The 1992 presidential election was a remarkable harbinger of change in American national politics. An incumbent president, who only a year before the election was enjoying historic levels of popular approval, was turned out of office. Twelve years of a national government divided between Republican control of the presidency and Democratic majorities in Congress came to an end. But the most striking aspect of the 1992 election was the independent candidacy of H. Ross Perot. By winning 19 percent of the popular vote, Mr. Perot outdistanced all independent candidates in the 20th century except Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a popular ex-president in 1912. Perot's popular success raised speculation about whether he would lead a new third party in American politics, or whether his movement would cause the demise of the two-party system. No one doubts that his following in 1992 contributed to his ability to be a continuing force in the national debate after the election.
As impressive as the Perot vote tally was, perhaps the most striking feature of the Perot movement was the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of political activists who lent their efforts to his campaign. Volunteers were mobilized virtually overnight to staff state and local campaign headquarters, petition-signing drives to put Perot on the ballot were mounted, and a grass-roots electoral movement materialized. These volunteer activists were essential to the movement's early success, especially in getting Mr. Perot's name on the ballot in all 50 states, and their involvement supported his claim to be leading a spontaneous popular crusade. Their continued participation on his behalf will also determine the movement's long-term success and affect the balance between the two parties.
Because of the significance of the Perot movement in 1992, we conducted a study of potential activists in order to understand their motivations, backgrounds, and behavior in the 1992 campaign. Our study is based on a survey of a national sample of callers to the Perot campaign's 800 number, maintained during the spring and summer of 1992. Not all of the people who called were involved with the campaign at the time of their call; some were merely expressing interest and for whatever reason never participated in the campaign. Others were quite intensively involved. We consider members of our sample potential activists in the Perot campaign because calling in to express interest is unusual, requiring more effort than signing a petition or voting for a candidate. We wanted a broad cross-section of people interested in the Perot campaign so that we could compare those who became active with those who did not. As we report below, we are reassured that we have been successful in identifying a population of people from whom the Perot volunteers were drawn.
In every other way, our study was extremely successful as well. Surveys by mail often suffer from low response rates; we received usable questionnaires from 1353 respondents, for a response rate of 72 percent of those contacted. This is an extraordinarily high rate of response and gives us additional confidence that we can describe the activist core of the Perot movement. Our first contact with the sample was in September, 1992. At this point in the campaign, Mr. Perot was not an active candidate, having declared himself out of the running in July. Of course, he re-entered the race on October 1, participated in the presidential debates, ran his "infomercials" and ultimately attracted 19 percent of the popular vote. Because of the potential change in our respondents' attitudes and perceptions as a result of the campaign Mr. Perot ran, and in order to ascertain how they voted and how active they were in the fall campaign, we resurveyed our sample immediately after the November election. We received responses from 922 of our first-wave subjects, for a return rate of 68 percent.
Our purpose in this memo is to describe the group of potential Perot volunteers who called the Perot 1-800 number between March and July, 1992. We consider this a group of potential Perot volunteers because, while almost 80% did become active in either the spring or fall aspects of the campaign, about one in five did not. In another memo we try to explain why some actually became active for Perot while others did not, and why some even became active for the Republican or Democratic tickets. Here however, we undertake a more modest task: to describe this group of potential Perot activists as a whole, and to place them in the political landscape of 1992. We begin by describing the sample in terms of their demographic composition, their involvement before the 1992 campaign and their involvement in the pre-convention stage of the campaign. We then move to a discussion of their attitudes towards government as a whole, issues, and political parties. Finally we examine their involvement in the fall general election campaign and we conclude with some speculation from our results about the future of the Perot movement and its impact on the two-party system. In describing the Perot sample, we will, from time to time, make comparisons with a sample of 1992 party caucus participants (who can also be considered a set of potential activists), whom we surveyed and with the National Election Study of a random sample of American voters carried out by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center.
Demographics and Prior Involvement
The sample of potential Perot activists is relatively
well off, highly educated, and white. About half of the group had a college
degree, and almost that many had annual incomes of $50,000 or more.
