Ross Perot’s quixotic run for the White House is increasingly seen as a harbinger of the unpredictable twists and turns that could befall the 2016 presidential election.
WASHINGTON — The political world has seen this script before: A brash, outspoken billionaire bursts onto the presidential scene, monopolizing the media spotlight with colorful appeals to everyman sensibilities.
This time, it’s Donald Trump, a flamboyant New York real-estate tycoon with a golden head of hair. A generation ago it was H. Ross Perot, a quirky, no-nonsense tech mogul from Texarkana with his trademark flip charts, East Texas drawl and prominent ears.
The comparisons have been unavoidable, and not just because their rivals were Bushes and Clintons. Both made their marks as get-it-done business entrepreneurs who could use their own money to play an outsider game in the world of politics.
Once again, Republicans can only look on with trepidation as Trump threatens a third-party candidacy, as Perot did in the 1992 race between GOP incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton.
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Members of the Bush clan in Texas, including former Secretary of State James Baker III — now a Jeb Bush adviser — still blame Perot for his loss. But others argue Perot’s appeal transcended partisan politics, a conclusion borne out by exit polling that showed he drew votes equally from Bush and Clinton.
How far the comparisons go will ultimately depend on how deep Trump goes into the GOP primaries, or possibly into the general election as an independent candidate — a prospect that many Democrats welcome and which some state GOP officials are trying to head off.
Either way, Perot’s quixotic run for the White House is increasingly seen as a harbinger of the unpredictable twists and turns that could befall the 2016 presidential election — with needed updates to account for modern social media and celebrity culture.
“There’s no doubt that Trump is the inheritor of Ross Perot’s straight-talk campaign, but just with a little more in-your-face attitude,” Perot biographer Gerald Posner said.
Both men arrived on the political scene with over-the-top accomplishments — in sharp contrast to the denizens of Washington gridlock. Perot, a Navy veteran, made billions in multinational data-processing companies. Before running for president, he also won folk-hero status for organizing a private rescue mission to extract two employees held captive in the tumultuous 1979 Iranian Revolution. The feat became a book and a miniseries.
The thrice-married Trump, for his part, has made billions in a family real-estate empire, along with his signature towers, gambling resorts, beauty pageants, books and TV shows. A boldface name in the world of gossip and glamour, Trump’s fame is even greater than Perot’s was in a pre-Twitter, pre-Internet age.
While both men shook up the political establishment, they cultivated opposite larger-than-life personalities.
“Trump loves publicity and thrives on it,” said veteran Republican operative Ed Rollins, who managed Perot’s 1992 campaign before their high-wattage falling out. “Perot hated the media.”
But Perot’s wariness of the media did not extend to CNN’s “Larry King Live,” where he made frequent appearances and first announced his run. His easy access to what campaign operatives call “free media” fed his disdain for modern advertising campaigns — a point of contention with Rollins.
Perot, now 85, declined an interview.
Perot’s paranoia and eccentricity — he dropped out of the race briefly, later claiming it had been to head off a Republican plot to “smear” his daughter Carolyn before her wedding — contributed to his undoing. But he still won nearly 19 percent of the vote, outdistancing all other independent candidates in modern times, enough to raise questions about his role as a spoiler, as Trump has suggested.
“Had he not existed,” Trump, 69, told Bloomberg Politics this week, “you’re not talking about Bill Clinton and you’re not worried about Hillary.”
While the Perot effect has long been debated, a possible independent ticket led by Trump would almost certainly do more damage to the eventual Republican nominee. Either way, the possibility already has altered the calculus in the GOP nominating contest, with Trump’s rivals gauging whether to attack him, ignore him or play like his apprentice.
“A third-party candidate changes the dynamics of a campaign,” said Ronald Rapoport, a political scientist at the College of William and Mary and co-author of the book “Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamics of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence.” “Trump is very unusual. Every political scientist would have told you he’d be out of it by now and his bubble would burst. It hasn’t.”
