barta, Perot and His People: Disrupting the Balance of Political Power, (Fort Worth,Texas:
CHAPTER 10: COULD THE FALL HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
This section shows how the Reform Party sealed its own fate. In the
aftermath of the 1992 election, there was a framework of a new political party that
could have stayed competitive. Although unlikely because of the winner-take-all
system, the Reform Party could have possibly become a permanently competitive
third party. However, it is more likely that it could have replaced one of the major
parties. Ultimately, it did neither.
In the wake of the 1992 election, the Reform Party had a membership in
excess of one million people.13 But rather than building on the promising start of
1992, the Reform Party became mired in controversy due to the re-nomination of
Perot over Lamm. Furthermore, it did not capitalize on the surprising 1998 victory of
Jesse Ventura in Minnesota, causing him to leave the Reform Party. A lack of core
beliefs and continuity of candidates in the presidential races and the decision not to
contest state and local elections further led to the weakening of the party. However,
even if these mistakes had not been made, there was no guarantee of continued
success for the Reform Party. The tactical errors made sure the Reform Party would
not continue to be a factor in American politics.
The Summit Group, 1993), 193 and xxii.
CHAPTER 11: THE PEROT EXPERIENCE AND WHAT IT MEANS
The conclusion analyzes how and why Perot had the opportunity to establish a
permanent third-party. Whether he could have been ultimately successful in
establishing a multi-party system or replacing one of the major parties cannot be
known. What is known is that the Reform Party is no longer a party of consequence
in major elections. This section shows the bedrock-like strength of the two-party
system in America and the near impossibility of establishing a permanently
competitive third-party. It will place Perot and the Reform Party in historical context
and how it fits the pattern of third-party success (and failure) in the American system. 13
13 Walder, 669.
THE TWO PARTY SYSTEM AND THE HISTORY OF THIRD PARTIES
There have been more than one thousand minor parties in the United States
throughout its history. Some succeeded in winning political office, others influenced
public policy, but only one since 1860, the Republicans, has risen to the level of
major-party.14 Several factors affect the success of third parties. First, there is the
presence of a political crisis, such as Freemasonry, slavery, immigration, and
segregation. Second, major-party decay (inability to handle the political crisis and/or
retaining voter trust and identification) leaves an opening for third parties. Third,
successful coalitions of third parties, such as what the Republicans did in 1860, can
lead to the replacement of a major-party. Fourth, is the presence of lowered
institutional and/or cultural barriers to success, and/or the party being able to
overcome the remaining obstacles. Fifth, is the presence of a notable candidate.
Sixth, is the level of legitimate media exposure. Finally, history shows that third
14 Steven Hill, Fixing Elections: The Failure of Americas Winner Take All Politics,
(New York, London: Routledge, 2002), 57. Hill considers the Republicans a third-party, whereas
some scholars such as Hesseltine do not. I am using the Republicans as an example of a third party
based on the fact that they (Republicans) were challenging the established parties of the Democrats and
the Whigs. By 1860 the Republicans had replaced the Whigs as a major party.
parties fade away if and when the major parties co-opt the critical issue that initially
helped the minor-party.
Third parties can succeed during moments of political crisis, when major
parties prove unable to respond effectively to major issues of the day, and when
unique combinations of historical luck (i.e. great candidates, reduced third party
obstacles) turn their way. These third parties put great pressure on the two-party
system, forcing them to respond by altering their politics to incorporate (co-opt) third
party energy and ideas, and thereby undermine the conditions for third party success.
HISTORY OF THIRD PARTIES IN AMERICA
The first minor-party of note in American political history was the Anti-
Masons.15 As their name suggests, the Anti-Masons formed in 1827 as a reaction to
the power (real or imagined) of the Freemasons.16 The Anti-Masons are generally
credited with being the first political party to hold a national convention, which
occurred on 26 September 1831.17 The Anti-Masonic candidate for President in the
1832 election was William Wirt, who received eight percent of the popular vote, as
well as Vermonts seven electoral votes.18
15 Frank Smallwood, Other Candidates: Third Parties in Presidential Elections, (Hanover and London:
University Press of New England, 1983), 14.
16 Richardson, 50.
17 Darcy G. Richardson, Others: Third Party Politics from the Nations Founding to the Rise and Fall
of the Greenback-Labor Party, (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2004), 57.
18 Daniel A. Mazmarian, Third Parties in Presidential Elections, (Washington DC: The Brookings
Institution, 1974), 5.
The elections of 1836 saw Democrat Martin Van Buren defeat no less than
three Whig candidates: William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster, and Hugh Lawson
White. The Whig party felt running three different candidates that were popular in
specific geographic regions would throw the election to the House of Representatives
and be a significant rebuke of Andrew Jacksons hand-chosen successor. The Whigs
and the Democrats would become the two major parties contesting the presidency
until the election of 1856, when the Whigs showed signs of breaking apart. Former
President Millard Fillmore was the American Party candidate as well as the Whig
candidate.19 It is significant to note that Fillmore is listed as the American Party
candidate first and the Whig second.20 By the election of 1860, there is no Whig
candidate. The Republicans had replaced them as a major party.
The Free-Soil party became a factor in national politics in the early to mid 19th
Century. The Free-Soilers wanted to stop the expansion of slavery into the new
territories. The movement for Free Trade, Free Labor, Free Soil, Free Speech and
Free Men is credited with being a kind of prequel to the formation of the
Republicans.21 Between 1840 and 1852 the Liberty and Free Soil Parties agitated
the slavery issue, preparing the way for the rise of the Republican Party.22 The
William A. DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents: From George Washington to George
W. Bush, (New York: Random House, 2002), 112.
19 DeGregorio, 216.
20 DeGregorio, 216.
21 Richardson, 113-114.
22 Hesseltine, 31.
high point for the Free Soilers in presidential politics came in the election of 1848.
Former President Van Buren, leaving the Democrats, ran as a Free-Soiler and
garnered ten percent of the popular vote, but no Electoral College votes.23
The Know-Nothings, also known as the American Party, was a nativist
reaction to the significant influx of Irish-Catholics. The Know-Nothings formed to
prevent Irish-Catholics from attaining political office.24 One of the high points of
political influence for this new party was 1854 when they captured all eleven seats in
the U.S. House of Representatives from the state of Massachusetts.25 The Know-
Nothings also have the distinction of being the only third-party in American history to
have a member become the Speaker of the House. Know-Nothing Nathaniel P.
Banks, who won a contentious election for the post, led the 34th U.S. Congress.26 In
the 1856 presidential election, former President Millard Fillmore, running both as a
Know-Nothing and a Whig, won 22%, or almost 875,OCX), of the votes cast.27
This history of third parties through the pre-Civil War period shows that
competitive third parties arise at times of political crisis (Freemasonry, expansion of
slavery, mass immigration). Political crises spawning third parties continued in the
post-Civil War era. Reoccurring themes, such as major-party decay/realignment,
23 DeGregorio, 181.
34 Richardson, 170-171.
25 Richardson, 178.
25 Richardson, 217.
27 DeGregorio, 217.
coalition-building, lowered institutional/cultural obstacles and/or the presence of a
notable candidate, continued.
James L. Sundquist writes ...the two-party system was established in the
1830s as a permanent feature of American politics.28 Since that time only one party
has replaced a major-party. In 1860, the Republicans displaced the Whigs as one of
the big two. William B. Hesseltine writes of the birth of the Republicans:
The Republicans were never a third-party. They were,
rather, the coalescence of third parties and fragments of
old parties into a new major-party. [Including] Free-Soilers,
Liberty men, Old Whigs, Know-Nothings, anti-Nebraska
Democrats, Loco-Focos, [and] Barnburners.29
The Whigs were in such a state of decay that the Republicans supplanted them almost
immediately. The merging of numerous minor parties gave the birth of the new party
a unique flavor. The ideological breadth and depth of the diversified parties that
came together gave the Republicans a wide-ranging base of support, something most
traditional third parties do not have. The coalition that spawned the Republican Party
and Hesseltines observation that they were never a third-party can be seen as
contradictory to other scholars, such as Steven Hill, who do describe the Republicans
as a third party. The Republicans were a third-party in the sense that they were
challenging the established parties of the time, and therefore are useful in analyzing
28 James L. Sundquist, Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties
in the United States, (Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1983), 47.
29 Hesseltine, 47.
subsequent third parties. The birth of the Republican Party shows how a new
political entity can replace one of the major partiesif a party is disintegrating. The
almost instantaneous rise of a new major-party also illustrates just how dilapidated
the Whig party had become, allowing a new party to replace it with such rapidity.
The Republicans serve as an opportunistic model of how a new party can take
advantage of a major party in a state of disarray.
The Whigs fell because they could not adapt to the changing political
landscape and divided amongst themselves, leaving an opening for a new party to
take their spot. The Republicans replacing the Whigs stands as the one unequivocal
success story of a party that challenged the two majors.
The question, then, arises: why were the Republicans successful? One of
the keys for third-party success is the presence of a political crisis.30 Obviously, the
Civil War counts as a political crisis. Slavery broke the Whig party along geographic
lines. When President Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, the Whigs opposing
the Act denied Fillmore their re-nomination for president in 1852. Instead, they
chose war hero Gen. Winfield Scott.31
Political crisis and the internal decay of the Whigs worked simultaneously to
help the Republicans replace the Whigs as one of the two major parties. As a party,
30 Smallwood, 13.
31 Richardson, 244-5.
the Whigs had been losing political ground in both the House and the Senate since the
early 1850s, contributing to their eventual fall.32
The Republicans replacing the Whigs as one of the two major parties is
generally seen as one of the major-party realignments in American history.33 Political
realignment occurs when the political norm itself changes and is evidenced by
durability, and a shift in the distribution of basic party attachments.34 As
Sundquist notes, such party realignment is not an instantaneous process, but rather
takes place over a period of decades.35 The intersection of political crisis and the
internal decay of the Whigs led to a major political realignment. The Republicans
had put themselves in position to displace the disintegrating Whigs as a major
American political party.
Moreover, the anti-slavery parties were able to fuse together to form one
larger party able to compete on equal footing with the Democrats. The new
Republican Party included former Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats, and also
included the members of the Know-Nothings, while in some states the Republicans
ran as a joint ticket with the Whigs.36 Other members of minor parties that joined the
Republicans were from the Anti-Administration, Anti-Nebraska, Free-Soil
32 Richardson, 245.
33 Sundquist, 7,47.
34 Sundquist, 4,5, 6,13.
35 Sundquist, 48.
36 Sundquist, 76,77 & 81.
Democrats, Peoples, [and] Union [parties].37 Being able to unite people from all
these different parties gave the new Republicans numbers and legitimacy and within
a few short months of their founding... [they] had become the second largest political
party in the United States.38 Their legitimacy was solidified with the election of
Lincoln in 1860, who won a four-way contest against Stephen A. Douglas
(Democrat), John C. Breckinridge (National Democrat), and John Bell (Constitutional
Union).39 Lincoln won with 40% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes.40 This
illustrates how coalition building among the minor parties can help lead to electoral
success, whereas winning the election would have been much more difficult had the
Republicans been more ideologically narrow.
The Republicans emerged from the election of 1860 stronger than the party
they replaced.41 A permanent realignment of the Americas two-party system had
taken place with the elevation of the Republicans. Sundquist writes ...realignments
never occur until there is a change in control of government and the successful
application by the winning party of its policies.42 The new Republican Party clearly
met this standard of control and application.
37 Richardson, 251.
38 Richardson, 250.
39 DeGregorio, 233-234.
40 DeGregorio, 234.
41 Sundquist, 92.
42 Sundquist, 92,97.
Furthermore, the obstacles to third-party success that are part of the current
political landscape were not present (or were not as prevalent) during this period of
time. For example, before 1890 ballot access was not as complex an obstacle as it is
in contemporary politics.43 Minor parties were also not as burdened with the wasted
vote theory that is constantly drummed into voters minds today.44 Rather, third
parties were seen as legitimate contenders in the democratic process. Well-known
politicians aligned themselves with third parties. Former President John Quincy
Adams was elected to Congress on the Anti-Masonic ticket. After their terms,
Presidents Van Buren and Fillmore ran for the White House again as third-party
candidatesa theme repeated by Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.45 The mass media also
did not treat third parties as sideshows. Darcy Richardson observes newspapers and
journals in the past.. .frequently provided meaningful coverage to candidates running
outside the traditional two-party system.46 Third parties were not treated as spoilers,
but rather legitimate candidates. With fewer structural and cultural disadvantages,
third parties were able to play a vital role in American politics.