Only about four percent were nonwhite. The first two of these demographic
characteristics typify activists in general, while the last shows considerably
smaller minority representation than among Democratic activists, but close
to the typical percentages among Republicans. Perot activists were
also disproportionately male, reflecting the gender bias in Perot's appeal
which was only slightly less evident in the nationwide Perot vote.
|Less than $30,000||50.3%||27.3%||26.4%||33.8%|
|$30,000 - 50,000||25.0||29.0||30.9||32.2|
|Greater than $50,000||24.5||43.6||42.6||34.1|
|High School Grad or Less||51.9%||15.9%||19.8%||22.9%|
|College Grad or Post-Grad||23.5||49.4||58.9||47.3|
|30 - 50||43.4||42.4||42.6||38.3|
|50 - 60||12.1||18.1||18.1||19.2|
Besides being from particular demographic strata, what other factors characterized the Perot volunteers in 1992? Were these people drawn primarily from party activists,alienated from their respective party nominees or were they people who had been on the sidelines of partisan conflict? Were they without partisan loyalty? Were they involved in groups besides political parties, and if so, what kinds?
First of all, Perot callers were not political neophytes. They showed significant pre-1992 levels of activity. More than one in three were active in some way for either the Democratic or Republican presidential ticket in 1988--either trying to convince others how to vote or engaging in more demanding activities. Fully half were active in the campaigns for one of the major parties at either national state or local levels. While this is clearly lower than we find among partisan caucus attenders, it is quite high nonetheless. Even looking at party office, these Perot advocates show a significant level of involvement. About one in six either have held or are holding party office for one of the major parties (about half as great as the percentage for the party caucus participants). While many of these individuals ended up supporting their own party's candidate in the final analysis, a majority of them from each party engaged in some activity on behalf of Perot. Their flirtation with Perot is both interesting and instructive as to the breadth of positive interest in his campaign.
TABLE 2: PERCENT CAMPAIGN AND GROUP ACTIVISM
|GENERAL ELECTION 1988|
|Democratic House Candidate||10.5||25.1||0.5|
|Democratic State/Local Candidate||14.0||35.3||1.4|
|Republican House Candidate||10.5||1.2||14.7|
|Republican State/Local Candidate||13.8||2.3||45.0|
|Democratic Office Held||10.2%||29.2%||31.4%|
|Republican Office Held||7.8||0.3||1.0|
|Either Party Office Held||16.1||29.3||32.2|
|OVERALL LEVELS OF GROUP ACTIVITY|
|Active in No Groups||31.0%||28.8%||25.5%|
|Active in One Group||24.9||31.0||31.9|
|Active in two or More Groups||44.1||40.1||42.6|
Not surprisingly, Perot involvement is more strongly represented among some groups than others. Given Perot's status as a business professional and his involvement with prisoners-of-war, it is not surprising that business groups and veterans are heavily represented. More than a third have been members of business organizations, and about a quarter have been active in the last year. About one in four have been members of veterans groups and almost the same percentage (18.5%) have been active in the last year. Less expected is the high level of involvement in environmental groups. Almost as many individuals have been members of environmental groups as of business groups, and more are currently active (26.6% vs. 23.4%). Other groups with significant representation among our Perot sample are non-partisan interest groups (e. g., the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, etc.) and unions. When asked to name the most important group for them, these individuals named environmental, business,veterans and labor (in that order).
Conspicuous by their absence in any appreciable numbers are the groups of the religious right, antiabortion groups, and conservative ideological groups on the one hand and liberal ideological groups, civil rights groups and women's groups on the other hand.
In addition to more traditional interest groups, we also asked (in a separate question) about neighborhood and education groups (e. g., PTA). Both of these showed very high levels of involvement with 36.9% having belonged to neighborhood groups and more than forty percent having belonged to education groups. In sum, the Perot volunteers had strong group ties to important aspects of the social and political community even if those are not manifest specifically through prior partisan activity.
