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Perovian civilization.

Intelligent Republicans and astute Democrats both realize that the Ross Perot constituency is the most important swing vote in America today. Whichever party wins the lion's share of the Perot vote will be guaranteed a governing majority for the next decade, if not the next generation.

Mr. Perot won a higher share of the popular vote in 1992 -- 19 percent -- than any third-party candidate in 80 years. He topped 20 percent in 31 states, including all but two states from the Great Plains westward. He captured more than a quarter of the under-30 male vote, Ronald Reagan's best gender/age constituency, as well as 22 percent of all first-time voters. More important, his candidacy convinced millions of disgruntled voters to return to the ballot box. This newly expanded electorate holds the key to America's political future.

Mr. Perot probably would have won even more than 19 million votes had he not abruptly pulled out of the race in July. At his peak, in early summer, Mr. Perot enjoyed the support of 38 percent of the American electorate -- more than either of his two opponents.

Clinton Comes Courting

Ross Perot's electoral success was partly due to his mastery of modern communications media. As an articulate but non-political outsider, he was able to shake to the core a political system that had evolved to protect the institutions and insiders that work within its walls.

He also emerged as the spokesman for a segment of society that until then had no voice. As Mr. Perot acknowledged on many occasions, he did not create his political movement. He was more of an expert surfer skillfully riding a wave of fundamental voter discontent. This wave has not lost its momentum.

Today President Clinton, under the tutelage of his political adviser James Carville, very consciously is using rhetoric to court the Perot voters. Proposals to expand government spending and regulation are cloaked in pro-business, pro-entrepreneurship language; tax increases are justified as shared sacrifices for a brighter future; campaign finance reform and cuts in the White House staff are pushed to appeal to the anti-politician mood of the American people. The State of the Union address contained phrases and passages lifted from earlier Perot speeches, and Democratic leaders never pass up an opportunity to evoke Mr. Perot's name. What Republicans have done to attract the Perot constituency is anyone's guess.

Danger Signs for the GOP

In early summer, the Perot candidacy was an easy stopping point for protestors against George Bush who were not yet prepared to elect a Democratic president. "You don't send people to war from a golf course," said one disgruntled Perot Republican during a focus group session. "Read my lips. I'd vote for a squirrel before I'd vote for Bush," offered another. She was joined by a good number of Reagan Democrats, Buchananites, suburban upper-middle-class moderates, and other disaffected Republicans and independents who had voted enthusiastically for Ronald Reagan and reluctantly for Mr. Bush in 1988.

Mr. Perot served the same capacity for disenchanted Tsongas and Jerry Brown Democrats who disliked Bill Clinton but still wanted George Bush tossed out of the White House. With Mr. Clinton, the attacks by Perot supporters were unusually personal. Said a Memphis Democrat: "You know he's lying." Suggested another from Philadelphia, "Clinton could sit around and swap war stories with Dan Quayle."

On Election Day, more than half of the Perot vote came from traditionally opposing camps: while 43 percent of the Perot vote thought of themselves as independents, almost a third (31 percent) identified themselves as Republicans and more than a quarter (25 percent) as Democrats. Ideologically, Mr. Perot won 18 percent of the liberal vote, 21 percent of the moderate vote, and 17 percent of the conservative vote.

As were his summer supporters, the typical Election-Day Perot voter was white, male, middle-class, and married. However, one significant difference between summer supporters and fall voters was in age: younger voters stayed with Mr. Perot while older voters moved to other candidates. In July, just over half of Mr. Perot's supporters were 44 years old or younger. By November, the 44-and-under vote accounted for two-thirds of his support.

Republicans have won a majority of these voters in every election since 1972, and their rejection of George Bush (just 36 percent voted for his re-election) and attraction to Ross Perot spells serious trouble for the GOP unless it can win these voters back. This is particularly true in the Plains and Rocky Mountain states and in California, regions of enormous Perot strength that Republicans used to take for granted.

Recent history suggests that the Perot constituency now will move to one of the two principal parties. Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrats returned to the Democratic Party by 1952. The Democrats who followed George Wallace out of their party in 1968 voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 and became committed Republicans because of Ronald Reagan. John Anderson took what remained of Rockefeller Republicanism out of the GOP in 1980 and they have not been heard from since.

Which party will Mr. Perot's supporters move into?

Research conducted by the Perot campaign offers some insights into what Democrats and Republicans must do to vie successfully for the Perot constituency. Ross Perot's dislike for polling and pollsters is well known. However, his campaign manager did authorize an intensive series of focus groups that were conducted in Philadelphia, Memphis, Detroit, Los Angeles, Denver, and Tampa during the third and fourth weeks of June, when Mr. Perot's national popularity was at its peak.