The prospect of a three-way race in 2016 is being taken seriously enough that Republican activists in swing states like Virginia are pushing for loyalty oaths barring candidates from running in the general election if they’re not the party’s nominee.
Even with Trump’s money, a decision to switch as an independent would pose the challenge of getting on the ballot in all 50 states without a built-in party apparatus. Perot had an army of volunteers before he committed to running.
While Perot mulled a run for office, his backers formed a populist campaign organization called United We Stand America, with chapters in all 50 states. Outside of Iowa and a few other early primary states, Trump has yet to mount the sort of ground game it would take to navigate the complicated patchwork of rules to get on the ballot in all the states to make him competitive in the Electoral College.
“It’s possible Trump could fund it, but it’s a real longshot,” said John Wodele, who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign in Minnesota before going on to work for Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a former pro wrestler who was elected governor as an independent in a startling three-way race.
But Wodele said political insiders who dismiss popular political novices like Trump, Perot and Ventura do so at their peril.
“We had Ross Perot in the background,” he said of the 1992 Clinton operation. “Our thought was that he was nuts. But he wasn’t. He was a smart man who saw an opportunity.”
Trump — like Perot before his brief campaign interruption — seems propelled more by the force of his tycoon image than ideology or policy positions.
Perot, once an Eagle Scout, charmed with his down-home quips, one of the most memorable coming when he likened the outsourcing of U.S. jobs to Mexico as “a giant sucking sound going south.”
Trump, a reality-TV star, goes for the outrageous, speaking his mind, feuding with journalists, insulting his rivals and making grand entrances with his helicopter.
“Perot was selling ‘can do’ folksy; Trump is selling ‘can do’ in-your-face,” said Posner, the author of the 1996 book “Citizen Perot.”
Despite their divergent images, some analysts see the two candidates’ outsider appeal as similar, particularly among voters who say they’re alienated from the two-party system — or those who rarely go to the polls at all.
“It’s self-identified independent voters, the ones the two parties keep saying don’t exist,” said North Woods Advertising founder Bill Hillsman, whose clients included Perot, Ventura and independent Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. “They do exist. They come out in droves when they’ve got someone who is delivering the message they want to hear, which is that everything in Washington is all screwed up.”
Running against Washington — much like Texas Republican Ted Cruz — is no rarity in politics. But Hillsman thinks that a certain air of authenticity is lacking in those who criticize the Beltway culture while making their living there.
“Anybody who’s in office has a huge credibility gap,” he said.
Great wealth also allowed both Perot and Trump to present themselves as anti-politicians not beholden to anybody — free to criticize both parties and tell the “politically incorrect” truth as they and their supporters see it.
“What Trump has going for him that is the same as Perot’s DNA is that both come over as authentic,” Posner said. “What you see is what you get.”
Perot, an outspoken budget and deficit hawk, also proposed hiking the federal gas tax and increasing income taxes on the wealthy. Some Republicans welcomed his re-entry into the race, sensing he’d draw support from Clinton.
Trump appeals to immigration hard-liners with calls for a coast-to-coast border wall and mass deportations. But he also has come under fire from Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other GOP rivals for liberal positions he staked out in the past on abortion and health care.
“Trump is a phenomenon because people can’t really place him on the ideological scale,” Rapoport said.
Outside of immigration, Trump has been notably vague on policy, though his criticism of U.S. trade imbalances with Mexico and China echoes the economic nationalism of Perot, who made opposition to NAFTA a key issue in his campaign.
“Perot had an agenda,” Rapoport said. “That agenda is, in many ways, what got Perot in. You can’t see Trump doing flip charts.”
Trump’s focus on American job losses, however, gives him the same handhold that Perot had on a populist issue that resonates among conservatives and working-class Democrats.
A focus group study last week of Trump backers in the Washington, D.C., area by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found his support to be surprisingly intense, notwithstanding his provocative remarks about women, immigrants and other GOP leaders.
“This is not going away,” Luntz said. “This isn’t Perot. This is much stronger than Perot.”