I wasn’t old enough to vote in the 1992 presidential election but I remember watching the televised debates and infomercials. I didn’t care about Bush and Clinton. I tuned in for the pie chart education, wit, and Texan drawl of Ross Perot.
He was the independent candidate that year. He wasn’t a celebrity or politician but he had money. And, similar to billionaires Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg this year, Perot funneled that money to be a serious contender for the White House.
When the votes were counted, he didn’t receive a single electoral vote but over 19.7 million people filled-in his oval on the ballot — and Perot got 19% of the popular vote!
When I posited the idea of third-party candidates exiting the national stage and supporting Joe Biden, I didn’t think about 1992. I forgot about Perot.
If a third-party candidate in 2016 could have earned a Perot-esque level of popular votes, I’d be gung-ho supporting that person and party today. But four years ago, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson got 3% and Green Party candidate Jill Stein got 1%.
Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight suggested three years ago that the only way a third-party candidate could gain significant votes in 2020 is through celebrity status. They picked Dwayne Johnson.
It’s not a silly idea. Look at recent celebs elected to public office: Mayor Clint Eastwood, Congressman Sonny Bono, U.S. Senators Al Franken and Fred Thompson, Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, President Ronald Reagan. The list goes on.
But today’s slate of third-party candidates? The Libertarian front-runner is a former trial attorney who launched an educational foundation; and the Green front-runner co-founded the party. Hardly names that people know.
Perot wasn’t known either. But he used his money to get known. Remember, there was no internet in 1992. Not in the traditional sense of today, anyway. He also didn’t receive an electoral vote.
To be the person who lives in the White House, the magic number is 270. Today’s third-party candidates can’t get that number, so why take votes away from someone who can?