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Old 06-13-2016, 06:42 AM
Location: Type 0.7 Kardashev
10,576 posts, read 7,756,583 times
Reputation: 37570


Well, the usual quadrennial fascination with third-party bids is having its usual heyday now. Included in the breathless fantasies of some third-party candidate winning the White House are dropped the usual grumbling complaints about Ross Perot having cost George H.W. Bush reelection in 1992. As usual, these assertions are fact-free. They're just declared. Because they don't have a shred of evidence to actually support them.

I've been meaning to do this for some time. So now let's look at the actual evidence.


In 1992, Bill Clinton won 44.9 million popular votes and 370 Electoral College votes.
George H.W. Bush won 39.1 million popular votes and 168 Electoral College votes.
Ross Perot won 19.7 million popular votes and 0 Electoral College votes.
Turnout was 55.2% of the voting-age populace.

Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections
Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections


It is typically claimed that Perot was a conservative, and his voters - or at least most of them - would otherwise have voted for Bush had Perot not been in the race. As such, Perot cost Bush a second term and enabled the Clinton presidency. This is the claim.


Ross Perot's political positions
Republicans love to insist that Perot was a conservative, but they rarely get any more specific than that. They just declare it to be so. But what were Ross Perot's positions? In fact, they were all over the board, but a lot of them were aligned with the Democratic Party, not with the Republican Party. The GOP is a coalition of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign policy conservatives. Let's look at how Perot fit within each of these legs of the GOP stool.

On social issues, he was pro-choice. He was also fairly progressive for the early 1990s when it came to gay rights. He loudly supported enacting strict gun control laws. And he was in favor of comprehensive nationwide single-payer government healthcare - ie, he wanted Medicare expanded to cover all Americans, or Obamacare on steroids. And instead of crapping all over teachers at every opportunity, he wanted to increase teacher pay. He also wanted to increase voter turnout by moving voting to weekends.

Economic issues? This is a fun one. Perot supported raising taxes on the wealthy. He also supported hiking the gas tax ten cents/year for five years.

And on foreign policy? Perot was an isolationist. He supported a massive reduction in defense spending. He wanted to reduce foreign aid (except to Russia, where he wanted a big increase in aid). But his biggest issue? NAFTA - specifically, opposing it (recall his phrase 'the giant sucking sound', referring to jobs being sucked to Mexico) and other forms of free trade.

To be sure, Perot differed with Democrats on some issues. He was a big proponent of capital punishment (but then, so was Bill Clinton), school vouchers, a balanced-budget amendment, and he wanted to ratchet up the idiotic war on drugs. But in total, his positions aligned more with those of the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party. Sorry, you don't just get to claim Perot was a conservative. His articulated positions as a whole are not conservative. They placed him center-left on the American political spectrum.

Just for fun, repeat this statement out loud:
"Ross Perot was a pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-tax increases, anti-free trade conservative."

And this one:
"Ross Perot's pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-tax increase, anti-free trade policies attracted lots of support from conservatives."

Now don't you feel dumb saying such absurd things?

With that fantasy dispatched, let's move on.

Bill Clinton's margin of victory
As indicated above, this was hardly a close election. Clinton won the popular vote by a 5.8 million vote margin. For Bush to pull even with Clinton, he would have had to win 65% of the Perot votes, assuming they all voted even had Perot not been in the race. While the popular vote is not a perfect proxy for the Electoral College, it's pretty good - they've correlated in 30 of the past 31 Presidential elections.

Voter turnout
Turnout in 1992 was the highest of the eight elections following the 1971 lowering of the voting age to 18. This is remarkable, as 1992 was otherwise a fairly mundane election cycle. There had been a recession, but it was a relatively mild one - enough to doom a Presidency but not enough to drive voters en masse to the polls (such as happened in 2008 with the onset of the Great Recession). And the foreign position of the United States looked better than it had at any time since the 1930s, with the Cold War won and Russia a pale shadow of what the USSR had been and the age of terror still in the future. So why the high turnout? Simple - Ross Perot.

Political naifs often mistakenly believe that all third-party/independent voters would vote even if their preferred third-party/independent candidate was not on the ballot - they would just vote Democratic or Republican. But this is not so. Exit polling indicates that will some third-party/independent voters are erstwhile major party voters, a sizeable chunk of them are not. Thus, when there is a strong third-party bid, we expect to see a turnout spike. And this is exactly what happened in 1992, when turnout was 55.2% compared to only 50.3% in 1988. Exit polling from 1992 confirms this; 24% of Perot voters indicated that had Perot not been on the ballot, they would have either voted for another third-party/independent candidate or not voted at all - but they would not have voted for either Bush or Clinton. That 24% of Perot voters totals 4.7 million voters, or 4.5% of all 1992 voters. And if we subtract that 4.5% from the 55.2% turnout rate, we get 50.7% - very close to the 50.3% turnout of 1988, when there were no significant third-party/independent bids and when Bush and Dukakis combined to take over 99% of the vote.

So in order to pull even with Clinton, Bush would have needed to take the lion's share of the 15 million Perot voters in order to close the gap of 5.8 million that separated him from Clinton - or, he would have needed to win 69% of those Perot voters.

Exit polling
Unfortunately for advancers of the Perot-stole-the-election hypothesis, the data doesn't support their claim. Voter Research and Surveys, the major exit poller from 1992, shows that 38% of Perot voters would have preferred Bush and an equal 38% would have preferred Clinton. Apologists will simply dismiss exit polling, but they're the ones advancing the claim - they need to provide evidence to support it. But they can't, and are simply reduced to ignoring evidence that contradicts their claim.


