With the passing of H. Ross Perot, we’re almost certain to endure another spate of debates over whether his candidacy cost President George Herbert Walker Bush the 1992 election. The best answer is: We don’t know, and can’t know.
The proverbial ace-in-the-hole for proponents of the view that Perot did not keep Bush from winning reelection typically comes from exit polls, which showed that Perot voters would have split roughly evenly between Bush and Bill Clinton in a two-person race. More refined analyses reference the political science literature suggesting that Perot voters were demographically similar to Clinton voters. Usually once these arguments are made, the argument halts.
There are nevertheless a few important counter-arguments worth considering. First, the Texas businessman’s support was not evenly distributed; it was regionalized. He ran very well in some deeply Republican states in the Midwest and West such as Utah (27%), Idaho (27%), and Kansas (27%), but also in more Democratic states such as Maine (30%), Rhode Island (23%), Massachusetts (23%) and Vermont (23%). He was something of a non-factor in the South.
What’s interesting is that if you compare these states over time, the effect was uneven as well:
If you look at what we today would call red states, things in 2000 look pretty much the same as they did in 1988. There’s a crash in the Republican vote share in 1992, followed by a gradual recovery. The Democratic vote share declines as well, but it is not as pronounced; it also recovers roughly to where it was in 1988, although it declines again between 1996 and 2000.
New England is a different story. The declines in Republican and Democratic vote shares from 1988 to 1992 are similar to what we saw in the Midwestern/Western states. But in 1996, the Republican vote shares in these states were unchanged; the Democratic vote share was higher.
What I’m getting at is that, while Perot might have had an equal impact from a popular vote perspective, he did not necessarily have an equal impact from an electoral perspective. He probably did flip states like Montana and Nevada to Clinton; his impact in larger Midwestern states is harder to gauge.
Of course, the popular vote was a five-point Clinton win, and if Perot really did draw evenly between the two it seems extremely unlikely that Bush was going to win the Electoral College under any circumstances, even if Perot likely did cost Bush a few electoral votes.
But this helps to raise a second, deeper argument: If Perot cost Bush the election, he likely did so well before Election Day. Consider the horse race polling from 1992. Bush led handily in polls until Perot declared his candidacy (not shown), then saw his standing ebb. But Bush voters did not go to Clinton. Rather, they went to Perot, at least at first. Clinton was mired at around 27% of the vote throughout the spring and summer, at least until Perot suspended his campaign on the eve of the Democratic convention. After an initial “pop” for both candidates, Clinton surged to a 22-point lead over Bush, who found himself roughly where he was in the polls before Perot dropped out.
What this might suggest is that strategically and tactically, Perot made the election easier for Clinton well before people registered their opinions at the polls. Strategically, he remade our political coalitions. In this telling, he broke off a chunk of the Reagan coalition – younger, deficit-minded, culturally moderate voters. Once these voters were persuaded not to vote for Bush, they naturally flipped over to Clinton when Perot re-entered the race. Only some of them later returned to the Republican coalition over the course of the decade.
Tactically, Perot forced Bush into a two-front war at a time where he needed to be hammering away at a badly wounded Clinton campaign. He also elevated issues that were unfavorable for the Republican, most notably the deficit.
Michael Barone previewed this argument in the 1994 Almanac of American Politics (which covers the 1992 elections): “Perot’s campaign ‘departisanized the critique of Bush,’ as Democratic strategist Paul Tully put it, pushing Bush lower and lower in the polls in the spring as a then-wounded and distrusted Bill Clinton could not have done.”
From all of this, you might see an argument forming that Perot did, in fact, cost Bush re-election. But the claim here is actually significantly weaker. Instead, the best we can say is that we don’t know, and cannot know. There is significant empirical evidence, briefly outlined above, that Perot did not cost Bush the election, but that evidence all comes from the universe where Perot actually ran. If Perot fundamentally reset the terms of the 1992 election, then this evidence cannot answer our actual question.
Put differently, you simply cannot unwind the millions of choices – some made by voters, some made by campaign officials – that were occasioned by the entry of a billionaire candidate who drew 19% of the vote, and, at one point, almost 40% of poll respondents. Yes, these voters may have indicated that they would have split evenly between Bush and Clinton, but that is only after a campaign of listening to Perot’s critiques and elevation of the deficit as an issue; at best, this only suggests what might have happened had Perot not appeared on the ballot on Election Day. Yes, these voters may be demographically similar to Clinton voters, but that is only after Perot had broken many of them away in the first place (and they are ultimately dissimilar in an important way: They didn’t vote for Clinton).
It’s also entirely possible that none of this mattered. Had Perot not run, Clinton still would have appeared on MTV, still would have played the sax on “Arsenio Hall,” still would have had a good convention, and still would have had solid debates. Most importantly, the economic recovery still would have lagged. If forced to choose, that is probably where I come down.
But it is also possible that, absent Perot, Clinton would not have had an opportunity to find his footing, his sax playing would have looked desperate, and the fact that we were, in fact, in a recovery would have mattered more. We cannot not know.
Of course, all of this is ultimately beside the point; it is a debate over legitimacy that expired almost 20 years ago. But even then it was a silly debate. Elections are often driven by contingency, and the validity of Clinton’s presidency is no more dependent upon the effect of Perot than Reagan’s was on the fact that the recessions of the early ’80s didn’t drag on an extra six months. Presidents who win a majority in the Electoral College are the presidents, period, and they are no less legitimate if a third party candidate does play spoiler.