"Is this the end or just the beginning?" insurgent Ross Perot asked his cheering supporters on election night. Whatever the Dallas billionaire's personal intentions, political pros are convinced that the forces unleashed by his extraordinary candidacy aren't going away. And if the major parties don't respond to the disgust that millions of Americans feel toward the political system, Perot's success could be the start of a "third force" movement unlike anything in American politics since the turbulent birth of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
Perot won a higher percentage of the vote than any third-party candidate since Robert LaFollette in 1924. Other signs of discontent abounded: Voter turnout was up for the first time since 1972. And while anti-incumbent fervor fizzled out in House and Senate races, voters in 14 states imposed term limits on their members of Congress. "Something is going on here," says Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr., an expert on third parties. Adds Joe Canzeri, a longtime GOP operative who worked for Perot: "The silent majority is coming out of hiding."
EASY UPGRADE. The Perot surge was not the only sign of voter volatility. Young voters showed that, in a high-tech age, they can switch party affiliation as easily as they buy better software. The young adults who flocked to Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s were ready to support Bill Clinton because he offered himself as a "new kind of Democrat," an upgrade that seemed worth installing.
If Clinton succeeds in the White House, he could mold a majority of today's fluid electorate into a new, dominant Democratic coalition. But success is far from assured. "You have this huge group of people who are disgusted with both parties and may be entering a stage of ongoing insurgency," argues Republican analyst Kevin Phillips. "If Clinton doesn't put the economy on an even keel and get the country moving again, you will see this third force emerge."
Traditionally, third-party movements are short-lived, usually because a major party co-opts their cause. And the Perot-nistas couldn't have captured the public attention without Perot's willingness to spend tens of millions promoting his cause. No one knows how long Perot, whose attention span can be short, will continue to bankroll his United We Stand movement. "His goal was never to be President," says Ross Perot Jr. of his father. "His goal was and is to help this country."
But Perot isn't the only promoter of the Third Force. Connecticut Governor Lowell P. Weicker Jr. plans to work with his fellow independents to seize Perot's momentum at a Nov. 16-17 convention in Washington. They are hoping to gain the support of fiscally conservative Democrats, many of whom supported former Senator Paul E. Tsongas in the primaries, as well as Republican moderates alienated by their party's rightward lurch.
The Third Force needs a powerful figure at the top, though. Insurgencies in American politics have always depended on charismatic leaders. Perot's followers were prepared to overlook his idiosyncracies because he had convinced them that he was the only candidate telling the truth. While he didn't win a single state, dissatisfaction still seethes among the electorate, and voters' demands for accountability in government aren't going away. Democrats and Republicans can ignore the forces Perot embodied only at their peril.