RIP Ross Perot, the Billionaire Who Ran for President

Ross Perot, the billionaire entrepreneur who in 1992 became the most successful independent or third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, has died at 89.

Many people say that Perot, running on an anti-deficit platform, cost President George H. W. Bush reelection. I don’t think so. The most impressive political prediction I ever made was around June 1992, when I saw a poll that showed Bill Clinton running third behind Perot and Bush (it was probably the Gallup Poll shown here, with Perot 39, Bush 31, and Clinton 25). I told colleagues then, “This poll shows that Clinton will win, because third-party candidates always fade and the most important number in this poll is that only 31 percent of voters want to reelect the president.” Clinton would have won a majority if voters hadn’t had a third option.

Perot has some obvious similarities with President Trump – a businessman with no political experience, who opposed free trade and the recent Gulf War, promised to go to Washington to “take out the trash and clean out the barn,” had a predilection for conspiracy theories, and was enough of a celebrity to announce his candidacy on Larry King’s popular CNN show. However, his big issue was the $4 trillion national debt – those were the good old days! – and the deficits being run up by both parties. And instead of insulting tweets and ranting speeches, Perot’s stock in trade was 30-minute television ads full of charts and graphs, backed up by a 50-page economic plan promising cuts in domestic spending and tax hikes on high incomes and gasoline.

Perot was reported to have spent $65 million of his own money on his campaign (the Democratic and Republican candidates got $55 million each in taxpayer money in exchange for pledges by the candidates to limit direct campaign contributions, but they still managed to raise about $60 million each in “soft money”). In one sense, Perot’s campaign was a perverse result of federal campaign finance regulations. The Federal Election Campaign Act severely restricted how much money one could contribute to a campaign – unless you were the candidate. You could spend as much of your own money on your own campaign as you wanted. So the only way that Perot could spend $65 million (he tossed around suggestions of spending $100 million) was to run for president himself. But maybe the country would have been better off if he had been able to donate that money to, say, the well-respected Sen. Warren Rudman of Gramm–Rudman–Hollings Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act fame. Similarly, maybe it would have made more sense for Steve Forbes to donate $38 million to supply-side evangelist Rep. Jack Kemp in 1996 rather than to run himself. 

Ross Perot did have one positive impact on American politics. He made spending, deficits, and debt a real political issue, and that surely played a role – along with the booming economy – in bringing down deficits during the Clinton administration.

Perot also demonstrated that it’s extremely difficult to run an even modestly successful presidential campaign outside the two major parties unless you are both a billionaire and a celebrity.