TABLE 3: GROUP ACTIVITY AMONG POTENTIAL PEROT ACTIVISTS
|Group||Ever Member||in Last Year|
|Religious Right Groups||6.5||4.4|
|Conservative Ideological Groups||11.9||8.1|
|Civil Rights Groups||11.8||6.4|
|Liberal Ideological Groups||10.4||6.2|
Since our sample is of people calling the Perot 800 number, it is an interesting question as to what motivated their involvement for Perot and whether their involvement in 1992 was for Perot alone (at least until he dropped out) or whether they were also involved with candidates for the major party nominations as well.
We asked respondents to rate 7 factors as to their importance in getting them involved in the Perot campaign. The results show that Perot activity was instigated by individuals themselves, rather than by their friends or contacts with the campaign. Seeing Perot on TV, dislike of the party nominees and concern about issues had important effects on Perot activity. On the other hand, signing petitions, contact with friends who were involved and mobilization by the campaign organization played only very small roles.
Those indicating their dislike of the two party nominees as a very important reason constitute an interesting group. One might expect that the 75% who said that their dislike of the Democratic and Republican nominees was very important to their activity preferred other candidates for the nomination, and that those preferring the eventual nominees would not cite this motivation. If so, we would be in error. Although those preferring losing nomination candidates were more negative about the eventual nominees, almost half of the Democrats who preferred Clinton, and two-thirds of the Republicans preferring Bush also indicated that dislike of the nominees was a very important motivation in their activity for Perot. Clearly it was the pool of candidates for the respective parties' nominations that constituted the problem for this group and not just the choice among those available.
TABLE 4: MOTIVATIONS FOR INVOLVEMENT FOR PEROT
|Friend Asked Me to Join||1.9%|
|Saw Perot on TV||61.8|
|Met Perot Personally||2.9|
|Campaign Invited Me to Be Active||6.2|
|Involvement through Signing Petition||25.8|
|Dislike of Democratic|
|and Republican Nominees||75.2|
|Concern about Issues||94.1|
Even though the sample was more heavily Republican than Democratic (see section below on partisan attitudes), only about 15% worked for either Bush or Buchanan (about two-thirds for Bush) prior to the conventions. Furthermore there is substantial overlap of Perot activity and activity for one of the candidates for a major party nomination. Looking only at that part of our sample who were actually active for Perot in the spring, almost 40% were also active for a candidate for a major party nomination.
We are dealing with, then, a group strongly involved in the 1992 campaign, in both partisan and non-partisan ways. But whom did they prefer for the nominations of the parties? Although more than twice as many in our Perot sample were active on behalf of Clinton as for any other Democrat, more than twice as many in our sample actually preferred Tsongas for the Democratic nomination as preferred Clinton (with the others lagging far behind). Furthermore this preference for Tsongas (although not the level of preference) holds among Democrats as well as Republicans and independents in our sample. This may not be too surprising given the common emphasis by Perot and Tsongas on the budget, but it also indicates a view of Clinton as a less than optimal candidate among the set of Democratic hopefuls in 1992. It may also imply the need to search for a candidate after Tsongas' exit from the race.
Preferences for the Republican nomination are less striking, showing very strong support for Bush over Buchanan, both in the Perot sample as a whole, as well as in all three partisan groupings within the Perot sample.
TABLE 5: 1992 NOMINATION ACTIVITY AND CANDIDATE PREFERENCES
|PRE-CONVENTION ACTIVITY FOR:|
|H. Ross Perot||70.5%|
|Other Democratic Candidate||10.3|
|Any Democratic Candidate||28.5|
|Any Republican Candidate||14.9|
|PREFERENCE FOR DEMOCRATIC NOMINATION|
|PREFERENCE FOR REPUBLICAN NOMINATION|
One of the hallmarks of the Perot campaign was its
indictment of the political system and those participating in it.
But alienation characterized candidate appeals in general in 1992.
Just how alienated was this sample, particularly in comparison to the average
The answer is clear. This was a very alienated group, as Table 6 shows. They were skeptical towards the institutions of government and towards government in general. Fully 97% felt that government was run for a few big interests rather than for the benefit of all the people, and 41% said that they could almost never trust the government in Washington to do what is right. What is most striking is that even in a year with high levels of alienation, the Perot sample was so much more cynical than the electorate as a whole and than either Democratic and Republican activists. For example compared with the 41% of the Perot sample, only 2% of the national electorate felt that you could almost never trust the government to do what is right.