Interestingly enough, the Republicans replacing the Whigs as a major-party
showed the strength of the two-party system in America. The Republicans did not
become a permanent third-party but rather replaced a major-party that had fallen
43 Richardson, 9.
44 Richardson, 11.
45 Richardson, 11.
apart. During a crisis of massive proportions (the Civil War) the two-party system
changed, but endured, foreshadowing the difficulty of establishing a permanently
competitive third-party in America. A new major-party had emerged, yet the two-
party system remained. This was a critical time for the two-party system. The Whigs
were splintered and dying, but rather than make room for the Republicans and change
to a multi-party system, the two-party system endured.
MODERN THIRD PARTIES
The 20th century saw several third-party presidential candidates do well in
elections, though none of them matched the success of the Republicans. In 1912,
Teddy Roosevelt split from the Republicans to form the more progressive Bull Moose
Party. Roosevelts new party advocated for womens suffrage, fair labor laws, and a
social security system.47 Unable to secure the Republican nomination, Roosevelt
formed a new party to nominate him. As a former president, Roosevelt was
obviously prominent in the American political scene and did not have to sell himself
as a legitimate candidate, which other third-party candidates are forced to do.
Smallwood writes that the prominence and visibility of third-party candidates
are one of the factors to success outside the two-party system. Candidate prominence
would also be a contributing factor in Perots 1992 candidacy. Teddy Roosevelt lost
to Wilson in the election 435 to 88 in the Electoral College, but handily beat Taft by 46
46 Richardson, 9.
eighty electoral votes.47 48 Socialist Eugene V. Debs earned 6% of the vote, with no
electoral votes. Roosevelt was also the first major third-party candidate of the new
century and set a precedent of minor-party presidential candidates that left the big
two to stage their insurgency, only to return later to their original party.
Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin picked up the Progressive banner and earned
17% of the popular vote and 13 electoral votes in the 1924 election.49 LaFollette was
a Republican who, like Roosevelt, pushed for more socially liberal policies. Without
the name recognition of a former president at the top of the ticket, the Progressives
saw their support drop precipitously.
1948 saw another presidential election with a popular third-party candidate: J.
Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Thurmond actually ran as a renegade Democrat.
This is another example of a political crisis being the impetus for a new party.
Opposed to the extension of civil rights, Thurmonds new party was called the States
Rights or Dixiecrat Party. Thurmond won only 2% of the national vote, but earned
39 electoral votes. Carrying the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South
Carolina showed Thurmonds support was very deep in the South, but the only
northern states to even have him on the ballot were Minnesota and North Dakota.50
Becoming president was not Thurmonds goal; rather he wanted to earn enough
47 DeGregorio, 416.
48 DeGregorio, 417.
48 DeGregorio, 455.
electoral votes to send the election to the House.* 51 He was also not interested in
establishing the Dixiecrats as their own distinct political entity. In fact, the Dixiecrats
claimed they were the true Democrats and were not really a third-party, but actually
a party within a party.52
The next major third-party presidential candidate came in the election of 1968
when George Wallace earned 46 electoral votes and almost ten million (13.5%) of the
popular vote.53 Wallace formed the American Independence Party, built on an anti-
civil rights platform. As Governor of Alabama he had (in)famously declared
segregation now.. .segregation tomorrow.. .segregation forever.54 As with
Thurmond before him, the stated goal of Wallace and his campaign was not to win
the presidency. Rather, his goal was to earn enough Electoral College votes to send
the election to the House of Representatives, where he could throw his support to the
party that was willing to adopt some of his positions.55 It did not work. Nixon won
the election outright. In 1972, Wallace returned to the Democrats and attempted
another unsuccessful run at the presidency.56 The American Independence Party ran
candidates in the next elections (John Schmitz in 1972, Lester Maddox in 1976, and
John Rarick in 1980), but was never again a significant factor in presidential
51 Hesseltine, 95-96.
52 Hesseltine, 97.
53 DeGregorio, 589.
54 Mazmanian, 12.
55 Mazmanian, 14.
elections. These examples show that third parties can succeed during political crises
(integration, the 1960s), but long-term competitiveness eludes the once successful
third parties. Furthermore, without the forceful personality of Wallace at the helm,
the AIP faded.
Neither Thurmond nor Wallace was trying to establish a permanent third-party
to challenge the duopoly of the Democrats and Republicans. They led protest parties,
and focused on specific political and geographical issues. The inability to push those
issues within the confines of the established parties led Wallace and Thurmond to
look outside the system to promote their anti-civil rights dogma. Their return to the
major parties (Wallace to the Democrats, while Thurmond switched to the
Republicans) showed they were not trying to permanently alter the party system, but
just to work outside it when it suited their needs. The two-party system is flexible
enough to endure these major third-party challenges without breaking into a multi-
party system. If anything, Thurmond and Wallace show the strength and resiliency of
the two-party system.
Republican John Anderson picked up the third-party banner in 1980. He
broke from his party and ran for president as part of the National Unity Campaign.
While not an official party, the NUC was a coalition of like-minded individuals and
groups dedicated to political reform. Anderson ran as an Independent because he 56
56 Smallwood, 136.
decided so late in the campaign to run (24 April, 1980) that he had missed filing
deadlines for ballot access in certain states.57 Anderson advocated economic controls,
but was basically economically conservative while holding socially liberal positions
on abortion and gay rights.58 During the campaign, polls in the late spring/early
summer had him at twenty percent of the popular vote.59 His poll numbers were so
high that the League of Women Voters invited him to the presidential debates.
President Carter refused to debate with Anderson, fearing that Andersons centrist
leaning would hurt Carters campaign.60 Instead, Anderson debated only Governor
Ronald Reagan. Carters refusal to debate left Anderson without the legitimization
the debates give candidates. In 1992, Perot would make his move up the polls
because of the debates, but Anderson was not given that opportunity because of
Carters decision. As Perot and Jesse Ventura show, in modem politics, third-party
campaigns are greatly enhanced by inclusion in debates. Without the media exposure
of being included in the presidential debates, Andersons campaign was hurt. John
Andersons campaign was also hit from both sides with the wasted vote angle,
although more so from Carter than Reagan. Anderson earned 6.61% of the popular
vote, but no electoral votes.61
57 Smallwood. 191 & 226.
58 Smallwood, 231-232.
59 Smallwood, 227.
WHAT HISTORY SHOWS
Third parties use the fertile ground of political crisis to grow, but will likely
whither on the vine once the major parties adapt to the new political reality. If the
major parties are not handling the crisis well, third parties can arise to fill that void.
Insurgencies from third parties shake up the two-party duopoly and force the major
parties to change or face the same fate as the Whigs. By incorporating new leaders,
ideas, or focus, the Democrats and/or Republicans reabsorb the radical energy of the
third-party movement. Once the major parties prove themselves ready and capable
of addressing the grievances put forth by the third-party, the incentives for voters to
stray from the major parties lessens. This leaves the third-party without a vital
ingredient to success. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt utilizing policies put
forth by Debs (such as Social Security) is an example of how a major party can
absorb the radical energy of a third party. Thurmond abandoned his third-party
dalliance (and switched parties) when the Republicans Southern Strategy of
appealing to the white south was in full swing.
Ross Perot drew 19% of the vote in 1992 with a platform of government
reform and debt reduction. By 1996, both Republicans and Democrats had addressed
these factors, an adaptation that worked against Perot in his second presidential run. 60 61
60 Smallwood, 227.
61 Smallwood, x.
According to Daniel A. Mazmanian, modem third-party candidates for the
presidency do best when their candidacies meet three criteria: 1. There must be a
major controversial political issue or issues. 2. The two major parties are not
representing a significant point of view on the issue, leaving an opening for a third-
party to represent the minority interest. 3. A group or individual promotes
mobilization behind the third-party.62 Wallaces 1968 run for president exemplified
all three of these criteria. Civil rights legislation, especially as it applied to the
desegregation of the South, was the divisive issue. In 1968, neither the Democrats
nor Republicans were actively promoting segregation, leaving an opening for a pro-
segregation third-party. Finally, George Wallace was a charismatic figure that people
were willing and able to rally around.
Ross Perots run in 1992 also met these criteria. Perot pressed the national
debt and government waste as the significant issues. These two points were not being
addressed properly by the major parties, to Perots liking anyway, and therefore he
was able to use them as the basis of his campaign. Personal charisma worked to
Perots advantage in 1992, giving his followers a focus for their political movement.
However, one critical difference between the Thurmond/Wallace runs and Perots
was that Perot was trying to become president and not just disrupt the election to get
his issue addressed.
62 Mazmanian, 19-26.
Frank Smallwood writes that third parties have three functions in the
American system: to produce procedural reforms, to propose new ideas and policies
to the public, and to be a check on the effectiveness of the major parties.63 It is
interesting to note that these functions in effect serve the two-party system and do not
change the basic structure of it. Third parties in America are not supposed to be
permanent. In fact, what third parties have done is exactly as Smallwood describes;
they have introduced new ideas and thereby influenced and changed the two-party
system. There has never been a permanently competitive third-party in America.
Each of the five major third-party presidential campaigns in the 20th centuiy have
shown they can make a splash in an election, but are unable to be a continuing factor
in elections. No modem third-party has done better (in terms of votes) in the second
presidential election than they did in their first. This is usually due to one of the
major parties co-opting their critical issue, without which third parties struggle to
make an impact. The energy that third parties bring to elections is absorbed by the
major parties, which leaves voters without the incentive to continue their support of
Minor parties can be broken down into several basic categories: 1. Single-
Issue Parties (Know-Nothings, Dixiecrat). 2. General Platform Parties (Libertarians,
Socialists). 3. Protest Parties (Greenbacks, Populists). 4. Factional Parties (Bull
63 Smallwood, 26.
Moose, Dixiecrats).64 Nelson writes that Perot exists completely outside that
taxonomy.65 From a certain point of view, it is true that Perot does not easily fit into
these categories, but he has characteristics of the first three categories. For example,
Perot was pushing a critical issue (deficit spending), but had also outlined a general
platform of government reform and his runs were certainly protesting governmental
inefficiency. Perot also brings in another category, that of third parties being a
vehicle for Individual Personalities.
While recognizing that all third-party presidential runs are mix of each type to
some extent, it is clear that the most successful modern presidential runs by third
parties strongly combine at least two. Thurmond and Wallace combined a Single-
Issue with Individual Personalities. Anderson took more of a General Platform with
Factional. Perot combined all except the Factional, and he was, in terms of
percentage of the vote, the second most successful behind Roosevelt. However,
combining these types do not necessarily mean success (Buchanan and Nader, who
like Perot, combined at least three). Without a favorable historical moment and
major-party decay, third parties are not in a position to be major players in
64 Nelson, Michael, The Election: Turbulence and Tranquility in Contemporary American Politics, in
The Elections of 1996, edited by Michael Nelson. (Washington DC, CQ Press, 1997), 64.
65 Nelson in The Elections of 1996,64.
Third parties in America have been able to take advantage of a political crisis
in order to bring vital new issues before the major parties. However, they have not
been able to build upon this success and continue to be competitive election after
election. Why are they unable to do so? Part of the answer lies in the numerous
institutional and cultural obstacles that face third parties in America.
OBSTACLES TO THIRD-PARTY SUCCESS
A major impediment to third-party success is the advantage of incumbency.
According to Gordon Black and Benjamin Black, incumbents running for re-election
to the House of Representatives have won over 90% of the time since 1976, peaking
as high as 98% in 1986 and 1988.66 More recently (2002), Steven Hill reported 95%
of all incumbents win re-election.67 This propensity for House members to be re-
elected was so strong that in 1992,79% of incumbents seeking re-election ran
unopposed.68 Since almost all incumbents are either Republicans or Democrats, the
power of incumbency helps solidify the strength of the two-party system. Even when
the opposing party runs a candidate against an incumbent, they are often what Black
and Black term a token challenger.69 The powers of incumbency and
gerrymandered districts are so strong, that even major parties choose to sit out
elections rather than waste resources on a losing proposition.
