Perot Voters Still Looking For A Candidate

H. Ross Perot headshot, as Perot Systems founder and chairman, 2005/3/15 AP

This story was written by Ben Smith.


Last week, CNN's Lou Dobbs stirred speculation that he might be the next Ross Perot - and reminded the political world that Perot's potent constituency is still looking for a presidential candidate to back.

"I believe the person elected a year from now will be an independent populist, a man or woman who understands the genius of this country lies in the hearts and minds of its people and not in the prerogatives and power of its elites," he wrote in an online column, neatly encapsulating what appears to be his view of himself. He also added that this person would be "a candidate who has not yet entered the race."

After letting the speculation roil for several days, Dobbs denied that he himself plans a run.

But his hints - not to mention the high ratings for his opinionated CNN show - served as a reminder that while the Texas billionaire may have vanished from the political scene, his ideas, and his appeal, are rattling around this year as loudly as ever.

Perot's big-eared specter raised its head just last week, in fact.

At the Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Dobbs' CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer asked New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton about the 1992 debate about NAFTA, in which Perot attacked the proposed treaty and then-candidate Bill Clinton defended it. Perot also famously debated the treaty with former Vice President Al Gore in 1993.

"Knowing what we know now, was Ross Perot right?" Blitzer asked.

"All I can remember from that is a bunch of charts," Hillary Clinton replied, before giving as her answer a qualified yes.

"NAFTA was a mistake to the extent that it did not deliver on what we had hoped it would," she said.

Though Perot has been off the stage for a decade, strategists in both parties recognize that his supporters remain a key bloc and that voters' dissatisfaction at the end of the administration of the second President Bush has echoes of the mood when his father was booted from office.

What's more, neither party has geared up to focus on pet issues of the Perot crowd: opposition to immigration, unfettered trade and foreign wars.

It's a policy mix that one of the main students of the Perot movement, College of William & Mary political scientist Ron Rapoport, refers to as "economic nationalism."

"I just don't know how effective the Republicans will be at dealing with this issue and capturing this constituency as a constituency," said Rapoport, who has tracked hundreds of Perot activists since 1992.

Their philosophy "has an economic nationalism side, to some degree something of a nativist side - both in terms of not being so involved over there, not spending all this money over there, and not letting all these people in here," he said.

"But it's reformist, and that's where the Republicans can't put the whole package together in a way like someone like a Lou Dobbs could," he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, have made their own bid for Perot's constituency.

"The Democrats should revisit the Perot voters and their concerns, even if Perot himself has faded from view," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg advised party leaders in a memo aimed at the 2006 midterm elections.

Candidates like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who are running as outsiders, may capture that desire for change.

Rapoport said Hillary Clinton, with her long history in Washington, would be least likely to appeal to Perot voters.

"Clinton is a very good candidate to run against for a Lou Dobbs type of candidate," he said. "Giuliani is the hardest one of the Republicans for someone like Lou Dobbs to run against."

Perot's former spokesman, Orson Swindle, said Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom he supports, appeals to independent voters tired of politics as usual.

"People are really getting tired of extreme partisanship," he said.

Also appealing to former Perot supporters is Texas congressman Ron Paul, who is running on a platform that includes opposition to the Iraq war, most treaties and the Federal Reserve

"A big chunk of Perot voters are 'unlikely voters.' That is, they're so alienated from politics as usual that it takes an unusual candidate to get them to vote. If those 'unlikely voters' are going anywhere this cycle, it's to Ron Paul, because he has such a distinct message," said Micah L. Sifry, who edited the Perot Periodical in the 1990s and is the author of "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America."

Paul, who has posted surprisingly strong fundraising totals in recent months, has not ruled out a third-party run if he is not the GOP nominee.

Dobbs has denied he's running, and another independent mulling a bid, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appeals to a different group of independents with his background in international finance and his firmly pro-immigration stance.

But the resurgence of Perot's name, and the hints of Perot-style politics in recent weeks, do suggest a similar moment for a candidate who can capture the idiosyncratic Texan's blend of populism, plain talk and disgust with business as usual in Washington.

"Anger and frustration toward politicians is even greater than it was in 1992," pollster Frank Luntz, who worked for Perot and primarily advises Republicans, wrote recently.

"You get these third-party threats and the rise of third-party threats when people are deeply and profoundly unhappy," said Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who blamed voters' anger on President Bush.

"The metaphor then was the deficit, and the metaphor now is immigration, but it represents a broader sense of dissatisfaction."

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