There was no social media in April 1992 when Texas billionaire Ross Perot announced his third-party candidacy on the Larry King show.
But Perot had 4 million volunteers who called his 800-number, and when Republican strategist Ed Rollins asked what he did with their information, Perot said he had it all on computer cards. Great, Rollins thought. A veteran of many campaigns, including President Reagan’s, he had been brought in to professionalize Perot’s grassroots campaign.
Four million names was like money in the bank in those days, but Perot bristled at the idea of sending “junk mail” to his prized volunteers. “He had no understanding of the game, and when he saw it, he didn’t like it,” Rollins recalled in a phone interview with The Daily Beast. As Perot gained strength in the polls, the media scrutiny intensified, and he told Rollins, “I never got bad press until I hired you and Hamilton [Jordan].”
Rollins told him that he was being treated like any other candidate, and in June 1992, with Perot polling at 39 percent, ahead of both President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, Jordan, who had been President Carter’s chief of staff, exclaimed, “If we’re not careful, we’ll elect this guy.” Rollins assured him not to worry. He had by then figured out Perot was not going to listen to any of their advice and was temperamentally unsuited to run a campaign, much less the country.
Still, he got 19 percent of the vote in the November election, which was almost 20 million votes, and many analysts believe he handed the election to Clinton. Thirty-two years later, another rich Republican is off the reservation and threatening to run as a third-party candidate. And another Clinton could benefit. “As an Independent, [Donald Trump] would take a certain segment, mostly Republicans, which tilts the race to Hillary,” says Rollins.
There are similarities between the two men in wealth and ego, and in the tightfistedness of the very rich when it comes to parting with their own money. Rollins had proposed to Perot a $150 million media campaign with Hal Riney, creator of Reagan’s “Morning in America” ads, at the helm. Perot balked. He wasn’t going to spend money on all those longhaired hippies behind the cameras when he could go on Larry King for nothing.
Perot was very tight with the dollar, and a third-party bid is expensive. He wasn’t willing to spend the money. Trump is much more savvy than Perot ever was. “Trump is very reluctant to spend his money, but he’s been through the wars, he’s used to being battered around,” says Rollins. “Perot didn’t understand advertising and PR. He didn’t understand the presidency, and he had very little substance.”
Trump knows the game. The big question for him is how far he will take his candidacy in terms of dollars he will put on the line. “No one knows how much Trump is willing to spend,” says Rollins. “I think at this point he’s a distraction. The potential is there for him to be a very destructive force in the party. The country is pretty disgusted with politicians, and that’s what he’s tapping into.”
Trump has so far offered very little substance on issues other than to claim he would get a better deal with China and he would get Mexico to pay for a border wall. Perot raised one important issue, the deficit, and he became a Johnny One Note on the subject. John White, a former Carter OMB and Defense Department official who was brought in to teach Perot the issues, was alarmed at how little the candidate knew and how uninterested he was in learning. Give me a one-pager on health care, he would bark, and that was it.
Like Perot, Trump appears to have a very shallow understanding of what the presidency is all about, and he’s not temperamentally qualified to be president.
But two billionaires three decades apart reflect and are captive to an angry electorate. Perot said some stupid things, more out of lack of knowledge, says Rollins. Trump is mean-spirited, and if he doesn’t feel he’s being treated fairly by the GOP, he has the club of running third party. Ballot access in all 50 states is not hard, but it’s expensive. You have to hire people and they have to collect enough signatures to qualify. Americans Elect did it in 2012 on a “build it and they will come theory,” but no candidate stepped up to run.
Trump is already altering the dynamics of the race. “It’s his plane, it’s his staff; he has all kinds of resources available to him. And there’s a novelty to him,” says Rollins. That novelty might wear off as it did with Perot, whose bizarre behavior became more obvious closer to the election. Whether or not Trump is in it for the duration, he’s created bigger problems for his party with Hispanics. “On immigration, he’s stirring up the hard core right wing of our base, so if someone like Jeb Bush says something different, he could get booed off the stage,” says Rollins.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz worked with the Perot campaign, and said in an email that Trump has “all the advantages Perot had…and one more that Perot didn’t. He has the thickest skin of anyone I’ve ever seen in politics. Nothing bothers him, and you need that fortitude to be a successful third-party candidate.”
For those trying to gauge the seriousness of Trump’s campaign, the reported involvement of pollster Pat Caddell adds to concerns that Trump could be hell bent on destroying the GOP in order to save it. Caddell was the architect of what became known as Carter’s “malaise” speech, and the two seem like a match made in heaven. New York magazine reports that he and Trump talk almost every night. Caddell has searched for years to find a candidate who doesn’t distort his message.
“All I can say is Trump makes Ross Perot look like George Washington,” says Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s former media adviser, who flew to Dallas in ’92 to meet with Perot about his ad campaign. The meeting didn’t go well. Perot told Rafshoon he could get on TV any time he wanted, so why should he spend money on ads? To underscore his point, he called out to his secretary to get Larry King on the phone and book him for that evening.
Perot’s candidacy was born on King’s CNN show and for a time thrived in that venue. Trump is a cable news creature, plus he’s known from his show, The Apprentice, and his signature line, “You’re fired.” How long he can keep his candidacy going depends on how long the free media continues, and how much of his own money he is willing to spend.
If Trump runs as a third-party candidate, he will have to spend money, a lot of it, and if he concludes his chances in the end are no better than Perot’s of cracking the two-party lock, that may not look like a deal he’ll want to make.