What the Focus Groups Tell Us

Each session had 10 to 12 participants, and the wide-ranging discussions lasted roughly two hours. In addition to the organized give-and-take, participants were shown selected news clips of Perot appearances on "Meet the Press" and the "Barbara Walters Special," as well as a National Press Club speech televised on C-Span, and asked to express their reactions.

The most important purpose of these focus groups was to define, in their own words, what Perot supporters liked most about their candidate's persona and message, and to determine the greatest hesitations and concerns non-Perot voters had with the Texas billionaire. These focus groups were assembled before Mr. Perot's July meltdown, and before many of his volunteers and supporters knew him for what he was, warts and all. Even so, to understand the Perot constituency, it is important to know what his supporters saw in him.

The focus groups revealed five major reasons Mr. Perot's supporters found him so attractive.

A Life Outside Politics

"Thank God he has no political experience," said a Detroit male. "He has real experience. He knows what we need!"

Perot supporters did not think that success in politics alone qualifies an individual to be president, and the intensity of support for Mr. Perot was directly related to knowledge of his background outside politics. Not since the Eisenhower campaign of 1952 have so many voters come together to reject the traditional, political path to the presidency. Said a Tampa senior citizen, "I trust him. He's fresh. A man that comes from nothing is great."

Focus-group members deeply admired Mr. Perot's life achievements -- his founding and building of a multibillion- dollar company, his rescue of his employees from a jail in Iran, his work for Vietnam prisoners of war and MIAs, his dispute with the General Motors bureaucracy. As one respondent commented: "If he could run that company, he could run America." Suggested another, "I hope he will apply what he did in business to government."

Perovians wanted Ross Perot to do for America what he did for himself, or, as one Memphis woman put it, "He takes care of his own. I'd like to be one of his own." For all his wealth and success, Mr. Perot clearly had the common touch. Offered a California participant, "He associates with people who work. He takes care of them and he's in touch with them." Not a single Perot supporter felt this way about their elected representatives.

A pro-business, pro-entrepreneurial spirit ran through every focus group. "He's very innovative. You can tell he's a brilliant man," concluded one Memphis supporter. Offered another, "We need somebody at the helm of this organization, someone has to ultimately say `the buck stops here.'"

An Anti-politician Politician.

Perot supporters looked at his personal and business history, and concluded that what he preached about the deficit and economic leadership was realistic, not just political rhetoric. Even when it became obvious during a heated exchange with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" that Mr. Perot did not have the details one would have expected from a presidential candidate, his supporters jumped to his defense. Said one California participant with pride, "He put the newsman in his place. It's about time someone did that. The media has gotten out of hand. Maybe he didn't have his figures, but at least he was honest." Added another, "He didn't tell a lie, he didn't do a fast shuffle, and he didn't try to bull___t his way out of it."

Perot voters felt that strong conditions called for strong leadership. As a Detroit male concluded, "He reminds me a little of a dictator, but maybe we need that approach to intimidate the people in Washington." Added a Philadelphia supporter, "Every big businessman has a little Napoleon in them, but it might be time to get rid of the politicians."

For most Perovians, career politicians such as George Bush and Bill Clinton could not be trusted on economic issues. As a Detroit supporter concluded, "They all have problems this long. Only Perot has a resume."

"We need someone who's not a politician. Perot's a breath of fresh air," said a Tampa female.

No one should misjudge the tenor of Perot voter cynicism toward the political system or its functionaries. Political heroes are few and far between, and almost no Perot voters spoke well of any current elected official. Distrust, anger, and bitterness arose whenever they were asked about the state of politics. "Everybody's lying to us. The people who should be doing something for us are not," said a Philadelphia female. Offered another, "Politicians are out to hurt us. They're only in it for themselves. I have no one I can respect or look up to." Concluded a Los Angeles participant, "The party's over for the big boys at the top."

The genesis of this anger relates to breach of trust. A consistent theme in all of the pro-Perot focus groups is that those seeking elected office were making promises they knew they could not or would not keep. Again and again, Perot voters echoed comments like, "Candidates won't do what they say they're going to do. They just make speeches and build mountains." Candidate integrity and credibility is the single most important personal attribute to Perot voters.