With all the resources available to the established parties that still forfeit
elections, what realistic chance would a third-party have? Two parties can compete
Gordon S. Black and Benjamin D. Black, The Politics of American Discontent, (New York: John
Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1994), 35,
67 Hill, Fixing Elections, 75.
68 Black and Black, 34.
in this system because they both have enough safe seats to be competitive in the
overall picture, while third parties must overcome the power of incumbency in every
election they contest (except in the rare instances that the office is held by a third-
party member). The major parties are also able to compete against the power of
incumbency better than third parties because of the numerous other obstacles that
third parties have to overcome but major parties do not. Incumbency power drives
down competition for offices, especially challenges from third parties.
Incumbents prove difficult to defeat because of institutional practices that
benefit them. The ability of incumbents to raise tremendous amounts of money is
paramount to their electability. Political Action Committees (PACs) give money to
candidates in hopes that in exchange for financial support, the office holder will grant
PAC representatives access to the office holder and presumably give the PAC
influence over the way the office holder votes. Therefore, in order for PACs to exert
their desired influence over policy, it behooves the PAC to donate heavily to
candidates who have already shown they can win elections and (presumably) are
willing to grant access to the PAC.
In the 1982 elections for the House of Representatives, fully 67% of PAC
money was distributed to incumbents.70 Between 1986 and 1992, the greatest
contributors to incumbent campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans were 69
69 Black and Black, 32.
PACs.70 71 An example of this quid pro quo expected by PACs is that Much of
President [George W.] Bushs financial support came from those who benefited most
directly from the $1.7 billion worth of tax cuts he engineered.72 Lowi and Romance
write that PACs contribute to the decadence of the two-party system and that
political innovation is actually stunted by PAC financial influence.73
Without the financial support of PACs, third parties are at a decided
disadvantage in their quest to gain office. PACs have no incentive to contribute to
candidates that do not have a reasonable chance of winning. Since the vast
majority of elected offices are held by Democrats or Republicans, PACs fund only
their campaigns, naturally leading to a perpetuation of the two parties being in power.
Not only do Republicans and Democrats receive large amounts of private
money for campaigning; it is also much easier for them to get money from public
funding sources. Third-party candidates are not automatically eligible for
government campaign money the way Democrats and Republicans are. In order to
qualify for public money, third-party presidential candidates often must take out bank
loans to fund their campaign; these loans can be paid back with government money,
but that money is only distributed after the election and only i/the candidate gets 5%
70 Epstein, 291.
71 Black and Black, 43.
72 Robert B. Reich, Reason: Why Liberals will win the Battle for America, (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 2004), 95.
73 Lowi and Romance, 17.
or more of the vote.74 Obviously this rule puts the third-party candidate at a distinct
disadvantage. For presidential candidates, they must be on the ballot in ten states and
get 5% of the popular vote to qualify for after-the-fact funding. In fact, only 7% (10
of 148) third-party presidential candidates from 1840-1984 met this standard.75 Third
parties are further disadvantaged because they must abide by the same contribution
laws (amounts that can be given by individuals etc.) even before they have qualified
for government funding. In order to get 5% of the vote; the candidate needs money to
campaign. This is a classic catch-22.
Additionally, with the ability of third parties to get 5% of the vote generally in
doubt, they find it difficult to get banks to lend them money for their campaigns.
Lending institutions are just not confident enough that third parties will get the
amount of votes they need to get the government funding necessary to pay back the
loan; therefore, banks consider them a bad credit risk. In his run for governor of
Minnesota, eighteen different banks turned down loans for Jesse Ventura, even
though he was polling over 5%.76
74 Epstein, 316.
75 Steven J.Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus. Third Parties in America: Second
Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984 & 1996),
76 Jesse Ventura, I Aint Got Time to Bleed: Reworking the Body Politic from the Bottom Up, (New
York, Villard Books, 1999), 162.
Ronald Reagan once said, Ive never believed in government funding for
campaigns, because the government decides who gets it.77 That is exactly the
point. The Republicans and Democrats are the government. Relaxing campaign-
funding rules to allow for easier or before-the-vote access to public funding might
put their own power in jeopardy, so there is no incentive for them to reform the
In addition to funding, gerrymandering and redistricting are powerful tools
utilized by elected officials, which help them retain their offices. Elected officials are
able to draw district lines favorable to their own re-election, virtually guaranteeing
they stay in office. One of the most telling examples of this power was during the
Texas House races in 1992. Democrats had redrawn the districts and the results of the
election showed Republicans getting 48% of the vote, yet only winning 9 of the 30
available seats.78 Democrats were able to draw the boundaries so that the
Republicans had almost one-half of the vote, but received less than one-third of the
seats. While this was certainly good politics for the Democrats, it certainly was not a
reflection of the desires of the voters. Redrawing district boundaries to reflect
favorable demographics swings an incredible advantage to the party in power.
These advantages hurt third parties worse than major parties because of the
broad national strength of both the Democrats and Republicans. They can survive
77 Epstein, 334.
each others shenanigans because they are both such a solid part of political system.
Gerrymandering can not take away all competitive districts from one party or the
other, meaning that both parties always win substantial seats, and always leaving
open the possibility that eventually the minority party will replace the majority party.
Third parties enjoy none of these strengths, as they enjoy no districts engineered to
secure a certain third party victory, and there is little hope that they will ever gain
majority power with its redistricting perks.
Along with gerrymandering, elected officials are also given the privileges of
franking and having a staff paid for by the taxpayers. Franking is the free postage
afforded to elected officials. This gives them the ability to send literature to their
constituents free of charge. While the literature might not overtly be campaign
material, the ability to communicate with voters for free gives the incumbent a
significant advantage. The use of the frank is now a government license to bury
voters under mounds of propaganda designed to ensure re-election.78 79 Taxpayer
provided staffs are also routinely used as re-election actors, performing constituent
services and writing political newsletters and press releases.80 These are major-party
advantages built into the system that challengers, especially third-party challengers,
can not access.
78 Black and Black, 38.
79 Black and Black, 40.
80 Black and Black, 40.
While Republicans and Democrats have the benefit of automatic placement on the
ballot, just getting on the ballot can be an accomplishment for third parties. Each
state has its own set of ballot requirements. In Texas, in order for a presidential
candidate to be placed on the ballot, 54,000 signatures are required by the state by
early May. By contrast, in Tennessee, only 275 signatures are required.81 In North
Carolina, 2% of total voters signatures on a petition are required, and the state of
New York only gives candidates a six-week window of opportunity to get the
required signatures. Some of the requirements to gain access to the ballot can be very
specific; Hawaii, for example, accepts signatures written only in black ink.82 In order
to be put on the ballot in all fifty states, third-party candidates must have in place an
organized structure of staff and volunteers to tackle the massive obstacle of just being
placed on the ballot. Money, resources, and manpower (all of which third parties are
generally short of) must be dedicated to ballot access. During his 1980 run for the
presidency, John Anderson used about half of his campaign budget just getting on
the ballot in the fifty states.83
In this way, even though the law allows for third parties, the laws also restrain
third parties. Once in power, it behooves Democrats and Republicans to put into
place such rules and regulations that allow them to keep their power. In order to
81 Barta, 37.
82 Barta, 111-112.
survive, parties must win elections and therefore seek to limit competition for
In addition to the numerous, confusing, and often conflicting rules for ballot
access, Democrats and Republicans work together in other ways to keep third parties
at arms length. These tactics include:
Disqualifying signatures, adopting instant new
impediments, marginalizing ballot placement, ignoring
write-in votes, excluding candidates from debates, and
assorted shenanigans on election day (such as discouraging
or intimidating voters) and at ballot- counting time.85
Republicans and Democrats could not ask for a better situation. What possible
motivation could they have to relinquish this power? There is no incentive for
Democrats and Republicans to gladly allow third parties on the ballot, except in races
where occasionally one major party will push for third party access, believing that the
third party will drain votes from the opposing major party. But in such
circumstances, of course, the other major party resists.
Ralph Naders presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004 illustrate the difficulty of
getting on the ballot and how the Democrats and Republicans use third parties as a
political tool. Democrats have told voters that Green stands for Get Republicans
83 Michael S. Lewis-Beck and Peverill Squire, The Politics of Institutional Choice: Presidential Ballot
Access for Third Parties in the United States, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 25, No. 3 (July
84 Lewis-Beck and Squire, 420.
85 Ralph Nader, The Good Fight: Declare your Independence and Close the Democracy Gap, (New
York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2004), 24.
Elected Everywhere in November.86 Similarly in 2004, fearing his liberalism would
take votes from Sen. John Kerry, Democrats actively worked to keep Nader off the
ballot in key states such as Michigan, Arizona, and Illinois.87 An established party
was actively working to keep a legitimate candidate for president off the ballot. This
is a prime example of what Theodore Lowi calls the deliberate discouragement of
the formation or persistence of additional parties that the major parties both partake
in.88 Democrats were harassing Naders workers and searching for any technicality
to challenge Naders attempt to get on the presidential ballot in individual states.89
Ironically, the Greens received help from the Republicans in getting on the ballot.
Republicans gathered 43,000 signatures to place Nader on the Michigan ballot.90
Disingenuously, Republicans claimed they were helping Nader in order to clarify the
issues of the elections.91 The political reality was that the Republicans wanted Nader
on the ballot to take votes from Kerry. It was an act of political gamesmanship, not
86 Micah L. Sifry, Spoiling for a Fight: Third Parties in America, (New York: Routledge, 2002), 147.
87 Jim Spencer, Democrats battle to keep Nader off state ballots. Denver Post, 25 July 2004.
88 Theodore Lowi, Political Parties and the Future State of the Union, in American Political Parties:
Decline or Resurgence?, edited by Jeffery E. Cohen, Richard Fleisher, and Paul Kator. (Washington
CQ Press, 2001), 234.
90 David Broder, Nader hits a few speed bumps. The Washington Post printed in The Denver Post,
22 July 2004.
Naders experiences show how the two major parties use third parties as pawns in
the political chess game. The Democrats painted Nader as a year 2000 spoiler that
kept the winner of the popular vote from becoming president. The Republicans
wanted to use Nader as a siphon from the Democratic-voting base. These elections
are not three-way races among equals, but rather two-way races with the advantage
going to the major-party best able to use the minor candidate for their own purposes.
Democrats and Republicans also clearly have the distinct advantages of party
primaries. The primary system supports the perception that major parties [are]
private associations... converted into public utilities, if not actual government
agencies.92 With third parties not having access to state sponsored primary elections,
they are disconnected from the system. In fact, party primaries and the state are so
intertwined that the Supreme Court ha(s) found the primary to be part of the states
election process because it led to privileged access to its general election ballot.93
This is privileged access not accorded to third parties. Moreover, the Supreme Court
has decreed, political parties have become in effect state institutions, governmental
agencies through which sovereign power is exercised by the people.94 This status is
bequeathed to Democrats and Republicans but not third parties.
92 Epstein, 7.
93 Epstein, 174.
94 Epstein, 177.
A major institutional obstacle, the winner-take-all/ first-past-the-post system and
in presidential elections the Electoral College, work against third-party competition.
