Mass discontent is growing once again in the United States. In a recent survey conducted by AP-NORC, 85 percent of Americans said the country is headed in the wrong direction. That is the highest percentage recorded in the last 50 years, and it makes one wonder what the political establishment, or anyone else for that matter, is going to do about it.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, columnist David Brooks suggested that “if there ever was a moment ripe for a Ross Perot-like third candidate in the 2024 general election, this is that moment.” Brooks is by no means speaking in hyperbole, as the majority of the American people seem to be in agreement with him on the issue of a third party or outsider candidate. Back in February, Gallup released a poll which showed that 62% of U.S. adults said that the two major “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.”
With third parties and Perot’s name being thrown around at this critical moment of volatility in American politics, it seems worth remembering Perot, his movement, and his political party, The Reform Party.
Perot’s first major foray into politics was his 1992 campaign for the presidency. One important thing that his candidacy showed was that when the political establishment only seems able to agree about what many may view as the wrong or least important issues, a slot can open up for someone with the right resources and message to gain momentum. Luckily, Perot had both when he chose to run as an independent candidate in 1992. He was a tech billionaire who used his own money to finance his campaign (lending to his credibility on the issue of being a “free agent”), and his campaign was laser-focused on the seismic shift away from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy and the subsequent consequences of that shift for the American middle and working classes. Because Perot had the money to spend on things like 30-minute infomercials, did not and would not take any money from special interest groups, and had a message that deeply resonated with a good portion of the electorate, he was able to do better than any third party candidate in a general election since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party run in 1912.
By the time of Perot’s second campaign for the presidency in 1996, he had already founded the Reform Party a year earlier. The party was intended to be a real bulwark against the direction in which the country (and the world at large) was headed, which was defined by outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing jobs, ballooning federal debt, and rising inequality. Perot and other Reformers were also interested in addressing problems of corruption within the political establishment which had diminished the level of “real” democracy in the United States. They wanted to “return to government for the people,” by ending the two-party system to create a more “ethical” government. The party generated a lot of interest for a while, even showing up on the radar of then-real estate mogul Donald Trump, who debated running as a Reform Candidate in the 2000 presidential election.
The only successful candidate the party ever produced was former pro-wrestler and Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura. While one may assume that having a Reform Party candidate win a statewide election would have been welcome news to the party, it ended up being more internally divisive than anything due to the candidate that was representing them. Ventura’s campaign for governor of Minnesota was defined by crassness, lewd behavior, the utilization of celebrity status, and a lack of knowledge on the basic functions of the state’s government. In short; it was a far cry from Ross Perot’s issues-based campaign in 1992, and it is likely because of this that Perot did not outwardly support Ventura’s candidacy for governor in 1998.
After Ventura however, the party imploded in 2000 over disputes as to who would run as the presidential nominee when Perot counted himself out. With figures like Ventura representing the party in government, and speculation about Donald Trump running as the party’s presidential nominee, it is not hard to see how easily divided and effectively useless the party became in four years. But what the Reform Party and Ross Perot show us is that certain outsiders can come along to meet the moment. When there is widespread disillusionment with the two-party system amongst the American public, leaders who step up and not only speak to that feeling but offer a real choice away from the mainstream of American politics can reinvigorate the electorate and build trust between themselves and their movement. Perot’s voters in the 1992 election said that compared to Bush and Clinton, he was the most “trustworthy” and “really seemed to care.” How many politicians today can enjoy that kind of reputation?
This kind of political outreach was not just confined to Ross Perot in the 1990s. However much Perot may have disliked his campaign style, Jesse Ventura was able to engender a real sense of trust between himself and his voters. This is not to say that Ventura’s brash personal style and “stick it to the man” campaign mantra were not also major factors in his appeal, but he came off to voters as someone who thought like them, who was them, and would therefore govern with their interests in mind as opposed to the interests of the political elite. As political scientists Stephen I. Frank and Steven C. Wagner put it, “Ventura seemed to be a mirror image of [his] voters.”
A perfect example of how this manifested during his campaign was recounted by Ventura during a 2015 interview with journalist Graham Bensinger. In the interview, Ventura explained how during a debate he was asked about how he would work with the IRRRB (Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board), and when he said he didn’t know what that was but “if it was important” he’d “learn about it,” the crowd erupted in applause. He understood what many Minnesotans wanted; someone who was a genuine break from career politicians who wouldn’t lie to them. The fact that he didn’t know about the IRRRB wasn’t a red flag to many voters. Rather, his willingness to be forthcoming about his lack of knowledge on the subject made him a more trustworthy and ideal candidate.
Perot and Ventura’s campaigns are models of what a successful third party candidate might look like. However, if the last six years of American life has taught us anything, it is that moments of mass discontent are not quelled overnight, in one election, or by one candidate. Thus, the lesson of Perot, Ventura, and The Reform Party may be that if a third party or outsider candidate is willing to step up to meet our current moment, they need to have the money, resources, and a strong message of course, but also the stamina to be in it for the long haul. Perot had all the money and air time he needed, and The Reform Party were on the right side of enough issues for many Americans to get behind them, but neither had the fortitude or patience to build something that could outlast them. Likewise, Ventura had a unique political style and a genuine connection with his voters which helped land him the governorship, but once he got there he only served one term and has spent his subsequent years being a media personality, eventually ending up on RT America dressed like Dog the Bounty Hunter to monologue about conspiracy theories.
The most high profile attempt at a third party today is Andrew Yang’s “Forward Party.” Yang may be trying to build a third party movement right now, and he may well succeed in doing so. But “Not left. Not right. Forward” has, so far, not proven to be a message that resonates or invigorates the public in any way that resembles the Perot or Ventura campaigns. If Yang, or anyone, wants their third party movement to succeed, they need to listen to the Americans who feel the most unseen and who are the most prepared to mobilize for a candidate they believe in. That’s what Perot did, and that was part of Ventura’s strategy as well. They reached out to those voters, and framed themselves and their campaigns as “the only real choice.” Pragmatic centrism, which so far seems to be the rallying cry of Yang’s Forward Party, feels less like a real break from traditional politics, and more like the campaign message of any number of Democrats from the last 30 years.
William Kertzman is a recent graduate in history.