The focus-group members agreed with Mr. Perot's claim that "the politicians" were irresponsible and should be held accountable for the deficit. Mr. Perot's National Press Club speech on the deficit was a classic: "I love the message coming from both parties. `Can we buy your votes with your money this year? And by the way, we'd like to borrow $400 billion of your children's money this year.' Your first reaction is, how dumb do they think we are?" The first reaction by the pro-Perot focus groups shown this speech was instant applause.

This is where the anti-politician feeling comes through. A Los Angeles participant noted that "this is the year to throw the rascals out, and he's not a rascal." Mr. Perot earned much of his support because, according to several participants, "He scares the hell out of the politicians." Focus-group participants liked his apparent hatred of everything political. Said a Los Angeles female, "I want someone who's gonna rock the boat, someone who's gonna shake up the government. That's Perot."

One of the most telling elements of the focus group sessions was in the "quickie descriptions." When asked to use only one or two words to describe Ross Perot, the most common phrases among Perovians were: "fresh face," "doer," "fighter," "leader," "interesting," and "cares about the little people." Most of these words are not normally associated with politicians.

By comparison, Bill Clinton's perceived attributes could describe almost any contemporary politician: "slick Willie," "too polished," "crook," "inexperienced," "questionable moral character," "lacks leadership," and "a typical politician." Mr. Clinton's detailed plans and proposals smacked of politics as usual to most Perovians. Even Hillary Clinton came in for severe criticism. "He's manipulated by his wife. My son is nine years old and I don't want him listening to someone like that," said a female participant. "If his wife can't trust him, why should we?", asked a subsequent speaker, also a woman.

George Bush did not fare much better: participants described him as "out of touch," "done nothing," "not in the picture," "underhanded," and "not again." Mr. Bush's failed relations with Congress ("weak," "leaderless") came under particular criticism, although it was also the only justification Republican participants used to defend his presidency. As a Memphis participant noted, "Congress is trying to make [Bush] look bad. All those Democrats in there want to make him look bad so he won't be president again." That respondent left the session supporting Ross Perot.

For Perot voters, different was better and change was necessary. To them, only Mr. Perot represented change.

A Straight Shooter

"I believe the man is real. That's what makes him strong. It's his realness. You know what you're getting when you're going in," said a Detroit male.

In almost every focus group, someone invoked the memory of "Give-'Em-Hell" Harry Truman when describing Mr. Perot. It is ironic that both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton vigorously attempted to become the "Truman candidate," yet Ross Perot was awarded that mantle without any effort. These voters were desperately searching for someone to explain why things had gotten so bad, but in a way they could understand and relate to. That was Ross Perot.

The attribute of straight-talking cannot be over stated in explaining Mr. Perot's appeal. In contrast to Bill Clinton's often massaged and rehearsed rhetoric and George Bush's butchered sentence structure, Mr. Perot told it as he saw it. Concluded a Philadelphia participant after viewing Mr. Perot's National Press Club speech, "The [politicians] should all write their own speeches. This is plain talk."

Most candidates would give their right arm for comments like "He sounds too honest to be just another politician," or "He's not afraid to speak up and speak his mind or to offend anyone." In fact, even those only lukewarm toward Mr. Perot still granted him this virtue. Said one Perot opponent, "He's domineering, but honest, with good intentions."

Focus-group members were given a typical comment by Mr. Perot: "In plain Texas talk, it's time to take out the trash and clean out the barn, or it's going to be too late." This prompted a Los Angeles respondent to say, "He's an in-your-face kind of guy, and I like that." The other participants all nodded in approval. They hoped Mr. Perot would help them send what he called "a laser-like signal to Washington" on their behalf.

A Vision of Hope for the Future

"I've got two children, and I'm looking to their future. I want someone in there that's really gonna think about the future," said a Memphis female.

Ross Perot offered a clear contrast both to George Bush's lack of direction for the future and to Bill Clinton's technocratic, eight-point plans, which made him seem even more like a politician. "We've had 12 years of baloney, and I just don't want it anymore," concluded an elderly Tampa participant. Mr. Perot made voters feel that he was blazing a path to a better tomorrow. He offered a clear vision of the future, and he offered an end result, not just a process. If anything, he was too concerned with where he was going, and not concerned enough with how to get there.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Mr. Perot was a pessimist. But his doom and gloom message was wrapped in a concept of a brighter future. He always spoke of the light at the end of the tunnel, although the tunnel might be a long one. He attracted the support of people who did not want to be coddled by politicians who told them that they could have something for nothing. Mr. Perot was even able to make sacrifice sound attractive -- as long as everyone was doing it, it would not feel like suffering.