An alternative system that would work to the advantage of third parties is
proportional representation. With proportional representation, parties are awarded
seats based on the percentage of votes received, which would be helpful to third
parties. In the American system, only the winner (in terms of most votes received)
gets any political reward. With this no points for second place election system,
parties are forced to pursue policies that will gamer them broad support, or risk losing
the election. The winner-take-all system helps perpetuate the two-party system. This
phenomenon is called Duvergers Law, which states: two-party systems are likely to
develop in polities that use a single-member district, plurality system, such as that
found in the United States.95 Bibby and Maisel describe the system as being a
powerful influence in encouraging two-partyism.96
Seymour Upset and Gary Marks contend that the American presidential system
hurts third parties because of the principle of plurality...and the Electoral College.97
They further note that the United States is the only modem democracy that uses a
95 Ted G. Jelen, The Perot Campaign in Theoretical Perspective, in Ross for Boss: The Perot
Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
96 Bibby and Maisel, 61.
97 Seymour M. Upset and Gary Marks, It Didnt Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United
States. (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 48.
plurality electoral system with a single round of voting.98 While technically leaving
the possibility of a third-party victory in the Electoral College, it is a remote and
unprecedented possibility.99 Party consolidation is an effect of this system because
the presidential election is the ultimate example of winner-take-all politics with one
party controlling the presidency for a minimum of four years.100 This leaves third
parties with an incentive to join forces with the major-party that is closest to their
goals, lest they split the vote and aid in the election of their ideological opponent. For
example, some could argue that Ralph Nader in 2000 should have thrown his support
behind A1 Gore who was ideologically closer to Nader than was George W. Bush. It
is the institutional structure of the Electoral College that provides a strong
disincentive for third parties to contest the presidency, while simultaneously
providing an incentive for the major parties to exclude third-party contenders.
Furthermore, the importance of the presidency in the American system works
against third parties. Wielding the power of the presidency enables that party to set
the political agenda for that term. At worst, if the president faces both the House and
the Senate being controlled by the other party, he is able to impede the agenda of the
other party. This power provides voters with a disincentive to vote outside of their
preferred major-party. In order to win the presidency, logically, a third-party
98 Lipset and Marks, 49.
99 Lipset and Marks, 49.
100 Lipset and Marks, 49.
candidate would have to convince serious partisans to abandon their major-party.
However, because of the relative importance of the presidency, those with a major-
party preference would logically be less likely to vote for a third-party. The
importance of holding the office of president provides an incentive for people to stick
with their major-party preference. This line of thinking further illustrates the
remarkable run by Perot in 1992.
Without direct popular election of the President, only votes from the Electoral
College actually count in the presidential race. This leads to the concept of vote
wasting. With the popular vote only counting in the respect that it guides how the
Electors vote, if a voter does not cast their ballot for the winner, it is essentially
wasted. This phenomenon clearly affects third-party candidates. In the 1980
presidential election, John Anderson saw his support drop by 13% at election time.
He believed it was because voters had decided that he could not win and therefore a
vote for him was wasted.101 Of people who had considered voting for John Anderson,
45% said the reason they changed their mind was his inability to win, according to a
CPS 1980 National Election Study.102 Even voters who prefer a third-party candidate
find themselves in the position of having to decide between voting for their preferred
101 James Caesar and Andrew Busch, Upside Down and Inside Out: The 1992 Elections and American
Politics, (Lanham, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1993), 119.
102 Steven J.Rosenstone, Roy L. Behr, and Edward H. Lazarus. Third Parties in America: Second
Edition, Revised and Expanded, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984 & 1996),
candidate with no reasonable chance of winning or voting for their second choice
with a better chance of winning. Voters will eschew their favorite candidate to
avoid contributing to the victory of the least preferred of the major candidates.103
This works against the possibility of third-party success because,
The prospect of wasting your vote on a third-party
Candidate who doesnt stand a chance or, even worse,
voting for a third-party candidate like Ralph Nader who
might spoil your lesser of two evils candidate and help
elect your greater evil, are powerful disincentives that
have always knocked the legs out of third parties.104
Bibby and Maisel describe this action as strategic voting.105 During the 2000
presidential election, 90 percent of those who rated either Buchanan or Nader as
their preferred candidate voted for someone else.106
This system of electing a president can lead voters not to cast their vote for their
most preferred candidate, but rather the candidate they feel is closest to their views
while still having a chance to win. These actions can create the perception that only
the two major parties are worthy of a vote. An Instant Run-Off style of voting
could help eliminate the two-party bias by allowing voters to rank their preference of
candidates. Replacing the Electoral College with and Instant Run-Off system may
increase the incentive for voters to vote for their most preferred candidate rather than
104 Steven Hill, 57.
105 Bibby and Maisel, 74.
106 Bibby and Maisel, 75.
voting against their least preferred candidate. In and of itself, this new way of voting
may still not bring any third-party presidents, but it would theoretically lessen the
vote-wasting barrier faced by third parties.
The Electoral College presents a double-edged sword for third parties: first, it
leads to a mathematical improbability of a third-party actually winning and second,
the system then spins into the phenomenon of vote wasting. Either way, third parties
are put at a distinct institutional disadvantage.
Daniel Mazmanian contends eliminating the Electoral College would also in all
likelihood lead to many more third-party candidates.107 While this may very well be
true, a change in voting structure is unlikely to happen. Dropping the Electoral
College would require a change in the Constitution, with any combination of thirteen
states able to block this change. As difficult as this process of change is, the odds of
success would be even longer because there is no incentive for the Democrats and
Republicans to push the issue. If Mazmanian is right, and changing the system would
bring more parties, this could potentially hurt the Republicans and Democrats. It
would be difficult to imagine them supporting this change. If the election of 2000 did
not lead to the elimination of the Electoral College, when the Democrats at least
could have argued a short-term benefit, and the nation had just witnessed the
107 Mazmanian,! 11.
Electoral Colleges failure to register the winner of the popular vote, it will probably
Democrats and Republicans, with their stranglehold on power, are able to set the
institutional rules to their advantage, virtually guaranteeing the continuation of the
system. This ability to write their own rules is akin to the Colorado Rockies baseball
team being allowed twelve men out in the field, while the other team only gets nine.
That scenario could never happen, because the Rockies would never be allowed to
write their own rules, but that is exactly what the Democrats and Republicans are able
to do. By setting their own rules about such things as public funding, district shapes,
and a winner-take-all system, they can effectively eliminate third-party competition.
Granted, the rules and regulations put into place by elected officials are not
necessarily designed specifically to eliminate third-party competition, but they do
have some effect. The rules put in place by the two major parties are at least partially
responsible for the poor showings of third parties.
Being excluded from televised presidential debates is another key institutional
bias against third parties. The presidential debates allow the candidates to have a
forum with the voters to explain their vision for the country. When only the
Republican and Democratic candidate debate, this could promote the view that they
are the only two parties in the race. Without inclusion in the debates, third parties do
not have the same opportunity to reach the public. They also do not get to stand toe-
to-toe with the other candidates. Being on the same stage with the other candidates
would increase the visibility and the legitimacy of a third party candidate. Inclusion
in the debates proved to be helpful to Perot in 1992 (as well as Jesse Ventura in
1998). .108 So helpful, in fact, that Perot filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to be included
in the 1996 debates. Nader also filed a suit to be part of the 2004 debates; similarly
unsuccessful. The debates are a significant piece of presidential campaigns that are
almost always unavailable to third party candidates.
The instinct for party loyalty is one of the disadvantages of third parties; people
just do not consider third parties a viable option. Party affiliation becomes an
important part of voters identities. Once people associate themselves with one
particular party, does this lead them to stop considering other parties? The literature
on this point is quite clear. Bibby and Maisel report 90% of strong Democrats voted
for the Democratic nominee; weak Democrats did so on average 67% of the time.109
Republicans were even more loyal to their party, voting 93% strong and 81% weak.110
In fact, even people who identify themselves as independent, and would theoretically
be open to a third-party, are actually closet Democrats or Republicans whose
partisanship approximates that of people who openly identify with one of the major
108 Discussed in detail later in the next chapter.
109 Bibby and Maisel, 73.
110 Bibby and Maisel, 73.
parties.111 In other words, even those people who should be in play for a third-
party still exhibit loyalty to the two-party system.
This us vs. them mentality is comparable to sports teams in America. The
people are able to follow the party (team) that they believe represents their values
(particular sport) with their preferred candidates (players). Once people have
identified with a particular party, they are also able to root for their favorite team in
the win-lose world of American politics. In order to be successful in elections, third-
party candidates have to break through that party identification.
Third-party candidates are not taken seriously by political pundits, academics, or
the mainstream media. To continue the sports metaphor, third parties are the minor
leaguers, just not taken seriously by the fans. Without the ability to get their
message out to the people, third parties are left to die on the vine. In the 1980
election, the media coverage of Carter and Reagan was ten times greater than for all
other candidates.112 This disparity is even more significant when it is considered that
John Anderson in 1980 was better known and received more coverage than the
average third-party candidate, as evidenced by his debate invitation and poll
numbers.113 It can be reasonably inferred that this gap would have been even more
significant for other minor-party candidates. Third-party candidates such as the
111 Bibby and Maisel, 73.
112 Smallwood, 241.
113 Smallwood, 227.
Libertarians are routinely excluded from media campaign coverage, televised
debates, and editorial board interviews.114
The reasons for this exclusion range from sorry we dont cover third parties, its
just our standard policy to a maybe next time.115 Bill Hillsman believes that third
parties face far more scrutiny than the major parties, and only third parties have to
constantly continue to prove the legitimacy of their campaigns.116 Third-party
campaign missteps are chum in the water for the media who can then challenge the
legitimacy of the candidate and the party, whereas a major-party candidate would be
challenged on the misstep.117 Without the media coverage the major parties receive,
third parties have very little chance of winning. This gives credence to the perception
of a third-party vote being a wasted vote.
The wasted vote syndrome was clear in Ralph Naders 2004 campaign. The
language used to describe his run degraded his campaign as being outside the system
and therefore illegitimate. In common parlance, David Broder wrote that Nader
drew off more than 97,000 [votes from Gore in 2000].118 The sentence itself
implies that those votes were Gores to begin with and Nader somehow took them.
Nobody would write that President Bush drew off votes from John Kerry. The
effect is a cultural reinforcement of the two-party system by implying any vote for a
1,4 Hill, 182.
1)5 Hill, 182.
116 Hillsman, 47.
third-party is a wasted vote and it is a vote that rightly belongs to one of the major
The title in Kathleen Parkers Orlando Sentinel article from 11 August 2004 was
Defaulting to Nader not smart: Neither candidate seems the right fit, but dont waste
vote.117 118 119 Her conclusion is clearer still: Hes [Nader] also a wasted vote. Dont do
it.120 Again, this is painting the third parties candidacy as illegitimate because it is
outside the accepted system. While being pragmatically correct in the implication
that Nader was not going to win, declaring a vote wasted because it was not cast for
the winner seems unduly harsh. Votes for the major parties are not perceived as
wasted, even though the Electoral College, in essence, does waste votes (because
they do not count in the final tally) if they are not for the winner of the state. If all
votes not cast for the winner of the election are wasted, then why bother? In 1984,
if Walter Mondale had no chance against President Reagan, were all votes for
Mondale wasted? It depends on the voters intent. If their intent is to defeat their
least preferred candidate, then they should vote for the other person most likely to
win. If their intent is to register their support for their most preferred candidate, then
they should vote for that person without regarding their vote as wasted.
117 Hillsman, 47.
119 Kathleen Parker, Defaulting to Nader not smart: Neither candidate seems the right fit, but dont
waste vote. Orlando Sentinel printed in The Denver Post, 11 August 2004.
Obstacles to third party success have a dramatic effect on voters decision making
process. Christian Collet wrote that third-party presidential candidates see their
support dwindle as Election Day draws nearer as voters begin to sense that they do
not have a realistic chance of winning the race. 121 The desire not to see their vote
wasted is significant to the American electorate. This phenomenon can be seen as
voters being rational and pragmaticthe third-party candidate will not win.
However, this thinking is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Third parties will not win
because people do not vote for them, and people do not vote for them because they
cannot win. Bibby and Maisel write Second place has never been very appealing to
Americans; third and lower places have even less attraction.122 Illustrating this point
is Werner Sombart, quoted in Upset and Marks, who write of the over-valuation of
success, and on who won being the critical question of sports and economic and
political life.123 Given the impression that third parties have little, or no chance of
winning, third parties face not only institutional barriers but also barriers of
perception. Americans like to side with a winner, which helps lead to the vast
majority of voters casting their votes for Democrats and Republicans.
The perception of third parties as losers extends beyond the perceptions of
voters; the press and political pundits supply some of the skepticism. The possibility
121 Christian Collet, Trends: Third Parties and the Two-Party System, The Public Opinion Quarterly,
Vol. 60, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996): 435.
