I guess it is time for a little Political Science 101. Some conservatives are freaking out at the prospect that Donald Trump will lose the Republican primary and then go on to become an independent candidate and act as a “spoiler” in the 2016 campaign. That could certainly happen. The problem is that people are relating it to Ross Perot’s 1992 run for president. Donald Trump himself recently told Washington Examiner, “I think every single vote that went to Ross Perot came from Bush. Virtually every one of his 19 percentage points came from the Republicans. If Ross Perot didn’t run, you have never heard of Bill Clinton.” Oh those wonderful conservatives and their myth making!
The main thing for me is just that the economics predicted that Clinton would win. The economy was tanking and so the election was Clinton’s to lose. And he could have lost if he had made the election about foreign affairs or something. But he didn’t. Remember, “It’s the economy, stupid!”? So Bush was toast. I suspect that if Perot hadn’t ever entered the race, Clinton would have won by more than he did. The whole thing shines a light on one of the great Democratic myths, too: that it was all about his “Sister Souljah” moment and his conservatism. Hogwash.
But for those of us who lived through it, this conservative narrative of Ross Perot acting as a spoiler is clearly wrong. Perot did not appeal to one party. What was claimed about the Tea Party was actually true of the Perot’s Reform Party. It really did include people from the center: conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans who were very much concerned about the national debt. And that’s why the Reform Party wasn’t able to last as an important movement past Perot: the group had nothing to hang onto. (It eventually became a tiny party that nominates people almost randomly.) The Tea Party does, because it is now and always has been the base of the Republican Party.
Steve Kornacki released 21 tweets the other day that go through the history of this. It really isn’t complicated. Clinton led the polls throughout the last months of the campaign. And those polls showed that Perot supporters’ second choice candidates were evenly divided because Bush and Clinton. But even more than that, there is that odd bit during the campaign where Perot dropped out because, he claimed, people were threatening his family or something. And as the polls suggested they would, the Perot voters split about evenly for Bush and Clinton.
All this stuff about personalities in elections is fun. But it doesn’t mean much to the final vote. It certainly is true that Donald Trump would hurt the Republicans if he ran an independent campaign. He’s positioning himself as the Pat Buchanan candidate — the one who tells the base the “painful truth” that they are so right to hate minority groups. The people who would vote for him skew heavily toward the Republican Party. But as such, I doubt Trump could make the kind of go of an independent campaign that Perot did. The truth is that while the Republican base might love hearing Trump in his campaign of speaking bigotry to weakness, they know that the policies of Scott Walker would be just as good as those of Trump. So why split the bigot vote?