Ross Perot showed us the hidden populist voter – AEI – American Enterprise Institute: Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise11th July 2019
After Republicans lost in 2012, failing to retake the White House and actually losing Senate seats despite a sagging Obama-era economy, two prominent analyses were proposed.
One — the Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” — said the GOP’s problem was embracing social issues too much and liberal immigration too little. The other analysis — the “Missing White Voter” thesis — was grounded in actual data. It said the problem was that the GOP of the Bush family and Mitt Romney had turned off working-class whites to the point that they disengaged.
Put another way, the GOP establishment in 2012 said the party could win by becoming more like George H.W. Bush; the deeper analysis said it could win if it became more like Ross Perot.
Perot, who died Tuesday, ran for president in 1992 and 1996. He probably didn’t determine the outcome of either election, but he did teach us something about our country. It’s a lesson most of us refused to learn at the time, because Perot lost. Then we couldn’t help but learn that lesson in 2016, because that’s the year Perot’s political heir ran for president and won.
After Romney’s 2012 loss, it was popular to say that demographic tides were drowning the GOP. The only way for Republicans ever to win again, supposedly, was to embrace immigration reform. Serendipitously, this was the policy already favored by the GOP elite and the business lobby that funded them.
Sean Trende, a political analyst, offered a more detailed analysis. The 2012 results didn’t reflect a rising tide of young, Hispanic, gay, female voters or any such thing. Instead, Trende pointed out, “the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home.”
It wasn’t all white voters who stayed home when presented with a choice between the clean, crisp, corporate raider millionaire in Romney and a leftward-lurching, Ivy League culture warrior in Barack Obama. It was a specific type of white voter, identifiable on a map, and distinct geographically.
“The drop in turnout,” Trende wrote, “occurs in a rough diagonal, stretching from northern Maine, across upstate New York (perhaps surprisingly, turnout in post-Sandy New York City dropped off relatively little), and down into New Mexico.”
These voters who stayed home in 2012 typically lacked college degrees. They weren’t a religious right put off by Romney’s Mormonism. They weren’t free-market crusaders angry about Romneycare. They weren’t terribly conservative at all (many had voted for Obama in 2008), but they were put off cultural liberalism.
Who were these missing white voters? Trende explained: “For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the ‘Perot coalition.’ That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism.”
It turns out that you could predict a county’s drop-off in 2012 turnout by looking at that county’s Perot vote in 1992.
Perot in 1992 had run the most successful third-party presidential campaign since Teddy Roosevelt. And in 1996, he got a respectable 8%. His campaigns focused on reducing the debt through both cutting spending and hiking the taxes on the wealthy. He also opposed NAFTA.
Perot wasn’t peddling boring technocratic centrism. He was running on non-ideological populism. And he reached millions of disaffected working-class voters in rural counties and former industrial towns and cities. He found the issue where both party establishments agreed with one another but were at odds with the public, such as international trade, and exploited it.
Somehow, neither party really learned from this. Both parties became more and more ideological over the next two decades and persisted a shared internationalism. Inside-the-Beltway commentators and analysts also largely failed to learn from Perot. We kept looking at voters and candidates along a one-dimensional ideological spectrum, when in fact most voters aren’t very ideological at all.
That’s why so many of us thought in 2015 and 2016 that Trump was a joke candidate, that he couldn’t last, that he’d collapse once the field was narrowed down, that he could never win the general election. Trump was the guy at the end of the bar whose populism seemed believable even though he was filthy rich, just like Perot.
Sure enough, Trump in 2016 carried Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, three states no Republican had won in decades, by finding the “Missing White Voter.” That also propelled his surprisingly large wins in Iowa and Ohio, his narrow win in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, and his total dominance in Appalachia.
Ross Perot didn’t “give us Trump.” But he gave us an insight into what America was really like. It just took 20 years for someone to put that insight to use.