Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Could a Perot campaign happen today?

Over at 538, Tom Schaller nicely takes apart the notion that the modern Tea Party movement is the heir to the Ross Perot campaign of 1992.  The main reason, of course, is that the Perot supporters weren't necessarily conservative.  For an historical contrast, think about what happened during the Democratic convention of 1992.  Perot decided to withdraw, suggesting that the Democrats seemed to have their act together that year, and many of his supporters and campaign aides went to work for the Clinton campaign.  Now flash forward to 2012, when Sarah Palin, the Tea Party nominee, withdraws, leaving the field a two-man race between President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney.  Any chance she praises Obama or that her supporters go to work for the Democrats?  Basically none.

But I think it's a fair question whether a Perot candidacy -- a fundamentally centrist political movement -- could exist today.  Note Ron Rappoport's description of Perot supporters:
Perot callers were slightly right of center on the liberal-conservative scale, but on specific issues they were were not consistently conservative. They strongly favored abortion rights, national health insurance, and government controls on pollution, while strongly opposing affirmative action, gun control and the revocation of the death penalty.
In terms of demographics, Perot supporters were unobservant religiously. Only 38% attended services every week and 16% never attended services-both very different from the American public. And while 33% did not identify as either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish among Perot callers, such was the case for only 15% of tea party supporters. On the other hand the tea party movement and the Perot supporters were both about 60% male and over 90% white.
What a mix!  I get the impression that 1992 was about the last time it was possible for a politically active group of people to hold such a blend of views.  Supporters of abortion rights and health insurance have steadily embraced the Democrats, as have the religiously unobservant.  Opponents of affirmative action and gun control have increasingly become Republicans.  These people were hugely cross-pressured at the time, but that tension has largely resolved one way or another.  The early 90s was the time that the parties in the electorate polarized on issues of race, abortion, and church attendance, among other things. Putting together a group of voters that could unite around a candidacy despite embracing such a diversity of partisan stances and still capture a fifth of the vote strikes me as impossible today.

1 comment:

Jonathan Bernstein said...

I'm not sure. It's true that the parties have generally become stronger since 1992, but I think it's possible to imagine a Perot-type candidate having done reasonably well in 2008. Perot's actual results were far better than they "should" have been...he was almost certainly helped by getting included in the debates, which was just a mistake by Bush. IIRC, Perot's polling paralleled John Anderson's 1980 polling up to the debates, and Anderson faded when he wasn't included. Of course, it also helped that Perot had bucketsful of money, both because spending it helped a lot (I assume) with ballot access, and because it gave him a lot of respect from reporters.

I think a lot of things would have to fall into place, but I could see it happening again.