Perot: Losing Friends And Influencing Elections

Perot's star has fallen, but three-party politics is on the rise

Ross Perot is plagued by high negative ratings, sagging voter support, and splits within his own infant third-party movement. But that isn't deterring him from elbowing his way into the 1996 campaign. The unpredictable billionaire may be little more than a nuisance for Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, but he's a nuisance who could influence the outcome of both the Presidential and congressional elections.

That's why Republican and Democratic strategists were watching warily as Perot's Reform Party geared up to announce its first Presidential ticket on Aug. 18 in Valley Forge, Pa. Former Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm gamely tried to win the party's nomination, but Perot was the overwhelming choice of delegates at the Aug. 11 party convention in Long Beach, Calif.

Assuming he wins the Reform Party nod, few analysts expect the feisty Texan to approach the 19% vote he received in 1992. He would garner 12% in a three-way race with Clinton and Dole, according to a Gallup Poll of 1,003 registered voters conducted Aug. 5 to 7.

"ROMAN CANDLE." More ominous for Perot, he has been unable to recover from a slide in public approval that followed his November 1993 free-trade debate with Vice-President Al Gore. With Perot's public persona transformed from crusading reformer to quirky publicity hound, his negatives have shot up to 53%, according to Gallup. Little wonder political pros are writing him off as a serious contender. "He's like a Roman candle," says GOP Texas Governor George W. Bush. "He shines brightly for a while. But four years later, his spark diminishes."

Perot is facing defections even within his own Reform Party. Polls show that nearly half of Perot's '92 supporters will abandon him this year. Says Heidi Fineberg, a Lamm fan from Reseda, Calif.: "We couldn't have had a party without him. But we've grown beyond him."

Still, even a diminished Perot can alter the dynamics of the campaign. He'll use his wealth and a spot in the Presidential debates to gain airtime to frame the issues, forcing Clinton and Dole to deal with controversial subjects such as entitlements and campaign-finance reform. "He will shape the tone of the campaign," predicts independent pollster Gordon S. Black.

Republicans worry that, in the end, the third-party contender will attract anti-incumbent voters who otherwise would have gone to Dole. "A vote for Perot is a vote for Clinton," says GOP Chairman Haley Barbour. Democratic strategists initially agreed with Barbour's view. But now, they fret that the Texas maverick could siphon off critical blue-collar votes from the President in key swing states such as Michigan, Illinois, and New Jersey. Polls are no help: They show Perot drawing evenly from the President and the GOP nominee.


Beyond the Presidential race, Perot's followers could determine which party wins control of Congress. In 1994, two-thirds of the Perotistas voted Republican, helping to end the Democrats' reign on Capitol Hill. This year, the Reform Party hopes to flex its muscle by endorsing candidates in every congressional race. And the impact is unclear: The GOP could benefit because its candidates support such Perot staples as a balanced-budget amendment and term limits. But Democrats could win Perotista votes by stressing fiscal restraint and campaign-finance reform.

On the face of it, Perot probably will not succeed this year. "If you look at the whole history of third parties, no candidate has run twice in a row and gotten 5% of the vote," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman. Still, while Perot himself may be a fading presence, the third-party movement he inspired remains a force to be reckoned with. Chances are, it will play a crucial role in determining which major-party politicians will lead the country--and where they will take it.