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How Billionaire Ross Perot Brought Populism Back to Presidential Politics

October 6, 2020 in History

By Suzanne McGee

That sucking sound back in 1992? The votes he spirited away from the mainstream parties.

H. Ross Perot didn’t win the 1992 presidential election. He didn’t even capture a single Electoral College vote.

Nonetheless, the Texan billionaire’s outsider bid for the American presidency transformed the political and electoral landscape, in both the short and longer term. By capturing 19 percent of all votes cast that November—the highest percentage for a third-party or independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for a third term in the White House in 1912—Perot delivered a wake-up call to politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Perot followed the populist model set down by William Jennings Bryan in his (unsuccessful) campaigns for the presidency in 1896, 1900 and 1908. Like Bryan, Perot reached out to working-class and middle-class Americans who felt ignored by the political establishments within both parties. Bryan argued for what he felt was in the interests of the “common man,” advocating the creation of a silver standard and vilifying monopolies and the overreach of American imperialism.

Nearly a century later, Perot changed the dynamics of the race by focusing on similarly populist issues voters felt had been overlooked or discounted by both incumbent President George H.W. Bush and the Democratic Party candidate, Arkansas Governor William J. Clinton. “All he wanted was change,” argued Jim Squires, his former campaign spokesman, in a 2007 analysis.

READ MORE: Populism in the United States: A Timeline

Perot Directed His Message to the Masses, Using Mass Media

Texas billionaire businessman Ross Perot pointing to chart during a self-financed TV ad/program promoting his run for president as a third-party candidate.

The first sign that Perot’s campaign would diverge from any other Americans had encountered: He announced his candidacy not at a press conference or political gathering, but instead on a TV political chat show, “Larry King Live.” Long before candidates like Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders turned to the Internet to transform their campaigns, Perot recognized that mass media—in the form of cable television and infomercials—had the potential to shake up the way candidates and voters connected. “If I want 100,00 volunteers more, all I need to do is go on some national show,” Perot said of his campaign. Millions watched his infomercials.

Perot didn’t just change the way candidates reached voters. He also transformed both the style and substance of political campaigning. …read more


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