Ross Perot and Donald Trump: Presidential Candidates and Outsiders, Looking In

WASHINGTON — Ross Perot isn’t a familiar name to young Americans, and many older ones are more likely to recall Dana Carvey’s impersonation of Mr. Perot on “Saturday Night Live” or his quirky appearances on Larry King’s talk show in the 1990s.

But Mr. Perot was a significant figure in modern American politics: He won 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential race against George Bush and Bill Clinton, making him the most successful third-party White House candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign in 1912.

Mr. Perot did not win any electoral votes, but he ran competitively with those two major-party nominees in much of the country and even outpolled then-President Bush in Maine and Mr. Clinton in Utah. All told, nearly 20 million Americans cast a ballot for Mr. Perot.

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Perhaps more important, the unlikely candidacy of Mr. Perot, the Texas business executive who died Tuesday at 89, signaled the tremors beneath the surface of the country’s political system that presaged the full-blown earthquake of 2016. President Trump was not the first wealthy, quippy outsider who entered politics by running for president and disrupted the status quo by borrowing from the hymnals of both parties.

Here are four takeaways about Mr. Perot’s influence in American politics and how, intentionally or not, he charted a path for Mr. Trump to the White House.

The two men couldn’t have looked or sounded much different, but the diminutive, Texarkana-born Mr. Perot and the tall, outer-borough-bred Mr. Trump shared a nose-against-the-glass view of the political class.

By dint of their financial success, both men had ready access to elected officials. But Mr. Perot and Mr. Trump were very much detached from Washington’s swirl of lawmakers, lobbyists and policy mavens, and they harbored both contempt and envy for these elites.

Mr. Perot first broke the mold. There was no precedent for a wealthy, private-sector tycoon upending a presidential race until the founder of Electronic Data Systems came along in early 1992 with his charts and one-liners.

Yet with his loss in 1992 and again in 1996 after a more limited campaign, Mr. Perot demonstrated the limitations of running outside the two-party system.

Mr. Trump flirted for years with his own third-party bid, including in 2000 on the ticket of the Reform Party that Mr. Perot created. But, crucially, Mr. Trump decided to run as a Republican in 2016 and effectively staged a hostile takeover of the G.O.P.

“He said, ‘You just have to either be a Democrat or a Republican to win,’” recalled Roger J. Stone, Mr. Trump’s former political adviser, in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “He just didn’t think it could be done as an independent. Even the weakest Republican candidate begins with 35 percent of the vote.”

Presidential campaigns changed in hugely important ways between 1992 and 2016, but one common thread between those two campaign years was the political homelessness of a pivotal, and oft-discussed, segment of the electorate: working-class white voters.

Often too culturally conservative to support Democratic candidates, yet with more fiscally liberal views than those of Republican leaders, these voters drifted to Mr. Perot and then surged to Mr. Trump.

Both Mr. Perot and Mr. Trump ran fiercely anti-free-trade campaigns while also calling for a hard line on immigration. Would Mr. Trump’s jeremiads against Nafta have been as effective if Mr. Perot hadn’t laid the predicate by attacking Nafta in the 1990s and warning against the job losses he argued it would bring? Indeed, the line most people remember from Mr. Perot is his prediction from the second presidential debate in October 1992 that enacting Nafta would send American jobs to Mexico. “There will be a giant sucking sound going south,” he said.

While some Republicans and others initially assumed that Mr. Bush would have won re-election in 1992 election without Mr. Perot on the ballot, many political scientists believe Mr. Perot’s change-hungry voters would have stayed home or supported Mr. Clinton if the businessman had not been in the race.

As James Carville, Mr. Clinton’s top strategist in 1992, put it in a documentary on Mr. Perot: “If Donald Trump is the kind of Jesus of the disenchanted, displaced non-college white voter, then Perot was the John the Baptist of that sort of movement.”

Notably, though, Mr. Perot did not use the sort of divisive language against immigrants and refugees that was a centerpiece of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and his presidency.

Mr. Perot and Mr. Trump were hardly anonymous businessmen when they plunged into electoral politics. Mr. Perot had gained fame when he financed a campaign to rescue employees of his company in Iran — a daring mission memorialized in “On Wings of Eagles,” a best-selling book and mini-series — and he was a vocal supporter of attempting to rescue remaining prisoners of war in Vietnam. Mr. Trump, of course, was a New York tabloid fixture in the 1980s and resuscitated his flagging business career by starring in a reality show.

So when they began running for president, both men knew they would have an ability to amplify their political message beyond the traditional news media and campaign trail reporters.

For Mr. Perot, that meant frequent appearances with Mr. King, who offered an open microphone and millions of viewers for the graphs the businessman liked to hold up for the cameras. In Mr. Trump’s case, it was his adoption of Twitter and, during the 2016 campaign, his willingness to call into just about any television program that invited him.

Untethered from the constraints of the political establishment, both Mr. Perot and Mr. Trump were willing to make provocative comments that drove news coverage and helped shape the contours of the debate.

They knew that catchy sound bites would resonate with many voters more than in-depth policy proposals, and they believed entertaining was essential to electioneering. Indeed, long before Mr. Trump was bestowing juvenile nicknames on his rivals, Mr. Perot was doing down-home bits in his Texas twang that was the stuff of dreams for satirists.

“The debt is like a crazy aunt we keep down in the basement,” Mr. Perot said about another of his favorite topics. “All the neighbors know she’s there, but nobody wants to talk about her.”

The voices, the tics, the facial expressions — both candidates at times could have been mistaken for “S.N.L.” characters, or caricatures, playing themselves.

As Dr. Larry J. Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist, put it: “You didn’t even need a comic to imitate them.”


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