Written by Sam Marks
“Good evening,” began Ross Perot on his second 30-minute infomercial for the 1992 US presidential election. “Tonight we’re going to talk about how to solve the problems that we define that face our country”, he said sitting in his office. The self-made billionaire opened with a quote from Cicero to explain his political philosophy: “The budget should be balanced, the treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of public officials should be controlled”. While politicians in the US normally have to pass the metric of being down to Earth enough that you would want to grab a beer with them, it was very rare for a political candidate to speak with such direction.
This was not a normal campaign for a variety of reasons. Most notably, Perot was an independent campaigner and one of the few people in US history to run as a major candidate without being nominated by the Democratic or Republican parties. Unlike most independent presidential candidates, however, Perot won an incredibly large sum of the popular vote. His 1992 presidential run was so widely known and supported that he even qualified for the presidential debates, an anomaly for anyone outside of the two major parties in American politics.
Once the election results were in, Perot had won 18.9 per cent of the popular vote, totaling 19.7 million votes nationwide. This was the largest percentage and popular vote share a third-party candidate who wasn’t formerly a US president had won in a general election. Perot won no electoral votes however, ultimately seeing his candidacy have significant support nationwide but not concentrated enough to win individual states. Regardless, there was something genuine about Perot’s 1992 campaign that reflects his personal character greatly.
Henry Ross Perot was born on 27 June 1930 in Texarkana, Texas, and was always quite the maverick. Perot left the navy in 1957, becoming a salesman for International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). He quickly distinguished himself at IBM by becoming the top salesman at the firm. His portfolio was so lucrative that in 1962, he met his annual sales quota within the first three weeks of the year. But the savvy businessman ultimately aimed to become the master of his own fate. Perot left IBM on his 32nd birthday in 1962 after his bosses did not take on his ideas about leasing computers to companies. Borrowing $1,000 from his wife, Margot Birmingham, Perot set off to build his own company.
Founding Electronic Data Systems (EDS), Perot maintained some of his clients from IBM and courted lucrative US government contracts like computerising Medicare records. When the company went public in 1968, EDS’s stock price rose from $16 a share to $160 a share within days. In 1984, General Motors (GM), the largest automaker in the world at the time, bought controlling interest in the company for $2.4 billion. In 1988, he founded Perot Systems after disagreements with GM saw him leave the board of the company. Perot’s name in the business had grown fast and was incredibly prominent in areas of developing computational technology. But as EDS grew, Perot’s political interests gained greater notice and had greater weight.
Perot was incredibly active during the Vietnam War. He was greatly concerned with the way American and South Vietnamese Prisoners of War (POWs) were being treated by North Vietnam. Against the 1980s administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Perot lost his favor with the White House after engaging in unauthorised backchannels to communicate with Vietnamese officials. Just as he was in his business career, Perot took matters into his own hands, even if they were not those for him to take. But perhaps they could be.
On 20 February 1992, Perot announced he would run for president as an independent candidate if his supporters could get his name on the ballot in all 50 states. Perot had been a strong opponent of President Bush and US involvement in the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), enabling him to seek the top office in the US. True to his independent candidacy, Perot supported policies from all ends of the political spectrum. He was a fiscal conservative who strongly supported balancing the federal budget and protectionist economic policies. He was a social liberal who was pro-choice, and supported gay rights, increased research to combat the AIDS epidemic and an assault weapons ban. But he was also a third way reformer: he supported ending the electoral college and enacting electronic direct democracy with a greater emphasis on using the power of computers for civic and government purposes.
Perot’s campaign gained significant momentum from both Democratic and Republican supporters by establishing United We Stand America as the campaign organisation. The campaign gained so much steam that Perot even led with 39% of the vote against Democrat Bill Clinton and incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush in a Gallup Poll conducted in June. However, the strong start did not last until election day.
Senior campaign operators left the campaign due to Perot’s unwillingness to take their advice on issues. The staff turnovers led to Perot declining in the polls. On 16 July, Perot announced he would end his campaign to seek the presidency. This move only furthered his decline as many supporters felt betrayed by Perot’s poor campaigning. Perot managed to slip back into the race on 1 October. With only one month left to campaign before election day on 8 November, Perot employed a unique and dynamic method of campaigning: informercials.
Sitting in his office, Perot’s thirty-minute infomercials aired in between sitcoms and the World Series baseball games. Despite the blunders of his initial campaign, his first infomercial garnered 16.5 million viewers. This type of campaigning was unheard of in American politics and surprisingly down to earth. “We learned a lot from the first program from your comments” said Perot, addressing audience wants for larger print slide cards and a less intrusive pointer. All his infomercials contained a detailed analysis of economics, explaining statistics and the impacts of policy on the American people. It was more in the make of an educational program than a political campaign piece.
