If Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign is remembered at all, it’s for the weirdness:
The Texas billionaire abruptly abandoned his bid for the White House in the middle of the Democratic Convention that nominated Bill Clinton. He then suddenly re-entered the race on October 1. His ill-prepared running mate James Stockdale began his opening statement in the vice-presidential debate by asking, “Who am I? Why am I here?” And pushing the outer limits of bizarre in the closing days of the fall campaign, Perot claimed that the reelection committee of President George H.W. Bush had conspired to disrupt his youngest daughter’s wedding.
Despite this oddball opus, Perot still won 19 percent of the popular vote, even managing to edge out Bush for second place in Maine.
But there’s another aspect to the Perot saga, which remains relevant in a Super PAC era. When Perot announced on the Larry King show in February 1992 that he would run for president and spend what it takes if supporters would put him on the ballot in all 50 states, he touched off a populist uprising. By May, Perot was leading the three-way field in a Time/CNN poll with 33 percent of vote with Bush at 28 percent and Clinton, the de facto Democratic nominee, at 24 percent.
As I wrote (or over-wrote) in a Time cover story, “Make no mistake: Perot, 61, just might (gulp!) be the next President of the U.S.—a leader unfettered by any party, untested in any office, unclear in his policies and unshakable in the faith that he is right and the entire bipartisan government establishment is wrong.”
The Perot soufflé, which fell as fast as it rose, serves as a reminder of the theoretical vulnerability of the two-party system to a free-spending outsider. Despite high unemployment from the lingering effects of recession, 1992 was a benign moment in American political history. The Cold War was over, boom times were ahead, bipartisanship was possible in Washington and both political parties boasted approval ratings over 50 percent. And yet Perot—appealing to a malaise about the direction of the nation—still corralled the highest vote percentage of a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose in 1912.
Things look far bleaker 23 years later in 2015. Global war, widening inequality and nuclear winter in Washington have all sapped voter confidence in both the Republicans and the Democrats. The Gallup Poll recently reported that the favorability ratings of both parties are now below 40 percent. This is the lowest ebb for trust in the two-party system since Gallup began asking this question in, yes, 1992. Normally, at least one party is popular with the voters. Now they are both disliked by a majority of Americans.
Money has always been a powerful disincentive to independent candidates for president who fantasize about getting more than a Ralph Nader-style protest vote. Acquiring ballot access in all 50 states costs tens of millions. And to win sustained media attention a putative candidate would either have to launch a national TV advertising blitz or convince the press that he had enough money to dominate the airwaves at a time of his choosing.
Until the Citizens United decision, the only practical way to run for president as an independent was to be a billionaire self-funder like Perot. For there was no plausible way for someone operating outside the traditional party structures to raise enough startup money with $2,500 checks and small donations to get a serious campaign off the ground. That explains why the only person to seriously contemplate it over the last two decades was Mike Bloomberg, who never could see a path to victory.
But the rise of Super PACs—and the loose regulation that has allowed them to become surrogate presidential campaigns—has changed the equation. Now an independent presidential candidate doesn’t need to have a ten-digit investment portfolio. All that is required is to convince, say, 50 mega-rich donors to fund the launch phase of the Return of Bull Moose.
Please understand: I am not predicting a major third-party candidacy in 2016 since I can’t picture who would possibly do it. (Bloomberg is older than Joe Biden). Nor am I minimizing other problems such as winning access to the general election debates. Still, it was intriguing that a bipartisan group (including former presidential candidates Jon Huntsman and Joe Lieberman) recently appealed to the Commission on Presidential Debates to relax the rules for third-party participation.
The obvious lesson here—at least to me—is that both parties are taking heedless risks in encouraging the central role for Super PACs. As Karl Rove put it in a column about GOP primary race this week, “In 2016, the Super PAC may spell the difference between victory and defeat.” By giving billionaire Super PAC donors a seat at the table and even fluffing up the cushions, first the Republicans and now the Democrats are ceding control of their own institutional future.
Both political parties are obsessed with doing almost anything for transitory political gain. What they are missing is that this cynical gamesmanship jeopardizes their two-party monopoly. Not only do the polls reflect this erosion of trust, but the breakdown of campaign spending laws also suddenly gives outsiders a financial mechanism to run for president.
In a happier era, Ross Perot demonstrated the fragility of both parties. Sooner or later, a public figure far steadier than Perot and armed with Super PAC money is going to follow the same trail. And at that moment, we may start comparing the plight of the Democratic and Republican parties to the near monopolies once held by faded corporate giants like IBM and Kodak.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.