And the diffuse cynicism showed up in attitudes towards the party system and the branches of government. Three quarters felt that the parties do more to confuse issues than clarify them, and more than a quarter felt that the system would work more efficiently if we could get rid of parties altogether.
The sample was also quite negative towards political institutions in general. More than 40% rated both parties as below average or poor, with only about half rating either as even average. But, it was Congress that took the brunt of the sample's anger. Fully two thirds of the sample rated Congress's performance as poor, and fewer than one in seven rated its performance as even average. The Supreme Court was also rated negatively although not so negatively as either the Congress or the political parties. However both Congress and the Supreme Court were rated more negatively by the Perot sample than by either Democratic caucus participants or Republican caucus participants. Considering that the Republicans have been a permanent minority in the House, and in the Senate for all but six years out of the last 40, it is quite impressive that the Perot sample was more negative towards Congress than even Republican activists.
TABLE 6: PERCENT ALIENATED FROM GOVERNMENT
|Government Run by/for Few||78.7||96.9||70.7||84.8|
|Almost Never Trust Government||1.9||40.6||7.2||24.1|
|Parties Confuse Issues||NA||76.3||36.4||36.0|
|Best to Get Rid of Parties||NA||25.7||10.4||13.0|
|PERCENT RATING BELOW AVERAGE OR POOR|
|US Supreme Court||N/A||59.6||37.3||46.0|
|Democratic and Republican Parties||N/A||43.3||14.0||9.7|
Many third party candidates, like George Wallace, Henry Wallace, and Strom Thurmond have staked out clear ideological positions. The Perot campaign, particularly prior to his exit in July, was far less clear in its ideological leanings. It is certainly possible that the high levels of alienation we found would cause a disparate ideological group to turn to a charismatic candidate offering to clean up the system. But was the Perot sample really that disparate? On what issues was it unified, and on what issues was it divided? Finally, in what ways were our potential Perot activists distinctive from American voters as a whole?
In terms of overall ideology, the Perot sample placed itself very close to the center of the ideological spectrum, although slightly to the right. Almost half considered themselves conservatives, with about a quarter each considering themselves middle of the road and liberals. This is very close to the mean position of the national electorate.
On a range of specific issues the Perot sample, rather than being diverse, as was the case in ideological placement, is actually quite unified. As Table 7 shows three quarters of those with opinions were opposed to a constitutional amendment on abortion, in favor of a balanced budget amendment, in favor of increased environmental protection, in favor of term limitations for members of congress and supportive of increased taxes on higher income social security recipients. By better than seventy percent, they were supportive of a government sponsored national health insurance plan, and limiting foreign involvement and by almost two to one they favored limiting foreign imports. Only on affirmative action programs (which they generally opposed and gasoline tax (on which they almost evenly divided) was there no clear consensus. It is not the case, then, that the sample was terribly heterogenous. Rather they were not consistently liberal or conservative in the way that party activists are. In fact, while the Perot sample was generally in between Democratic and Republican caucus participants in 1992, on two issues, foreign involvement and import limitations they were more protectionist than either.
On some of the issues, identical, or very similar questions were asked of a national sample of voters. Comparing the Perot sample with the national electorate on these, the Perot sample was much more supportive of abortion rights and taxes on social security, less supportive of affirmative action and very similar on ideology, national health insurance, and term limitations.
TABLE 7: MEAN IDEOLOGY AND ISSUE POSITIONS
|Balanced Budget Amendment||**||83.4||89.5||54.2|
|Government Sponsored National Health Insurance||**||72.1||24.5||93.6|
|Increased Environmental Regulation||**||78.1||39.5||91.7|
|Decreased Foreign Involvement||**||74.5||56.8||61.2|
|Increase in Gasoline Tax||48.2||19.0||66.5|
|Increased Taxes on Social Security||79.4||51.5||89.4|
|PERCENTAGE CONSIDERING SELF:|
In keeping with lower levels of activity in partisan campaigns, potential Perot supporters are also low in their partisanship identification. Twenty-one percent of the Perot sample called themselves independents, indicating that they not only lacked identification with either party, but did not even lean towards one party or another. To put this into perspective, only about half this number in the national electorate consider themselves pure independents. In fact since surveys have been done during presidential campaigns, never has this large a number considered themselves pure independents.
