How Ross Perot led the way for Donald Trump

Posted at 2:30 PM, Jul 09, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-09 16:30:09-04

Businessman and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot died Tuesday at the age of 89. Perot’s life was more than just being a two-time non-major-party presidential candidate, but his campaigns changed the political landscape during his life and are influential to this day.

Perot lost the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections, coming in third in both. But his performances were really strong.

Perot earned 19% of the vote in 1992, the best a non-major party has scored nationally in a presidential election over the last century. Only President Theodore Roosevelt did better as a non-major-party candidate since the Civil War.

Think about that for a second. The only comparable case to Perot was a man who had been elected president before. And unlike Roosevelt, Perot’s candidacy didn’t have any infrastructure in place. It depended entirely on organic grassroots support, which is what Perot got when he asked for it on national television in early 1992.

And while it may seem crazy to think now, Perot actually looked like he might win in 1992 at one point. He led both Republican George H.W. Bush (8 points) and Democrat Bill Clinton (14 points) in June of that year, according to Gallup polling.

Perot would fade in the remaining months, leaving the race in July 1992 and reentering it in the fall. He never took back the lead, but he did have some memorable debate performances.

Perot, though, wasn’t a one-trick pony. He followed up his 1992 performance by getting 8% in 1996, the fourth best non-major-party national vote share over the last century. He is the only non-major-party presidential candidate to twice get above 5% of the vote nationally since the Civil War.

Perot’s 1996 campaign was fueled by his newly formed Reform Party. The party still exists, even if in a mostly diminished form. It hasn’t been without consequence, however: It was the party line on which Jesse Ventura would win the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election.

Still, Perot’s political legacy is larger than a mostly defunct political party or one gubernatorial victory.

Perot showed that a populist businessman outsider could garner a lot of support from the American public. Perot, like Donald Trump, attracted a lot of disaffected white non-college graduates. A lot of these types of voters would later jump to the Republican Party and power Trump’s presidential victory in 2016.

And let’s not forget that Perot leveraged free television — “Larry King Live,” specifically — in a way that Trump became infamous for. He used it to launch his 1992 campaign and sustain its momentum. Trump, of course, hosted “The Apprentice” and appeared on cable news frequently during the 2016 campaign.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Trump got his political start by briefly running for the Reform Party’s 2000 presidential nomination.

Indeed, you could argue it laid the groundwork for his successful 2016 campaign.

To call Perot the first Trump probably doesn’t do either man enough justice. Trump’s brand of populism is far angrier than Perot’s ever was.

And Perot dealt with slights differently than Trump. When he was called “crazy,” Perot adopted the song “Crazy” as his “campaign song,” even dancing to it.

In this way and many others, Perot was one of a kind.