Voters clearly responded to this two-layered message. In the focus groups, people who discussed their fears for the future consistently expressed a positive evaluation of Mr. Perot. One Philadelphia man said, "I will stick with Perot because people want to change. I'm afraid by the year 2000 we'll be a third-rate country, and I'm afraid for our children."

Mr. Perot's can-do optimism about the future struck many of the same chords that Ronald Reagan's did. Americans grumble about the way things are now, and we romanticize about days gone by, but we believe at our core that if we try, things will get better with time. It was this can-do optimism, so conspicuously missing from the Bush presidency, that encapsulated the Perot candidacy.

Personal Empowerment

Ross Perot was the Jack Kemp of 1992. "You can't just go vote in November, send some poor devil up there, and go home. You're going to have to get in the ring, and act like you own this country." The pro-Perot group jumped at this advice from their candidate. He talked about people taking charge of their own lives -- of standing up and being counted. One focus group participant said, "I have a right to voice my opinion. I have a voice because I participate." Said another, "Many of us are going to get into the campaigns and actually work to change something. That's what we need!"

Unlike Mr. Kemp, however, Mr. Perot called for an activism that crossed all partisan and ideological boundaries. Mr. Perot told listeners that it did not matter what you believed, it only mattered that you should take an active role in deciding who should run the country and how. "Maybe we need a strong president to turn things around, but it's also up to the grass-roots to get people out to vote," echoed a Tampa participant.

Mr. Perot concluded on many occasions that, "No one person can solve these problems that exist in our country. The only way we can solve these problems is for the owners of this country to start acting like owners again." Said a Tampa senior citizen in response, "I like the fact that he says we own the country. Everyone should vote and participate." Said another, "We as a people have to get in the arena and vote some of these jerks out. It's our responsibility."

Radical Centrists

As important as what focus-group participants said was what they did not say. Mr. Perot did not take socially conservative positions on abortion, gay rights, gun control, and other divisive issues. Nor did his supporters ask him to. Social issues were discussed in fewer than 30 minutes of the 24 hours of focus-group sessions. Mr. Perot's agenda focused strictly on the economy, and that was literally the only issue of great concern for his supporters. Reaching out to the Perot vote must be done on economic terms. Raising the social agenda will fall on deaf ears.

It is also significant that in the 70-odd pages of focus-group transcripts, not once did a Perot supporter identify either Perot or himself as liberal or conservative. This suggests that ideology is irrelevant to Perovians, and that the word "conservative" may not be very useful in attracting the Perot constituency. Conservatives may want to come up with a new phrase to identify themselves. The term conservative, so useful in the 1960s through the 1980s, has only limited appeal to the Perot constituency.

Rather than liberals or conservatives, the Perot supporters can be described as "Radical Centrists," middle-class moderates who once made up much of Richard Nixon's Silent Majority but decided in 1992 to remain silent no longer. These Radical Centrists vocally demanded fundamental political change, rejected the current ideological spectrum and partisan politics, and were fed up with Republican-Democratic infighting in Congress. "It is uncanny that at the same time that Russia has changed its whole system, we desire strong change," observed a Perot backer. In essence, the Perot supporters were repudiating the political system as it currently operates, and not just its personnel.

Congress was singled out repeatedly as an ineffective and broken institution. "The Democrats and Republicans work against each other. What problems can you solve that way?" asked one participant. "One man can't do anything with the way Congress is," said another. "Congress panders to special interests. They all link arms and hook up with special interests," offered a third. This raises a significant problem for Republicans. Most of their current national spokesmen, those individuals who will address the American people and the Perot constituency most often, come from a highly distrusted organization.

Opposing President Clinton therefore poses special challenges for Republicans who wish to attract the Perot vote. It has to be clear that opposition to the president is based on principle, not partisanship. It must be cloaked in plain talk, not inside political-speak. Otherwise, Perot supporters will conclude that Republicans are putting up roadblocks just to play politics. This will lead to their permanent rejection of the GOP.

But if Republicans make clear that, in their resistance to the President, they are fighting as advocates for the American people, and especially for the middle class, the outcome could be spectacular. So much of the Perovian anger was generated by the perception that "they're always shafting the middle class" and the pervasive attitude that "I'm tired of the government taking [and then wasting] my money." If Republicans can show that Mr. Clinton's new spending programs will come from the pockets of the middle class, they will lay a path for bringing these voters to the GOP.
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Title Annotation:Ross Perot's constituency
Author:Luntz, Frank I.
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:3684
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