122 Bibby and Maisel, 107.
of a genuine third-party receives the cold shoulder from the press and bored ridicule
from academics.123 124 For example, political scientists persist in predicting the failure
of each and every effort to form a new political party, and the failure of each one is
taken as confirmation of their predictions.125 Even if third-party candidates do well
in the early polls (as Anderson and Perot did), at the end of the campaign the media
will pound home the wasted vote mantra if they do not vote for the Republican or
Democrat.126 In this way, the two-party system is almost universally accepted in
The American public expects elections to be contested by two sides:
Democrat and Republican. The two-party system is a reflection of the nations
cultural values and electoral institutions.127 Children are socialized from birth into
the two-party system.128 After all, with only two parties competing, a majority vote is
required to win, and what could be more democratic than majority rules? Lowi and
Romance state, In America, democracy is unthinkable save in terms of a two-party
system.129 Black and Black write, the American two-party system dominated by the
Republicans and Democrats is as durable and fundamental as the Constitution itself.
123 Seymour M. Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn V Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United
States. (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 37.
134 Lowi and Romance, 3.
125 Lowi and Romance, 18.
126 Bill Hillsman, Run the Other Way: Fixing the Two-Party System, One Campaign at a
Time, (New York: Free Press, 2004,) 48.
127 Mazmanian, 1.
128 Smallwood, 8.
And, indeed, many theories have been created to prove with twenty-twenty
hindsight why the two-party system is inevitable.129 130 The actions of voters contribute
to this inevitability. Even if, conceptually speaking, voters want to break the two-
party system, their actions betray them. The inertia of the two-party system and the
voters unwillingness to vote outside the system show just why the unique
coincidence of political crisis, party decay and a charismatic candidate are essential to
Part of the explanation of this adherence to a two-party system is that even
though diversity flourishes within American society, there has been a general absence
of groups so committed to a cause that they could not be accommodated within one of
the major parties.131 In a classic statement of this position, Louis Hartz believed that
since America never had a feudal history, there are not the class divisions seen
elsewhere, and the U.S. developed a political system more likely to avoid the
extremes.132 Hartz further believed the absence of opposing principles basically put
the country in the same mind whereby Lockean liberalism prevails.133 John D.
Lewis describes the Hartzian same mind as an underlying American agreement
about basic norms, including social freedom, social equality, and bourgeois concern
129 Lowi and Romance, vii.
130 Black and Black, 21.
131 Bibby and Maisel, 59.
132 Smallwood, 5.
133 Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought
since the Revolution. (San Diego: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1955 &1991), 141.
for propertythe equality reflecting a classless society.134 From this perspective,
most American voters are served by either of the two major, centrist parties, making a
multi-party system unnecessary. In a similar vein, Daniel Mazmanian writes,
Although some interests may be found more often
represented in one of the parties, all major segments
are sufficiently represented in each to inhibit exclusion
of any segment from government decision making, no
matter which party is in power.135
Seymour M. Upset and Gary Marks echo the Hartzian theory in their book "It Didnt
Happen Here" They explain why there has never been a powerful socialist
movement in the United States. Upset and Marks also cite the lack of an historic
feudal structure that helped form the American political system, further using the
adjectives modem...purely bourgeois...conservative to describe Americans.136
They also write that part of the reason socialism was unsuccessful in America was
because of the two-party system and the obstacles faced by any challenging party.137
They focus on the flexibility of the two major parties as being able to absorb the
radicalism of radical socialist protests.138 It is because the major parties are not
ideologically rigid that gives them this flexibility. The major parties are able to
stretch enough to accommodate the more centrist of the radicals, which lessens the
134 John D. Lewis, The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought
since the Revolution, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Dec., 1955): 1155.
135 Mazmanian, 20.
136 Lipset and Marks, It Didnt Happen Here, 21.
137 Lipset and Marks, 36-37.
138 Lipset and Marks, 36.
challenge from the political fringes and keeps Americans squarely in the political
center. This theory of most Americans being in the middle of political spectrum
helps explain Perots popularity.
Perot was not a political extremist, which allowed him to appeal beyond a
small, dedicated base of voters. George Wallace in 1968, defending the continuation
of racial segregation, was an extremist. This explains why Wallace was unable to
find broad national support. Perots support, however, mirroring the Hartz thesis,
showed there is broad support in the middle of the political spectrum. Ross Perot
averaged 20% of the vote in each state during the 1992 election. He finished third in
48 states, while finishing in second place in Utah and Maine.139 His support was
wide, but not necessarily deep. Throughout the country, Perot was able to draw upon
this middle for support. However, precisely because he was drawing his support from
the middle, where the Republicans and Democrats also live, Perot was unable to
capture any states. The extremist parties of Thurmond and Wallace were able to
capture states because of their appeal to a narrow segment of voters, but were unable
to be nationally successful considering Americas general centrism. Both the
extremists and middle third parties (Perot, Andersonwho were both successful on
a national scale) support the Hartzian theory that most Americans and both major
139 Jeremy D. Mayer and Clyde Wilcox, Understanding Perots Plummet, in Ross for Boss: The Perot
Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
parties occupy this middle-ground. Only when there is a structural opportunity (crisis
coupled with major-party decay), is there space in the middle for a competitive third-
party. Under normal circumstances, the Republicans and Democrats occupy the
political middle ground. This makes it harder for third parties to succeed, precisely
because they are courting the same voters as the two major parties.
PEROT OVERCOMES THIRD-PARTY OBSTACLES
With myriad systemic barriers to third-party successes, how did H. Ross Perot
manage to win 19% of the popular vote in the 1992 election? The strength of the
two-party system is so strong and pervasive, Black and Black compare the system to
the Daley political machine in Chicago, where the system is rigged to keep the parties
in power.140 Perots success can be traced to the same factors that have made third
parties successful in the past. First, was the presence of a political crisis that helped
Perot. In the early 1990s, the crisis was the national debt and the voters cynicism
over such issues. Second, there was the institutional decay of the Democrats and
Republicans. The major parties were weakening: voter identification with the parties
was down, apathy was increasing, and both parties ran weak candidates in 1992. This
decay is perhaps best illustrated by the strategic errors of not having bold ideas to
deal with the economic crisis or the structural deficits. The parties were bereft of new
ideas. This intersection of events left an opening for Ross Perot.
Perots ideas, enormous wealth, and his use of the media were the personal factors
that exploited the underlying moment of opportunity. In order for a third-party
140 Black and Black, 29.
presidential candidate to be successful, there must be the structural opportunity of
political crisis and major-party decay. Second, the third-party has to possess unique
strengths to exploit the moment, such as fresh ideas and/or a charismatic candidate.
Perot had all of these factors working for him. At a time of crisis and weak major
parties, he was able to exploit the growing cynicism of the populace by promoting
himself as an outsider, and he used the weaknesses of the other candidates against
Perots success was a function of his ability to use the historical moment to his
advantage. In the early 1990s, people were fed up with politics as usual and
possessed a cynical attitude towards politics and politicians. Perot was able to take
advantage of the peoples desire for a Washington outsider. Moreover, Perot found
himself running against decaying parties that nominated vulnerable, if not flawed,
candidates. Major-party decay and political cynicism are two key ingredients to
third-party success. In Perots case, voter cynicism, coupled with the nations
economic struggle, was the basis of the political crisis that opened the door in 1992.
Political cynicism was running rampant before and during the 1992 presidential
election. In fact, over 30% of voters would have preferred to vote none of the
above in 1992.141 It was a common conception of the public that the Democrats and
Republicans used scandal as a political strategy, which illustrated to the American
people that the system itself is corrupt. 142 The public wanted political reform, and
they held no illusions that the system would fix itself. The two major parties were
perceived as impotent when it came to reform. It was felt that the Republican and
Democratic parties are immobilized by having to promise too many things to too
many people.143 According to a May 1992 Gordon Black poll, 69% felt the
incumbents would never reform the system, 83% felt special interests had more
political influence than voters, and 74% felt Congress was owned by special interest
groups.144 Black further states:
We have never, not once, seen consumers in the private
sector in the United States as unhappy with a business or
a product as Americans are with their government and
80% of voters felt the country was headed in the wrong direction.146 The two major
parties are not highly regarded today by the voters, write Lowi and Romance.147
Perot tapped into this discontent with his poignant comments on the government
in the early 90s, [Ojur government is poorly run and its poorly managed, and
141 Nancy S. Love, Understanding Dogmas and Dreams: A Text. (Chatham, New Jersey: Chatham
House Publishers, Inc., 1998), 37.
142 Lowi and Romance, 8.
143 Lowi and Romance, 8.
144 Black and Black, 110.
,4S Black and Black, 111.
146 Black and Black, 116.
they...dont understand business...147 148 The public similarly perceived politicians as
people who used politics as a means to power and not as a system to do what was best
for society. More significantly, they saw it as a system whose occupants all appear
to have collaborated in closing everyone else out.149 The game was rigged in favor
of the Democrats and Republicans, and the public was feeling more and more that
elections were no longer about ideas, but rather about tactics.150 Perot spelled out his
disappointment with the elected representatives, how they misused their power, and
how their policies were disastrous for the country:
An economy in recession, growing joblessness, plant
closings, a mountain of public debt, legislative gridlock,
the arrogance of Congress members and presidential aides,
waste and corruption in govemmentnational drift, failing
systems of education, spiraling health costs, an epidemic
of crime and drugs all of this unfinished business of these
unmet needs were the signs of a nation spinning out of control.151
Perot declared, the people want a new political climate where the system does not
attract ego-driven, power-hungry people.152 Perots support came from people who
were disaffected with the major parties.153 His success in the election was borne of
a strong anti-partisan sentiment and an apparent surge in public frustration with
147 Lowi and Romance, xii.
148 Ross Perot, Not for Sale, 78.
149 Barta, xx.
150 Carl M. Cannon, A Rough Ride for Reform, in National Journal Vol. 32 Issue 5 (Jan. 29th, 2000):
151 Barta, 63.
152 Barta, 319.
government and politics.153 154 The early 1990s showed a great level of distrust in the
government to solve the problems of the day, and these low levels of trust, combined
with the rigidity of the two-party system, may make voters increasingly frustrated
with the political system as a whole.155 This dissatisfaction with the political process
showed an undercurrent of citizen distrust which fueled the past three major third-
party challenges for the presidency (Wallace, Anderson, and Perot).
The publics willingness to consider third parties is a function of their distrust
and frustration with the governmental system. Perots candidacy was based on
negative attitudes toward the institutions of government and the major-party
candidates (especially George H. W. Bush).156 Volunteers for Perots campaign
almost unanimously (95%) believed that they could trust the federal government
only some of the time or almost never, with a poor or below average image of
Congress.157 The history of third-party presidential candidates shows that their
success is based on low levels of partisanship, dissatisfaction with the major-party
candidates, issue alienation, economic discontent, and distrust toward government.158
153 Paul R. Abramson, John H. Aldrich, Philip Paolino, and David W. Rohde, Challenges to the
American Two-Party System: Evidence from the 1968,1980,1992, and 1996 Elections, in Political
Research Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Sept., 2000): 513.
154 Howard J. Gold, Third Party Voting in Presidential Elections: A Study of Perot, Anderson, and
Wallace, in Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Dec., 1995): 755.
155 Geoff Peterson and J. Mark Wrighton, Expressions of Distrust: Third-Party Voting and Cynicism
in Government, in Political Behavior, Vol. 20, No. 1 (March, 1998): 30.
156 McCann et al, Heeding the Call, 1.
157 McCann et al, 8.
158 Gold, Third Party Voting, 751.
When the public becomes that frustrated with the system, it gives life to third-party
candidates. In May of 1992,47% of people polled felt a new party was needed
because the Democrats and Republicans were not capable of fixing the problems.159
Ross Perot was able to tap into the growing cynicism of the established
system and take advantage of the situation that was presented to him. The frustration
of people with the system raised the desire for a Washington outsider. There was
an historical precedent for this want for an outsider to be president. After the
Watergate scandal that saw the resignation of President Nixon and his subsequent
pardon granted by President Ford, Jimmy Carter ascended to the presidency because
he was seen as outside the system.160 In the following presidential election, California
Governor Ronald Reagan also ran as an outsider of to the political establishment.161
This trend was broken by George H.W. Bush, who was very much the
Washington insider and part of the establishment. In the 1992 election, both
Governor Clinton and Perot ran as outsiders, with Clinton winning the election. It is
a telling fact that the outsider won the presidency in four out of the past five
elections. The contemporary voting public obviously responds positively to
outsider candidates. Positioning himself as an outsider helped Perot fertilize the
perception that he would be able to clean up Washington because he was not part of
1SS> Black and Black, 180.