Now, some might point out that Perot's vote was distributed unevenly among the states. And that's quite correct. But Voter Research and Surveys released state-level exit polling. And what did that show?

The analysis, based on exit polls conducted by Voter Research & Surveys (VRS) for the major news organizations, indicated that in Perot's absence, only Ohio would have have shifted from the Clinton column to the Bush column. This would still have left Clinton with a healthy 349-to-189 majority in the electoral college.

And even in Ohio, the hypothetical Bush "margin" without Perot in the race was so small that given the normal margin of error in polls, the state still might have stuck with Clinton absent the Texas billionaire.

In most states, the second choices of Perot voters only reinforced the actual outcome. For example, California, New York, Illinois and Oregon went to Clinton by large margins, and Perot voters in those states strongly preferred Clinton to Bush.
Ohio is the one state that might have flipped from Bush to Clinton. But since Clinton won 100 more Electoral College votes than he needed to win, it would have been necessary for many more states to have slid to the Clinton column because of Ross Perot. And there's no evidence for that. In fact, even if we generously give Bush 60% of all Perot voters, we get this:

[note that this map uses blue for Republican states and red for Democratic states, the opposite of the usual convention]

Clinton still easily wins the Electoral College (and the popular vote).

Actual polling
But wait-- remember that in July of 1992, Ross Perot quit the race in a huff. He would re-enter the race in October. And in those intervening months, pollsters continued to poll, this time without Perot as an option. And the result? The result was that Clinton won every single head-to-head poll.

See what happens? Perot leaves in the race in July, and Clinton soars into the lead. The closest Bush is able to come to Clinton with Perot out of the race is 9% - not close at all. Then Perot jumps back into the race in October - suddenly it's a race again, because now that Perot is back in the race Clinton's lead has shrunk.

Gallup Presidential Polls 1936-2000

The 1996 Perot vote
Now, the 1996 race saw Perot's share of the electorate from from 19% to 8%. If Perot voters were erstwhile Republicans, most of those former Perot voters should have drifted back to the GOP. But Clinton improved from 43.0% of the vote in 1992 to 49.2% in 1996 (a gain of 6.2%), while Dole could only manage 40.7%, a relatively meager improvement on Bush's 37.5% in 1992 (and a gain of only 3.2%, barely half of what Clinton gained). In fact, Clinton got more votes in 1996 than Dole and Perot combined. Why? Because almost 2/3rds of the 1992 Perot voters who abandoned Perot went not in 1996 to the Republican ticket but to Clinton.


Promulgators of the Perot myth really have only two rebuttals, neither of which hold up.

The first is that President Bush was doing fine until Ross Perot showed up and started criticizing him. This is false. Bush's huge approval numbers from early in 1991 had completely faded by the end of that year - he was at 46% when 1992 started. But February he was down to 40%, where he flatlined for a few months. It wasn't until late February that Ross Perot, being interviewed on Larry King Live, first started babbling about running. But even at that point he was just some unknown guy with a twang talking about running for President. It wasn't until March that he really began to hit the national radar screen. Again, by this time Bush was at 40% approval rating. You can't pin that on Perot. By the time Ross Perot was even hinting at running 1992, Bush was already an unpopular President, with an approval rating well-below that of the least-popular President every to successfully run for reelection (that would be George W. Bush in 2004, who sported a tepid 48% approval rating on election day).

The second is the trite and almost laughable "Well, every Perot voter I knew preferred Bush to Clinton!". This reminds me of the the late film critic Pauline Kael, who noted in December 1972 - the month after President Nixon's 49-state reelection landslide - that she only knew one person who voted for Nixon. But she wasn't surprised at the election outcome. Rather, Kael understood that people she knew weren't representative of the national electorate, and she knew better than to draw conclusions from the absurdly skewed sample limited to those people of her acquaintance. She lived in a bubble and she knew it. If only more people had the same self-awareness.


I know this data-rich post will not convince the usual suspects, who predicate their beliefs not on what the evidence reveals but on what makes them feel good. These folks are generally in such deep denial that a candidate they have always despised - Bill Clinton - could beat a Republican straight up that they console themselves in the fantasy that he did no such thing. That's fine. They have always believed the Limbaughian fantasy and always will, actual evidence be damned. But I also know that out there are some lucid Republicans who are more interested in reality than in sucking on a mental placebo. This post was for them - and for the occasional liberal or Democrat who, for no good excuse, has bought the nonsense about Perot splitting the conservative vote.
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Old 06-13-2016, 07:32 AM
7,326 posts, read 4,289,707 times
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A lot of nice work but I don't think that the 1992 election cycle is of much concern or interest of most folks at this time. But if it it were this would be the post most folks would be arguing over. Thanks nonetheless.
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Old 06-13-2016, 01:09 PM
Location: Bella Vista, Ark
75,834 posts, read 88,700,431 times
Reputation: 46693
Showing your charts, you bring up some good points, and you are not the first person to post something like this. I do not think he really cost Bush the election either, but there always is more to consider than just charts. We have no real idea, in some swing and important states what might have happened had there not been a Perot. I do think a third party candidate could hurt Trump this time around. He has an upward battle already. I do remember when some people thought John Anderson was going to hurt Reagan; I even know of a few people in California, where we lived at the time, that voted for him. Of course Reagan wasn't hurt at all.
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Old 06-13-2016, 01:10 PM
11,758 posts, read 5,904,659 times
Reputation: 7973
Let's hope that in 2036, someone (maybe OP) will be posting that Gary Johnson did not cause Donald Trump to lose in 2016.

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