Among the 79% leaning or identifying with one of the two major parties, it is the Republicans who claim the larger share, but only marginally (42% vs. 37%). However, this makes the Perot sample, not only much more independent than the national electorate, but among those with at least some partisanship, substantially more Republican as well.
Partisanship is a general measure of affect towards the parties. It is often long- standing, and difficult to change. It is not, however, necessarily true that Democrats or Republicans will be favorable towards their party's nominee in a given year. What was the feeling of this Perot sample towards Clinton and Bush this year?
In spite of the preponderance of Republicans over Democrats, Clinton was far less negatively evaluated than was Bush. Almost twice as many rated Clinton as average or better, compared with other political leaders and groups, as rated Bush that favorably (52.1% vs. 33.6%). On the other hand 86% rated Perot average or above. Not surprisingly, the Perot sample rates Perot much more favorably than the national sample. What is more surprising is the much greater tolerance of the national electorate towards Clinton and Bush (more people rate each favorably than rate them unfavorably), than is the case for the Perot sample.
TABLE 8: PARTISAN AND CANDIDATE ATTITUDES
|OVERALL EVALUATION OF:|
What were the results of these attitudes and identifications for the sample? What did they do in the election campaign, and then how did they vote? While a two candidate race presses voters to vote their first choice preference, a three way race is much more complicated. Even if one prefers Perot, one might still vote for Clinton or Bush if Perot is perceived as unlikely to do well, and if one prefers Bush to Clinton or vice versa.
In fact, our sample showed some dropoff in their activity levels for Perot between the Spring and the Fall. While 73% were involved in some way for Perot in the spring, only 57% were in the fall. There was also some drop off for the Democratic and Republican tickets from the level of nomination activity, but there is an important difference: only about 11% of the sample had worked for Bush and only about 17% for Clinton, the rest of the nomination activity was for losing candidates. On the other hand the 73% working for Perot in the Spring had the opportunity to continue to do so in the Fall, and about a quarter of these did not (actually about a third dropped out from Spring to Fall, but some of these were replaced by individuals who had not been active in the Spring but became active in the Fall, yield the net decline of about a quarter).
On the one hand this is certainly a significant decline for Perot, on the other it is quite remarkable staying power given the twists and turns the campaign had taken in the ensuing months. Even with their candidate absent from the race for almost three months, with his movement from a candidate who, in June, promised to have a serious chance to even win, but who, by October, had almost none, Perot held on to the vast majority of his activist base. About 70% of those active for him under extremely favorable circumstances continued to be active under less favorable circumstances, and he even gained activity from some who had done nothing in the spring (it remains the case that those thinking Perot would receive 20% of the vote or most were much more likely to support him than were those thinking he would receive less than 20%).
Of those active for one of the other tickets in the general election, this sample showed a clear preference for Clinton over Bush (in keeping with candidate evaluations, but not with party identification). Almost twice as many respondents were active for Clinton-Gore as were active for Bush-Quayle.
Actual vote behavior by this sample showed very similar results to campaign activity behavior. In fact a slightly smaller percentage of the sample voted for Perot-Stockdale as worked for the ticket in the fall (54% vs. 57%). On the other hand, while about 22% worked for Clinton-Gore, 31% voted for the ticket, and while 12% were active for Bush-Quayle, 16% actually cast their vote that way. The approach of election day focussed concerns on electability and, for our sample, understated the preference for Perot in deference to political reality.