160 Caesar and Busch, 2.
the corrupt system. Caesar and Busch believe that while the outsider tag is devoid
of any specific content, and is more of a symbol, Perot was still able to use the
symbolic badge of outsider to his advantage.161 162
Being an outsider worked for Perot during the election because President
George H.W. Bush was seen as the ultimate insider president and a weak candidate.
In fact, even among Republicans, Bush had trouble. During the Republican
primaries, the Presidents main opponent, Patrick Buchanan (who ironically enough
would later run under Perots Reform Party banner) polled 30% against Bush in
states in which he [Buchanan] did not campaign.163 This was a significant primary
challenge for an incumbent president.
Bush was further seen as being responsible for, and not responsive enough to, a
weak economy. This was in addition to the perception that Bush was out of touch
with everyday Americans. President Bushs quest for re-election was stymied by the
end of the Cold War, a weak economy, and a vacillating management of economic
and indeed domestic affairs generally.164
While not technically in a recession, the economy was perceived by the public as
being in bad shape. Around 60% of the public felt the economy was the most
161 Edward S. Greenberg and Benjamin I. Page, The Struggle for Democracy, (New York:
HarperColIins College Publishers: 1993), 424-425.
162 Caesar and Busch, 3.
163 Barta, 66.
164 Caesar and Busch, 15.
significant element in deciding for whom they were going to vote.165 Jobs for middle-
class and white-collar workers were not as stable as they had been in the past, which
brought a unique perspective to the poor economy. These job losses were not
temporary layoffs, but rather permanent reductions in the work force. In general,
unemployment was up and consumer confidence down.166 President Bush was also
dogged by his 1988 promise not to raise taxes: Readmy lips. No new taxes. When
taxes were raised, Bush paid the political price.167
During the election, Bush was waging a two-front war against both Perot and
Clinton. They both hammered Bush on the economy, while Bush searched
frantically and frenetically for an alternative.168 Among the topics that Bush
attempted to turn the debate to were: gridlock, family values, Clintons character, and
Democratic liberalism.169 None were successful. President Bush should have heeded
the advice posted in the Clinton War Room: its the economy, stupid. The
problems with the economy and the Presidents (mis)-handling of it met the standards
for third-party success: political crisis and major-party decay.
On the Democratic side, Governor Clinton brought a flawed character to the
election, leaving him vulnerable to attack and criticism. The first national exposure
165 Caesar and Busch, 19.
166 Caesar and Busch, 35.
167 Caesar and Busch, 19.
168 Jerome M. Mileur, The General Election Campaign: Strategy and Support in America's Choice:
The Election of 1992, edited by William Crotty. (Guilford, Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing
Group, Inc., 1993), 58.
for Clinton occurred when the tabloid magazine Star printed an expose stating the
governor had had an illicit affair with Gennifer Flowers.169 170 This scandal was solved
by Bill and Hillary Clinton appearing together on national television to answer the
charges, but this was not the last time candidate Clinton was in the news for character
issues. Governor Clinton was accused of dodging the draft during the Vietnam War
by using personal connections to avoid military service.171 Clinton was mercilessly
mocked for stating that he had tried marijuana but did not inhale, while further
being attacked for having a cold and ambitious wife.172
Ross Perots candidacy was able to gain strength and be taken more seriously
than other third-party runs partially because his opponents were not seen as strong
candidates. It is difficult to envision a strong third-party challenge if either of the two
major candidates had a very favorable public perception. Running weak candidates is
a sign of major-party decay. It is precisely because the public did not see Clinton and
Bush as top-notch presidential material that allowed Perot to wedge his way into the
campaign. The weakness of the major parties aided Perots movement.
President Bush and Governor Clinton actually cooperated on another major factor
to Perots success. Believing Perot would take votes from their opponent, both
169 Mileur in Crotty, 58.
170 Hadley and Stanley in Crotty, 33.
171 Hadley and Stanley.
172 Manheim, in Crotty, 75.
Clinton and Bush wanted him involved in the presidential debates.173 Without
inclusion in these debates, it would have been difficult for Perot to appear as a
legitimate candidate for president. Partaking in the debates bestow [s] legitimacy
upon the candidates who take part.174 For example, in 1996 Perot was not invited to
the debates, nor was Nader in 2000, and Carter refused to take part in debates that
included Anderson in 1980.175 Without this inclusion, Perots campaign would
probably have suffered from an aura of illegitimacy.
Perots performance in the debates surprised many in that he was able to
compete against the polished candidates of the Democrats and Republicans. The
public found his debating style and substance to be refreshing and politically
empowering, making Perot a viable contender.176 Part of the style the public liked
was that Perot eschewed professional handlers in preparation for the debates, but
rather focused on his beliefs and convictions.177 This exemplified Perots can-do
independent personality he was trying to project to the public.
THE UNIQUENESS OF ROSS PEROT
Political crisis and major-party decay come together to form a specific
historical moment that leaves an opening for a competitive third-party. However,
173 Barta, 342 and Nordin in Jelen, Ross for Boss, 22.
174 Bibby and Maisel, 68.
175 Bibby and Maisel.
176 Diana B. Carlin and Mitchell S. McKinney, The 1992 Presidential Debates in Focus, (Westport,
Connecticut: Praeger, 1994), 122.
177 Black and Black, 127.
beyond these two factors, the third-party and its candidate must show unique
characteristics that making the party attractive to voters. Perot certainly met this
qualification of being unique. To begin, Ross Perot was a billionaire who financed
his campaign with his own money. His ideas also of how government should work
and the values of reform and honesty in Washington set him apart from the other
candidates. Innovative media strategies, such as going on talk shows and paying for
prime-time infomercials allowed him to get his message out to the entire country.
Finally, people responded to his down-home, folksy demeanor. He was clearly not a
polished politician, and that actually helped him in the campaign.
Perhaps the defining characteristic that set Perot apart from other third-party
candidate was money. Ross Perot was a billionaire not afraid to spend his own
money to be elected. Money was a significant factor in his ability to overcome the
obstacles that face third-party candidates. According to Federal Election Commission
numbers, Ross Perot spent $69.6 million of his own money on the campaign for
president.178 Bush and Clinton each received and spent $55 million in public funds, in
addition to the $71 million raised by the Democrats and the $62.4 million raised by
the Republicans.179 When Perot was accused of trying to buy the election with his
virtually unlimited wealth, John Connally, former Texas governor, came to his
defense: Bush is going to buy it with taxpayer money, Clinton is going to buy it with
178 Barta, 377.
taxpayer money. Id just as soon Ross Perot buy it with some of his money...179 180 By
using his own money, Perot was further able to make a statement of his seriousness to
run for office. Someone known for being stingy with his money would certainly not
spend almost $70 million of his own money for a lark.181 Perots personal fortune
allowed him to overcome the major disadvantages to third-party candidates: the price
of admission to the political game.182
Perot was the right man with the right message for the moment, which aided
in overcoming the obstacles. The political philosophies of H. Ross Perot are a
reflection of his Texas upbringing and lessons he learned from his parents. As a
young man, when he wanted to purchase a bicycle, his father insisted that Ross pay
cash for the bicycleno credit. So Perot started a paper route in one of the poorer
neighborhoods where no one else wanted to deliver papers and soon turned the route
into a financial success. These experiences would later influence Perots business
philosophies of identifying and then filling the needs of clients and his dislike of
deficit spending.183 In his political writings and speeches, Ross Perot would
180 Barta, 82.
181 This statement is, of course, ironic considering Perots later withdrawal from the campaign, only to
return at the end.
182 Ted G. Jelen, in Ross for Boss, 4-5.
183 Ibid, 42.
constantly repeat that the deficit was out of control and addressing the deficit needed
to be the top priority of the administration.184 185
Upon graduating from high school, Perot entered the United States Naval
Academy. It was at the Naval Academy that Perot first found himself face to face
with what he deemed government waste. The Navy had issued him several pairs of
shoes, which was the first time in his life Perot had ever had more than one pair of
shoes. Consequently, he saw the luxury of multiple pairs of shoes as wasting
Ross Perot drew on his upbringing to mold his values and political ideas,
including sacrifice, equality, and common sense. Perot wanted to curb the excesses in
Washington; calling for restrictions on PACs, placing caps on political donations at
$1,000, eliminating the Electoral College, moving elections to weekends and banning
exit polls. He further wanted to eliminate perks for Congress, such as free planes,
limousines, haircuts, and mailing.186 He believed the previous twelve years of
Republican administrations promoting trickle down economics had exacerbated the
gap between rich and poor.187 In order to alleviate this disparity, Perot wanted to
change the tax to a more equitable system. He proposed that tax deductions on
184 Ross Perot, United We Stand: How We Can Take Back Our Country, A Plan for the 21s' Century.
(New York: Hyperion Publishing, 1992), 8.
185 Ross Perot, My Life and the Principles for Success, (Arlington, Texas: The Summit Publishing
Group, 1996), 49.
185 Perot, United We Stand, 24-34.
187 Perot, Not for Sale, 69.
mortgage interest should only count for the first $250,000 worth of a house, there
should be no deductions for vacation homes, and business meals should be deductible
on only 50%, rather than 80%.188 He was in favor of term limits and eliminating
people going to Washington to cash in rather than serve.189 He was trying to
encourage people to shun the business as usual approach in Washington, and to use
some common sense in regards to government.
The evidence clearly demonstrated his populist philosophies struck a chord with
the public. In May of 1992, Perots favorable ratings were 47% (Gallup), 35%
(Yankelovich), 30% (Black) and an incredible 53% (Times Mirror).190 Lou Harris
and Associates reported that 46% of the American people thought Ross Perot ran the
most issue focused campaign.191 Kenneth Nordin writes that Perots penchant for
straight talk helped his popularity during the early stages of the 1992 campaign.192
Of those people who got involved in Virginians for Perot (VFP), 80% cited concern
about the issues as their reason for joining the group.193 Simmons and Simmons
188 Perot, Not for Sale, 107.
189 Perot, Not for Sale, 121.
190 Black and Black 120.
191 Black and Black 124.
192 Kenneth D. Nordin, The Television Candidate: H. Ross Perots 1992 and 1996 Presidential Races,
in Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press, 2001), 18.
193 Andrew D. Martin and Brian E. Sprang, A Case Study of a Third Presidential Campaign
Organization, in Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany,
NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 55.
write that Perots focus on the budget issues was the basis of his success.194 The
very fact that Perot was not an official candidate for president, yet managed to get
enough volunteers to get him on the ballot in all fifty states is testament to his
Additionally, Perot pioneered new strategies to get media attention. Wanting to
circumvent the lack of mainstream media coverage, he used the new media medium
of popular talk shows. Perot became a favorite guest of talk shows, even being
drafted into the presidential race on Larry King Live.195 With the popularity of
these talk shows, Perot was able to deliver his ideas to the people unfettered. It also
did not seem to matter that these talk shows were not considered traditional outlets for
political ideas, because many people in the audience have come to view Phil
Donahue or Oprah Winfrey as journalists and Inside Story or Unsolved Mysteries
as news.196 Perot and his ideas were not critically challenged on these soft shows
and he was able to let his folksy, charismatic personality shine, while the hosts gave
him a free ride with his message.197
194 Solon Simmons and James Simmons, The Politics of a Bittersweet Economy: Economic
Restructurin, Economic Stories, and Ross Perot in the Elections of 1992 and 1996, in Ross for Boss:
The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State University of New
York Press, 2001), 92.
195 Jarol B. Manheim, Media Strategies in the 1992 Campaign, in Americas Choice: The Election of
1992, edited by William Crotty. (Guilford, Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1993),
196 Manheim in Jelen, 71.
197 Kenneth D. Nordin, The Television Candidate: H. Ross Perots 1992 and 1996 Presidential Races,
in Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press, 2001), 18.
