The US business world is full of tycoons who dream of enormous political power, but few billionaires take the plunge into national electoral politics. Even fewer get people to vote for them.
Ross Perot never became president, but he actually successfully tried. He got on the ballot in all 50 states. He got on the debate stage in 1992 and he got tens of millions of Americans to follow him outside the party system that controls US politics.
The US has minted plenty of billionaires in the intervening 25 years, but none of them have done what Perot did. Even Donald Trump joined a political party rather than run for President on his own.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who has been a Republican, an independent and a Democrat — decided not to run for President in 2016 because he said he would take votes from Hillary Clinton and hand the White House to Trump. In hindsight, that was a bad bet since Trump won anyway. This year Bloomberg, who’s gone back to running his financial data and media company, has said he will not run in the Democratic primary.
Howard Schultz mulled a run for a few months this year before some back surgeries (and maybe the backlash of Democrats bent on defeating Trump) made him reconsider. What Schultz lacked most was a dedicated and supportive following like the one Perot, with his businessman celebrity, enjoyed.
The fact is that third-party and independent candidates like Perot are more likely to play spoiler than win election as president. Another wealthy candidate, Tom Steyer, who has poured his money into raising awareness about climate change and pushing for impeachment of Trump, announced Tuesday he’s running in the Democratic primary.
Historians will continue to argue about whether Perot cost President George H.W. Bush reelection in 1992. But the fact remain that no incumbent has lost a reelection campaign in recent memory without two key ingredients: a strong primary challenge and a notable third-party or independent candidate on Election Day.
H.W. Bush faced a primary challenge from Pat Buchanan during the 1992 primary after breaking his “read my lips” promise not to raise taxes. Bush won every primary and caucus, but Buchanan weakened him.
The evidence suggests Perot was not a spoiler. Exit polls from ’92 show that Perot pulled support from both candidates. If the race had been only between Clinton and Bush, 47% said they would’ve voted for Clinton, 41% for Bush, 2% for someone else and 3% would not have voted at all. Among Perot supporters only, it’s almost an even divide, 43% Clinton, 42% Bush and the rest saying other or would not vote.
That’s how Clinton won an electoral landslide with just 43% of the vote. Perot got nearly 20% of the vote and no electoral votes. He ran again with less success in 1996 and helped create the Reform Party. For the 2000 election, Trump, before he was a Republican, considered running on the Reform ticket. He ultimately did not and Buchanan, H.W. Bush’s Republican nemesis from 1992, ran instead.
Ralph Nader, who ran on the Green Party ticket in 2000, got far fewer votes than Perot — less than 3 million for Nader in 2000 compared to more than 19 million for Perot in 1992 — but was still accused by Democrats of spoiling the election, since George W. Bush won the Electoral College narrowly even while losing the popular vote to Al Gore.
Ultimately, Perot proved that an independent candidate could still generate interest and votes. But he may also have proved that it’s nearly impossible for an independent candidate to win the White House.
Candidates outside the political mainstream have, since Perot, tried to take over a party rather than defeat the party system.
Bernie Sanders is an independent who ran as a Democrat. He drew the party to the left in 2016 and is running again in 2020. Ron Paul is a Libertarian who became a Republican and ran for President in 2008 and 2012, pushing limited government ideals on the party.
But it’s Trump’s Republican Party now. He took it over on the way to the Republican nomination in 2016. And, after making it his party, he won.