In his second infomercial, Perot discussed the importance of balancing the budget and reforming the government. His slides displayed how the top 5 per cent of the wealthiest Americans had increased their income disproportionately to the rest of the country’s earners. Describing the problems of “rock star” income, Perot noted that the ratio between the salaries of CEOs and the average salary of the corporation was far higher than in Japan or Europe. Foreshadowing potential competitors, he analysed the larger growth of GDP in Japan, Taiwan, and Germany while the US was lagging in its growth. Blaming the failure of Reagan era trickle-down economics, Perot insisted that the US start practicing “twenty-first century capitalism” and “target the industries of the future and make sure they are [in the US] and the words ‘Made in the USA’ are written across them”.
At eight minutes, he began discussing his solution to the problem: balancing the budget. He recognised that the US was spending more money on health, defense, and scientific research but was ranking worse than countries spending less per cent of their GDP. He advocated for massive cuts across these areas to make spending more in line with the GDP of European counterparts. Additionally, he sought to provide tax credits for employee retraining while increasing taxes on foreign businesses. By the twenty-minute mark, Perot discussed his plans to reform the government: cutting the amount of congressional and cabinet staff to create an ease of communication across departments, abolishing special interest Political Action Committees (PACs), limiting political contributions to $1,000, and holding elections on weekends for easier accessibility to vote. He took all these proposals and more to the debates against his rivals.
Standing alongside incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, Perot believed the policies of both candidates would not fix what he saw as a “new war” on the prosperity of Americans. Perot was a protectionist, believing the global market was risking American jobs, while Bush and Clinton were pioneers of free trade, supporting greater expansions of US trading networks worldwide. He also detested the strictness of the US Constitution, arguing that “there’s a lot [the founders] didn’t know about” and how “it would be interesting to see what kind of document they’d draft today”. Polling showed that Perot largely beat both Clinton and Bush in the debates, but it was not enough to secure him a victory.
While winning a large margin of the popular vote, it was Democrat Bill Clinton who emerged victorious with a plurality of the popular vote and a majority of electoral votes. The Clinton administration would continue the free trade work of the Bush administration, championing the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada, and Mexico. These actions only saw Perot become more opposed to the government’s policies and with his showing in 1992, there was a greater movement for protectionism rising.
In 1995, Perot founded the Reform Party to run for the 1996 presidential election. Unlike his 1992 run, Perot accepted campaign donations. His campaign was not as well received by the public. NAFTA had a 57 per cent approval rating and Perot had baggage from an embarrassing debate performance he had against Vice President Al Gore on the Larry King Live talk show. He only received 8 per cent of the popular vote which, despite the decline, was still an impressive showing for a third party. But Perot’s inner businessman did not see him get along with party politics very well. The Reform Party effectively disintegrated after Perot decided not to become involved in the 2000 election. But it did channel a more radical form of Perot’s protectionist beliefs: paleoconservatism.
Since Reagan and Bush, the Republican party was largely becoming neoconservative: more active in foreign affairs and pro-free trade. Paleoconservatives opposed this and supported greater isolationist and protectionist policies. In 1992, George H.W. Bush fended off Republican challenger Pat Buchanan who stood in opposition to the administrations free trade policies. Buchanan ended up winning the 2000 Reform Party primary, becoming the second iteration of Perot’s presidential machine. However, he was mired in controversies for his defense of Holocaust crimes and Perot ultimately left the Reform party due to infighting. Interestingly, Donald Trump entered the primaries as a candidate but left due to his perceived disorganisation of the party and for Buchanan’s allegiance to far-right politics.
Buchanan won 0.43 per cent of the vote and the party never recovered, now lacking all connections with Perot. But, as recent history indicates, the Reform Party did foreshadow Trump’s presidential ambitions as a swamp clearing billionaire ready to take on the establishment. As for Perot, he largely endorsed Republicans for future presidential elections. He continued to advocate for greater digitisation, specifically supporting making textbooks e-books in schools. He died on 9 July 2019.
While Perot’s bout with politics largely ended in 1996, in many ways his campaign served as a precursor to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run. Trump’s campaign echoed similar protectionist sentiments that opposed job outsourcing and wanted greater focus on internal improvements. Like Buchanan, Trump often attracted the attention of far-right supporters, which he did not do much to disassociate himself with. As Perot’s message changed over time, his sense of authenticity when he patiently went through his slides during every infomercial remained, inspiring and informing all those listening. Unfortunately, that authenticity is the one thing most present-day American politicians have not emulated from Perot.
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Featured image credit: Ross Perot, “How Billionaire Ross Perot Brought Populism Back to Presidential Politics,” History. Ted Thai/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images. Accessed via https://www.history.com/news/ross-perot-populist-1992-election-changed-politics. Used under fair use policy.