Part of Perots desire to engage talk shows rather than traditional news shows was
his hatred for news reporters. He felt reporters could and would change his message,
which is why he sought out talk shows that would let him dictate the message. Perot
believed reporters to be basically lazy, and sucking up to them...was beneath him.198
He accused the televised media of being out of touch with everyday Americans
(ironic, coming from a billionaire) and felt the print media was too desirous of the
gotcha type story.199 When Perot did appear on hard news show, facing a
challenging interviewer, he could become irate. Tim Russert on Meet the Press
challenged Perots federal budget figures, and after the show Perot was so
infuriated that he threatened to quit the race.200 Perot also found himself offering a
public mea culpa after an appearance on 20/20 declaring he would not appoint a
homosexual to his cabinet because it would distract from the work to be done.201
Ross Perot did not enjoy being publicly criticized or questioned about his policies.
Because of this, he avoided the national press who are among the most-feared
individuals in all of politics, for being doggedly persistent in asking the tough
questions. 202 Perot was too used to being in charge and not being questioned; he
was simply out of his element under critical cross-examination. Ironically, the public
198 Barta, 100.
199 Frank B. Feigert, The Ross Perot Candidacy and Its Significance, in Americas Choice: The
Election of 1992, edited by William Crotty. (Guilford, Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing Group,
Inc., 1993), 80-81.
200 Nordin in Jelen, Ross for Boss, 18.
201 Nordin in Jelen, Ross for Boss, 19.
was sympathetic to Perot when challenged by interviewers. After Tim Russert beat
up on him, Perot jumped up 10% in the polls.202 203 However, by taking his message
directly to the people he was able to overcome the legitimacy issue and the major
media outlets began to cover his campaign.
H. Ross Perots use of talk shows was so successful that his opponents soon
jumped on board. Perot popularized the talk show circuit for politicians on Larry
King Live, Governor Clinton followed suit by playing Heartbreak Hotel on the
saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show.20* President Bush originally avoided the talk
show circuit because he considered them not presidential.205 When it became
evident that people were responding to candidates that did these shows, President
Bush changed his mind and followed suit. However, Bush was never totally
comfortable with the medium. Anyone who saw Bushs performance with Tabitha
Soren on MTV from the back of a train would never accuse the President of being at
ease on the talk show circuit. Overall, Clinton appeared on 47 talk shows, Perot 33,
and Bush 16.206 Perot had changed the face of presidential campaigning and had
overcome another disadvantage; access to the media and being taken seriously.
202 Manheim in Ross for Boss, 73.
203 Barta, 104-105.
Charles D. Hadley and Harold W. Stanley, Surviving the 1992 Presidential Nomination Process in
Americas Choice: The Election of 1992, edited by William Crotty. (Guilford, Connecticut: The
Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc., 1993), 39.
205 Hadley and Stanley in Crotty, 40.
206 Barta, 392.
Perot further changed the use of the media in presidential campaigns by
purchasing time on the major networks to bring his message directly to the public.
He became infamous for his infomercials that truly showed Perot in his element. He
presented pie charts and graphs to the camera in a very 1950s-esque way, reminiscent
of an elementary school filmstrip. Perots infomercials drew large numbers of
viewers, surprising many politicians and commentators.207 Believing the American
people were not interested in watching 30-minute candidate commercials, the experts
were shocked by the popularity of the Perot infomercials. Perot was declared
Advertiser of the Year by the magazine Advertising Age, with 73% of the public
finding the infomercials effective and 34% believing they were very effective.208
Symbolic of his rejection of business as usual, Perots advertising focused on
policy rather than attacking the other candidates. His clean campaign gave an
impression of a dignified race such as those before spin doctors and advertising
It is significant to note that Perot paid for these infomercials himself. While use
of the prime time infomercials was a creative use of money and quite successful, this
opportunity is not open to other third-party candidates. Only a person of Ross Perots
means and name recognition has this option available. While Bush and Clinton did
207 Feigert in Ross for Boss, 81.
208 Black and Black, 126.
209 Black and Black, 126.
not follow his lead into infomercials, Perot had pioneered new territory. He was
creating ways for third-party candidates to overcome the institutional disadvantages.
Though Perot was able to open this door, it closed behind him. Few if any, other
third-party candidates could hope to follow Perots expensive infomercial path.
The remainder of Perots ability to overcome the obstacles revolved around his
personal traits. Many people saw Perot as an honest, breath of fresh air candidate
who was not playing the game of politics. His folksy, down-home perspective
brought him many supporters. Perot not only told people what they wanted to hear,
but he said it in a way they could understand and in a way no other politician would.
He spoke plainly and directly to the Democrats and Republicans. A famous Perot
quip was: Stop bickering. Stop blaming each other. Stop posturing for partisan
advantage. Stop dodging the hard decisions.210 Another famous Perotism was the
national debt being comparable to the crazy aunt we keep down in the basement. All
the neighbors know shes there, but nobody wants to talk about her.211 When asked
about his lack of experience in national politics, Perot sublimely retorted I dont
have any experience running up a four trillion dollar debt.212
He also clearly had a sense of humor about himself. During the 1992 presidential
debate, the large-eared Perot quipped, Weve got to clean this mess up, leave this
210 Perot, United We Stand, 72.
country in good shape, and pass on the American dream to them. Weve got to
collect taxes to do it. If theres a better way.. .Im all ears."211 212 213 Perot displayed a
unique ability to promote his agenda and do it in a way that endeared him to the
general public. Perot presented himself as a man of the people, which is no mean feat
for a billionaire, declaring: If anybody can give me one reason why I should pay a
lower percentage of taxes on just regular income than a guy making less than meI
want to meet him.214
Perots 1992 campaign was a blueprint for future third parties. During a time of
political crisis and major party decay, a unique and charismatic individual can be a
serious contender for the presidency. According to an ABC/Washington Post poll in
June of 1992, Perot was in second placeonly 3% behind the frontrunner Clinton.215
Then Perot made a critical error; one that future third parties should obviously avoid.
He quit the race during the middle of the contest. Perot cited a revitalized Democratic
Party and the possibility that the Republicans had planned on disrupting his
daughters wedding as reason to leave the race.216 Not only did leaving the race
potentially interrupt his momentum, it also set the stage for his unstable image during
211 James A. McCann, Ronald B. Rapoport, and Walter J. Stone, Heeding the Call: An Assessment of
Mobilization into H. Ross Perots 1992 Presidential Campaign, in American Journal of Political
Science Vol. 43 No. 1 (Jan. 1999): 14.
212 Barta, 344.
214 Robinson, 33.
215 Barta, 214.
216 Nordin in Jelen, Ross for Boss, 20 and also Barta, 249.
the next campaign. Obviously, it can not be known if this caused his defeat, but
leaving during the heat of the campaign cannot fill voters with confidence that Perot
had the character to be president. Coupled with his choice of Admiral James
Stockdale, who clearly did not want to be vice-president and essentially said so
during the debate, Perot had put the final nail in his coffin for the 1992 election. This
flaky episode also foreshadowed the 1996 election.
The results of the 1992 election saw Ross Perot earn 19,741,657 or 18.9% of the
vote.217 Perots impact on the election, however, went beyond raw numbers.
Because of the vote being split three ways, President Clinton won only 43% of the
vote, leaving him without a popular mandate.
Historical factors, such as a sagging economy coupled with rising national debt
gave Perot an opportunity; a moment in time that provided an opening for a strong
third-party candidate. The nations precarious financial and economic conditions
provided the political crisis necessary for a third-party insurgency. The two major
parties showed they were vulnerable both by their inability to handle the economy
and by the weak candidates they put forth for the presidency. Perot was able to
exploit this opportunity with his personal skills and innovative election tactics, which
saw him grab a significant slice of the electoral pie.
217 http://presidentelect.orp/e1992.html. Accessed 30 May 2005.
THE ELECTION OF 19%
The number of popular votes Perot garnered in 1992 was a watershed for third
parties. Because of his success in the presidential election, Perot escaped the third-
party trend of essentially disappearing after only one election, but his support clearly
experienced a major drop. Perot wanted to come back in 1996 and improve upon his
1992 performance. Ultimately, he was unsuccessful. In 19%, Perot received only
8,085,402 (8.4%) of the popular vote and once again earned no electoral votes.218
This precipitous drop of 11% raises the question: Why was Perot unable to continue
his success? In 1992, Ross Perot was able to overcome the systemic disadvantages
that a third-party presidential candidate because of his ability to seize the historic
moment, coupled with the right mix of his own unique characteristics. These factors
worked in Perots favor in 1992, but both were missing four years later.
First, the country had changed and the historical moment was gone. The cynicism
that marked the 1992 election waned. Jeffery Koch summarizes the scholarship on
political cynicism and third-party voting, causality flows from political cynicism to
candidate support and third-party candidates...serve to increase citizens political
skepticism.218 219 Third parties need the political cynicism in order to live, thrive, and
survive. If political cynicism is the lifeblood of third parties, it would be reasonable
to expect that third-party support would fall as cynicism lessens. Kochs research
supports this. He noted there was a modest improvement in citizens trust in
government in 1996 as opposed to four years earlier.220 In 1996 Americans also
viewed the competence of their elected officials in a more positive light.221 Even the
modest improvements in the publics view of major-party politics were enough to hint
at a drop in support for Ross Perot.
Working against flawed opponents in 1992, Perot gathered in 19% of the vote.
By the next election, only Republican Senator Bob Dole could be considered a weak
candidate (in terms of ability to win). To begin, Dole was seen as the ultimate
Washington insider, which immediately disqualified him from claiming the
outsider tag, which has been so influential in post-Watergate elections.222
Further, Dole faced contentious Republican primary challenges from both Pat
Buchanan and Steve Forbes. Forbes, who was obviously paying attention to Perots
1992 run, spent $35 million of his own personal fortune, utilized an original
218 DeGregorio, 723 & 727.
219 Jeffery Koch, Attitudes Toward Government, Partisan Dispositions and the Rise of Ross Perot in
Ross for Boss: The Perot Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press, 2001), 62.
220 Koch, 65.
221 Koch, 65.
222 William J. Crotty and Jerome M. Mileur (eds). Americas Choice: The Election of 1996. (United
States of America: Dushkin/ McGraw-Hill. 1997), 2.
advertising campaign, and hammered home a single themethe flat tax.223
Buchanan, as in 1992, was the torchbearer of the far right philosophy, which proved
to be effective in Republican primaries. Buchanan won the Iowa caucuses, as well as
the New Hampshire primary, causing the presumptive nominee (Dole) to increase
spending on the primaries.224 Being the preferred candidate of the religious right
because of his stances on abortion, NAFTA and GATT, Buchanan was a serious
contender for the nomination. The Republican Party was bitterly divided and
rallied around the most familiar candidate, rather than nominating someone fresh to
challenge Clinton.225 Doles campaign was described as without integrating themes,
coherent images, or an overall strategic plan.226 Working against Senator Dole and
all his campaign shortcomings, the re-election of President Clinton seemed fixed
from the beginning.227
As opposed to 1992, the Bill Clinton of 1996 was considered a strong candidate.
President Clinton, in the wake of the 1994 Republican revolution, had become an
effective executive while the political climate changed. Clintons first advantage was
that he ran unopposed in the Democratic primaries. Without a contentious primary
223 William Crotty, :A Bridge to the Twenty-First Century? in Americas Choice: The Election of 1996,
in Crotty and Mileur Americas Choice: The Election of 1996, (United States of
America:Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1997), 3.
224 Feigert, Running at the Margins: Third Parties and Mightabeens in Crotty and Mileur America's
Choice: The Election of 1996, (USA:Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1997),72.
225 Walker, 661.
226 Mileur, 32.
227 Mileur, 33.
campaign to deal with, Clinton could focus his time and money towards the main
campaign. Since Watergate, three presidential incumbents had been defeated in their
quest for re-election. Those three presidents all faced difficult party primaries just to
be re-nominated.228 Clinton had avoided the trends of the past, putting him on
stronger footing for the campaign.