TABLE 9: 1992 GENERAL ELECTION ACTIVITY AND VOTE
|Active For||Voting for|
|Any Presidential Candidate||84.3|
|Democratic House Cand||10.3%|
|Republican House Cand||9.1|
|Democratic State/Loc Cand||12.8%|
|Republican State/Loc Cand||10.5|
The Future of the Perot Movement
We can only speculate on whether the potential activist base for the Perot movement in 1992 can persist or even develop into a full-fledged third-party movement, but our findings are suggestive. First, the Perot sample was weakly attached to the parties. There does not seem to be anything on the horizon to encourage a massive return to the parties among those who are independent or weakly affiliated, so it seems likely a significant proportion of the potential activists will remain relatively open to appeals from Perot. Discontent with the parties, the candidates and the political process more generally also seem to be relatively enduring features of our national politics, and this too bodes well for Perot's continued support among our sample population. Only if President Clinton and the Democratic majorities can end gridlock and make significant headway against the deficit and other economic problems important to Perot activists is it likely that their discontent with the parties would decline, and Perot's message would be less appealing.
Probably the most important factor is Perot himself. Activists were attracted to Perot because of the"push" away from the parties and the candidates in 1992, but they were also strongly "pulled" to Perot as a candidate. Furthermore, their affection for him, although strong in our September wave, was even stronger after the election was over, with about three-quarters rating him as outstanding or above average (and less than 10% rating him below average or poor).
But transferring the popular appeal of Perot into a third party is a very difficult task. Although the Perot movement has endorsed candidates (e.g. Kay Bailey Hutchison), there has been almost no interest in making nominations to run on a United We Stand, America ticket. Furthermore, our sample was less unified in its support for United We Stand, America than it was for Perot the man. More than a third were not sure of their views towards the organization, and of those that were, positive outnumbered negatives by about three to one, compared with a better than 7:1 ratio for Perot.
But USW was a relatively new organization, and it was unclear what its future might be. To get a better idea of our sample's orientation towards future activity, we specifically asked respondents in our post-election survey what they planned to do over the next four years. The answers to these question are less a prediction of what they will actually do than an indication of their state of mind after the campaign was over. Still it is instructive.
First, the Perot activist sample intends to remain active (only 13% said they would not be involved in politics), and their activity is unlikely to be directed towards the parties (less than 10%). On the other hand, about 20% declared their intention of working in a third party, and another 37% indicated an interest in continued political involvement, although "not within any party." These two groups, plus those unsure about the future form the potential for a strong base on which to build. Furthermore, it was among those who actually worked for Perot-Stockdale in the fall that we find the highest percentage saying they would work within a third party (33%) and the lowest percentage saying they will not be involved in politics (only 1%). Clearly the Perot campaign not only mobilized a group for 1992, but instilled them with the idea of a long-term relationship with the candidate and his movement.
Whether this relationship persists, or results rather in
a shakeup of the existing two-party system is hard to tell at this point.
Political parties are remarkably adaptive and resilient institutions.
Perot has forced both parties to pay attention to issues they might otherwise
rather ignore. Certainly his movement attracted partisans as well
as independents, and although they expressed considerable doubt about partisan
institutions and their representatives in 1992, they also seem eager to
continue their involvement. If Perot succeeded in mobilizing in a
long term way the individuals he drew into his campaign as much as he changed
electoral politics in 1992, his legacy is likely to endure regardless of
the partisan effects.
On the other hand, NAFTA seems a reasonable choice of issues for Perot since his supporters were more opposed than either Democratic or Republican caucus participants, yet, at least at the time of the election, his position was close to that of the electorate. Perot overcame the "wasted vote" problem to some degree because he attracted a large popular following during the pre-convention period while both parties were experiencing divisive nomination contests, and because he effectively employed his personal wealth to reach the electorate once he redeclared his candidacy. His performance in 1992 and his financial resources are important assets if he pursues a third party path.
TYPES OF ACTIVITY IN THE PRE-CONVENTION AND FALL STAGES OF THE PEROT CAMPAIGN
Activity Percent Performing
Involved in any way for Perot 73%
Tried to convince friends/assoc to vote for Perot 64
Collected signatures for petition drive 32
Attended meetings or rallies 28
Canvassing door-to-door or by telephone 12
Organized Meetings 4
Involved in amy way for Perot 57%
Voted for Perot in the election 54
Tried to convince friends/associates to vote for Perot 53
Attended meeting or rally 24
Contributed money to the Perot effort 17
Telephone or door-to-door canvassing 13