The 1992 That Wasn’t

11 10 2009

Something’s been bothering me ever since I heard it said, and now I’m finally frustrated enough to blog about it.

It’s Rush Limbaugh’s contention that a try at a third party in the wake of President Obama and Co.’s extremism and Republican lassitude would be a bad idea, because a (presumably) conservative third party would only throw elections to Democrats.  His evidence for that, and I’ve heard him say this on other occasions, is that Ross Perot was the only reason that Bill Clinton beat George Bush 41 in 1992.  The short explanation he gives is that most of Perot’s 19% of the vote came from disgruntled Republicans, as evidenced by Pat Buchanan’s successes versus an incumbent President in his own party’s primaries, so it is assumed that, no Perot, most of those votes would have gone back to Bush.  (I actually think that most of them would have stayed home.)  The one time I heard Rush give statistical evidence is that polling in the last week of the 1992 campaign that got it closest to the actual numbers of 43-38-19 also showed that if Perot weren’t in the race, it would have been 48-48 between Clinton and Bush.  It is assumed, Rush said, and he is right, that a dead even tie in the popular vote means that the Republicans wins the electoral vote, because a lot of votes for Democrats are clumped up in big blue cities in already blue states.  (As late as 1996, the convention was still red for Democrat and blue for Republican.  I wonder what made them change it.  Maybe “red” and a left-wing party was just too literal to bear, while they think “red,” as in “redneck,” might be enough of an insult for Republican.)

The problem with that argument is that hypothetical polling done with only Clinton and Bush in late October of 1992 was only that, hypothetical.  While Perot was not on that hypothetical ballot, he was on the real ballot and in the real campaign.  But that does not mean that if Perot would have never entered the race, either implying it on Larry King in February, or actually doing so in September, that Clinton and Bush would have tied in the popular vote.  If Perot would have never entered, then the Clinton and Bush campaigns would have used different strategeries on how to deal with each other, and only each other.  Which issues to press, which states to campaign in, which demographics to target, when and where to spend money, how to raise money.  A different campaign might have led to a different MSM dynamic and reaction.  Of course they still would have been in the tank for Clinton, but how reasonable or ridiculous they would have been in that stead would have been different.  We do know that when Perot at first decided not to run in June (IIRC), after weeks and months of Waiting for Godot style stringing everyone on (hence the joke Waiting for Perot), the populist momentum that was built around him, Bill Clinton capitalized upon, and most of that went to him.  (Before then, Clinton polled as low as 25% in a three-way.  Jay Leno’s joked that the way to pronounce the third candidate in the race is “klin-TON.”)  If Perot was never around, Clinton wouldn’t have been able to tap into that.  It might have been that case that Clinton wouldn’t have even won the Democrat nomination if Perot weren’t in.  Since the whole Waiting for Perot agony went on during the primary season, the dynamics among Democrats might have been different.  I think it’s possible that Clinton tapped into the Perot momentum BEFORE Perot decided not to run.  If not for that, Paul Tsongas might have won the nomination, and a Bush-Tsongas only race would have been WAY different.

I have said many times before on this medium that “What-If” games with history are like bottles of snake oil.  Rush Limbaugh (or anyone else) is selling you snake oil when he acts like it was such a sure thing that Clinton only won b/c of Perot.




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