Furthermore, in 1992, Perot had established himself in the political center. Four
years later, Clinton stood there with him. Clinton heeded the electorates call for a
change in Washington. He was a New Democrat, separating himself from
traditional Democratic politicians by his support for welfare reform, vigorous
anticrime measures, and deficit reduction.229 The Democratic President signed a
Republican-backed welfare bill and upped military appropriations by an additional
$11.2 billion beyond what the GOP had requested.230 Clinton publicly invited the
GOP to join me in the center of the public debate where the best ideas...must
come.231 Taking a page out of the GOP playbook Clinton famously declared the era
of big government is over.232 Perot was unable to stake out the political middle
ground, because the president was already there.
228 Walker, 660.
229 Tierney, 15.
230 William Crotty, in Americas Choice: The Election of1996,4.
231 Tierney, 23.
232 Tierney, 25.
The nations economic situation had also changed. In a 1992 poll, 39% of
respondents viewed the economy as fairly bad and 36% viewed it as very bad.233
In 1996, those number where 21 % and 6%, respectively.234 In 1996 the economy
appeared to many voters to be running smoothly.235 Obviously, this change in the
publics perception of the economy worked to the advantage of the President. By
1996, Clintons job approval rating was nearing 55% after June of 19%, while his
disapproval rating was below 35%. With the economy improving and the deficit
shrinking, the political crisis that had aided Perot in 1992 was abating and Clintons
re-election looked solid.
Inclusion in the debates in 1992 had been a critical step for Perot to overcome the
institutional disadvantages faced by minor parties. In 19%, history would not repeat
itself. Perot was not invited to the debates and was therefore denied the crucial
perception of a legitimate candidate so badly needed by third parties. The League
of Women Voters, who had previously hosted the presidential debates, invited Perot
in 1992. After the 1992 debates, the Republicans and Democrats decided to jointly
create the Commission on Presidential Debates to determine who was to be invited.
The Commission determined that Perot did not have the potential to win the election,
233 Kenneth M. Goldstein, Public Opinion Polls and Public Opinion in the 1996 Election in William
J. Crotty and Jerome M. Mileur, Americas Choice: The Election of 1996. (USA: Dushkin-McGraw
Hill, 1997), 64.
234 Goldstein, 64.
carry a state, or influence the outcome in a state, so he was excluded from the 1996
debates.235 236 Perot humorously commented that if the ability to win the election was a
precondition for inclusion then Bob Dole should have been left out of the debates
also.237 The Democrats and Republicans had learned from their mistake in 1992.
Without the debates, it became far more difficult for Ross Perot to get his message
out to the public. Non-inclusion also took away part of the legitimacy of his
campaign. Perots people filed a lawsuit to gain entrance to the debates, but were
unsuccessful. Bill Hillsman writes, Perots lasting legacy will likely be that he did
so well in the debates that it forced the two major parties.. .to collude to make sure no
one outside their carefully controlled system could ever do that well again.238 So far,
this analysis has been proven correct.
The historical circumstances that allowed Perot to be a major factor in the 1992
election had clearly changed putting him at a further disadvantage. The political
cynicism was lessening, Clinton was a strong candidate, the economy was improving,
and Perot was not in the debates. The political crisis had passed and the major parties
were stronger. Without the confluence of political crisis and major-party decay, Perot
235 Jeremy D. Meyer and Clyde Wilcox, Understanding Perots Plummet in Ross for Boss: The Perot
Phenomenon and Beyond, edited by Ted G. Jelen. (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
236 Feigert in Americas Choice: The Election of 1996,73.
237 Feigert in Americas Choice: The Election of1996,74.
238 Hillsman, 68.
could not compete as he had in 1992. Beyond the change in historical factors, the
unique characteristics that once had helped Perot were no longer doing so.
THE NO LONGER UNIQUE ROSS PEROT
In 1992, Perots status as a billionaire helped him bypass some of the barriers that
third parties face in becoming competitive. In 1996, Perot chose not to recreate this
advantage. Rather than once again forcing his way into the presidential mix using his
own extraordinary resources, H. Ross Perot decided to take the federal funding he
was eligible for because of his vote total in 1992. In 1995, Perot had formed the
Reform Party and it was as this partys representative that he decided to accept the
federal dollars.239 After spending $15 million just to build the Reform Party from the
ground up and the tens of millions he spent on the 1992 election, Perot decided it was
time to be funded in the same manner as the Democrats and Republicans.240
Perot was then also subject to the same rules and regulations that came with that
money. Just like President Clinton and Senator Dole, Perot would be limited to
$50,000 in personal spending and a maximum of $60 million from individuals whose
donations were capped at $1,000 per person.241 Perot was aided in 1992 by his
willingness to pump $73 million of his own money into his campaign, money that
239 Kenneth D. Nordin in Ross for Boss, 27.
340 Martin Walker, The US Presidential Election, 1996 in International Affairs (Royal Institute of
International Affairs 1944-) Vol. 72, No. 4, The Americas: European Security (Oct., 1996), 670.
241 Walker, 670.
came with no restrictions because he was not federally funded.242 It was this money
(as well as his inclusion in the debates) that Rosenstone, Behr, and Lazarus write
boosted his vote total way beyond what it would have been had Perot been just an
ordinary third-party challenger.243 Perot would now be subject to federal election
funding laws and he would have to partake in fundraising. When he was funding his
own campaign, Perot did not have to be concerned with fundraising nor did he have
to worry about financing restrictions. Granted, he now had $30 million in funding for
his publicly funded campaign of 1996, plus whatever he could raise, but he no longer
had that bottomless pit of money to draw from. Using public money further
distanced Perot from the outsider status he enjoyed in 1992. Once he accepted
public money, he no longer had that image of the rogue cowboy paying his own way
to save the country. Perot had voluntarily given up one of his key advantages to
success in 1992.
Perots advantages in 1992 included his style and message; he was fresh and had
ideas that resonated with voters. However, the fate that had befallen previous
insurgencies by third-party candidates also affected Perot. The Republicans and
Democrats had seen the groundswell of support Perot received in the election and set
forth to address the concerns of his followers to bring them back to the major
parties. They were co-opting the very issues that Perot wanted brought to the
242 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, x.
limelight. This action was a double-edged sword to Perot. He wanted his pet issues
addressed by the government, but in doing so, his candidacy was hurt. The
Republicans and Democrats went all out to appeal to Perot voters. The major parties,
by co-opting Perots ideas, helped take him out of the game.
Historically, this is the trend that third parties face. Once the major parties
address their concerns, third parties are left politically dead. Third parties are
successful partially because of a political crisis that the major parties do not
satisfactorily handle. In response to Perots success, Democrats and Republicans
immediately began courting his voters. In fact, Theodore Lowi told Reform Party
official Russ Vemey bluntly that Theyve (Democrats and Republicans] taken over
your program, lock, stock, and barrel.243 244 The flexibility of the major parties allowed
them to change their focus and woo the Perot voters back to the fold.
The Republicans incorporated debt reduction into their Contract with America,
which was promoted well enough to allow the GOP to have a smashing success in the
1994 mid-term elections.245 The Contract further included the Perot-esque ideas of
spending cuts to balance the budget; small business incentives to create new jobs;
and congressional reform to streamline the legislative process and make Congress
243 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, x.
244 Lowi and Romance, 23.
245 Stoken, 275.
more responsive to the people.246 Additionally, Haley Barbour, then the Republican
National Committee chair, invited United We Stand organizers to join them in a
Committee meeting.247 Sen. Bob Dole (the eventual Republican Presidential
candidate) held a meeting with Perot supporters, and Rep. Newt Gingrich, the
architect of the Contract with America, actually became a dues-paying member of
UWSA, the precursor of the Reform Party.248
Not to be outdone in their attempt to court Perot voters, the Democrats and the
newly elected President began before Clinton even took office. Within six weeks of
Clintons election, he held an economic summit that focused on deficit reduction,
investment for long-term growth, and government reform.249 Even before taking the
oath of office, Clinton was determined to address the concerns of Perot voters and
attempt to woo them to the Democrats. To accomplish this, Clinton proposed a five-
year ban on lobbying by senior political appointees after they left the government
and ...introduced proposals to reform campaign finance and eliminate the business
tax deductions for lobbyists.250 Two stated goals of Clintons presidency were job
creation and deficit reduction.251 Clintons State of the Union declaration that the
246 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, 268.
347 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, 268.
248 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, 268.
249 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, 267.
250 Rosenstone et al., Third Parties, 268.
251 John T. Tierney, The Context: Policies and Politics, 1993-1996 in William J. Crotty and Jerome
M. Mileur, Americas Choice: The Election of 1996. (USA: Dushkin-McGraw Hill, 1997), 16.
era of big government is over was aimed at both moderate Republicans and Perot
The Clinton administration and the Congress had addressed Perots push for
deficit reduction. In 1988, the deficit was almost $300 billion annually, but by 1996,
it had been cut to less than $130 billion.252 253 The crazy Aunt in the basement had
moved to her own house and a major Perot theme was wilting away. In 1992, Perot
preached the gospel of shared sacrifice by the nation and Clinton echoed that with
spending cuts in budget as well as tax increases.254 By addressing the concerns of the
Perot voters, the Democrats and Republicans were showing they were strong enough
to handle the critical issues. Perot had filled a gap in the political landscape that
resonated with the voters. Once that gap was exposed, the Democrats and
Republicans sought to fill it for themselves.
Third parties, if successful, tend to bum brightly and quickly flame out once the
major parties adjust their strategies to include the concerns of the renegade voters.
The message of the 1992 election was that a significant percentage of the American
people wanted to change from business as usual, and the Democrats and Republicans
listened. Since successful third parties are borne of voter discontent with the major
parties, once that discontent is gone, the third parties tend to follow.
252 Tierney, 24.
253 Walker, 672.
As the political discontent waned, so did the favorable impression voters had of
Perots personal qualities. Martin Walker reports a Los Angeles Times poll that
showed 57% of voters viewed Perot unfavourably, and only 28 per cent had a
positive view. This was a reversal of his 1992 poll ratings.255 The caricature by
Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live was beginning to intersect with his public
persona. The very nature of Perots personality, which was fresh in 1992, became
grist for late night comedians by 1996. Granted, all politicians are skewered by
shows like Saturday Night Live, but this portrayal was especially hard hitting.
Clinton was portrayed as a good ol boy that liked women and McDonalds, Dole
was portrayed as an old curmudgeon, but Perot was played up as being mentally
unbalanced and possibly insane. This portrayal is significant because it is from these
television comedians that 40% of voters under 30 claimed to get their political
information. 256 Fair or not, the caricature of an unbalanced Perot constantly
demanding Can I finish? stuck. As if helping the caricature along, Perots behavior
during the campaign was described as erratic, testy, and manipulative as
opposed to the charming, witty, plain-speaking fellow that he was in 1992.257
Mayer and Wilcoxs analysis suggests that the greatest source of defection from
Perot was evaluations of Perot himself, calling him a quitter.. .unstable, and he
255 Walker, 669.
256 Walker, 663.
257 Nordin in Ross for Boss, 16.
could not win.258 Temporarily leaving the 1992 campaign was coming back to haunt
Four years had passed since 1992, when Perot used a new and original marketing
campaign by targeting soft news shows and thirty-minute infomercials. The year
1996 no longer saw his strategies as trailblazing. Perot hoped for lightning to strike
twice rather than staying cutting edge and trailblazing in his advertising. In sum,
Perot appears simply not to have realized that campaign communication is an
evolving art.259 The networks were not interested in selling him prime time
television slots to air his infomercials, and he was relegated to far fewer programs
than he envisioned and at highly undesirable times.260 Perot was no longer fresh and
groundbreaking and in 1996 he was not the media darling that received all the press
of four years earlier. The novelty had indeed worn off.
Perot had voluntarily forsaken his financial advantage, the major parties had taken
his critical issues, and the public was no longer enamoured with the wealthy, but
somewhat bizarre, Texan. While Perots numbers were clearly lower in the 1996
election, it would be fair to still call him influential. He had changed the political
landscape. The Democrats and Republicans were working to get the Perot voters on
their side, and they were making sure that only the two major parties would
258 Mayer and Wilcox, 157.
259 Manheim in Americas Choice: The Election of 1996, 54.
260 Manheim in Americas Choice: The Election of 1996,53.