July 16, 1992 – Ross Perot, remember him? If you around, this day in 1992 you certainly did. You heard all about him. He was the self-made Billionaire-businessman-turned-Presidential-Hopeful who pledged to “shake things up” and whose “plain talk” captured the imaginations of the politically weary.
Ross Perot appeared on the February 20 edition of Larry King Live on CNN, his fourth appearance on the show since 1991. After a lively interview concerning political issues, King directly asked Perot if there was “any scenario in which [he] would run for president.” Perot firmly stated that he did not want to run, but spontaneously affirmed that he would begin a campaign if “ordinary people” signed petitions and helped him achieve ballot access in all 50 states. He set up a phone bank at his office on March 12, staffed with volunteers to inform interested voters and supporters on how they could assist Perot’s potential campaign. Supporters viewed the candidate as an “action man … who can get things done … [and who] takes care of his people”. They were angry at President Bush for reneging on his promise not to raise taxes. The New York Times speculated that Perot’s “iconoclastic, take-no-prisoners persona and anti-politics politics” would appeal to the “angry frustrated electorate”. But Republican consultant Karl Rove characterized Perot as an “untested wild man”. He rejected any financial donations for more than $5, and stated that he would personally fund a potential campaign. Perot spent $400,000 of his own money in the first month, however, he largely spread this message via television, capped by a March 18 National Press Club speech, which aired on C-SPAN.
By May, Perot was leading presidential polls in both Texas and California. The Bush and Clinton campaigns became concerned about a candidacy, and publicly wondered if Perot could continue to “play by his own rules”. They attempted to downgrade Perot from his “folk hero status” to that of a politician, by highlighting his “alleged character flaws”. Meanwhile, Perot focused on sharpening his political positions as he promised. He hired John P. White, who served as a budget official under President Jimmy Carter, to work on his budget platform. Meanwhile, petition drives in every state reported that they had secured enough signatures to place Perot on the Election Day ballot. Speculation arose in the media that Perot would split the electoral college and force the United States House of Representatives to decide the presidency. Around this time, Hal Riney, who had worked on Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and was known for the “Morning in America” ad, was hired as advertising consultant. When Riney revealed the cost of advertisements during a meeting, Perot reportedly “flipped out”, and asked “Why would I spend that when I could go on the ‘Today’ show for free?” Riney produced several ads during the campaign that never aired.
In July, some of Perot’s past actions, including a private investigation of the Bush family in the late 1980s, circulated in the media, causing frustration for the campaign. Perot blamed the reports on a “Republican research team” and claimed that he was warned that since he had such a “clean record they have got to try to redefine you and destroy you”. Campaign officials tried to come up with a new strategy to combat the negative press, and to end Perot’s use of generalizations on the issues. Perot sought National Institutes of Health head Dr. Bernadine Healy as his running mate, but she declined. Meanwhile, Perot faced obstacles on the campaign trail. During an Olympia rally, he was approached by a gay rights group, demanding that he address AIDS and gay rights; he soon flipped on the issue and stated that he would allow gays to serve in the military and in his cabinet. During an address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Perot faced his toughest demographic, and made the gaffe of referring to African Americans as “you people”. It was later revealed that Perot did not want to appear at the meeting or any other forum without his supporters. Press consultant Squires had written a speech for Perot for the occasion, but he instead used his own. After the speech, Perot was concerned that members of the New Black Panther Party were plotting his assassination.
By mid-July, the Washington Post reported that Perot’s campaign managers were becoming increasingly disillusioned by his unwillingness to follow their advice to be more specific on issues, and his need to be in full control of operations with such tactics as forcing volunteers to sign loyalty oaths. Ross Perot’s poll numbers began to slip to 25%, and his advisers warned that if he continued to ignore them, he would fall into single digits. Co-manager Hamilton Jordan threatened to quit, and on July 15, Ed Rollins resigned after Perot fired advertisement specialist Hal Riney, who worked with Rollins on the Reagan campaign. Rollins later claimed that a member of the campaign accused him of being a Bush plant with ties to the CIA. Amidst the chaos, Perot’s support fell to 20%. The next day, Perot announced on Larry King Live that he would not seek the presidency. He explained that he did not want the House of Representatives to decide the election if the result caused the electoral college to be split. He asked his supporters to look for other candidates to nominate for the race, and formed United We Stand to “influence the debate.” At this point, Perot had spent $12 million of his own money on the race. Bill Hillsman, who produced a few unaired advertisements for the campaign, wrote that Perot’s withdrawal was a tactic to find temporary relief from the press.
Former advisors commented that Ross Perot, who had achieved ballot access in 24 states, was unwilling “to spend money on things that mattered”including Rollins’ and Jordan’s proposed $150 million advertising campaign, was “obsessed” with his image, and lost interest in running after receiving negative press. Supporters were angry and distraught at Perot’s decision, and his popularity dropped among the American public. One woman called Perot and commented that “the tears have not stopped.” A class action lawsuit was filed in Florida to force him to remain in the race, but it was dropped. Later in July, the economic plan that Perot’s campaign had been working on was released. The fifty-page proposal included cuts in domestic spending, investment in education, communication and transportation programs, an increase in income taxes for the wealthy, and an increase in the gasoline tax. The plan was projected to eliminate the budget deficit in five years. At the end of August, Perot promised to give his endorsement to any candidate that supported his economic plan, but hinted that he may reenter the race. These hints increased in September, as Perot looked to buy advertising time on the major networks to discuss his economic plan, which could only occur if he was a declared candidate. Meanwhile, petitions for ballot access were approved in all 50 states, and polls showed Perot still in double digits with 14% support, behind Clinton and Bush with 44% and 39%, respectively.
But lest you think Ross Perot was out of the picture entirely – he re-appeared, announcing his candidacy in October of 1992. On October 1, Perot re-entered the presidential race, with a desire to further explain his economic plans to the American people. The New York Times commented that Ross Perot’s “chances of winning are much less than when he quit in July. His only dim practical hope is to confuse and destabilize the contest.” He hoped to spend more resources using paid advertisements than holding traditional rallies to spread his message. During the last month of campaigning, Perot left his headquarters in Dallas only to appear in the presidential debates and seven rallies. One aide later commented: “he wanted to do it just like he could go to the office every day, run for president, and go home and eat dinner.” Rather than using professional advisers, Perot employed “political amateurs” whose loyalty was unquestioned. Orson Swindle, whom he had known since the 1970s, was hired as the top aide. Perot’s son-in-law Clayton Mulford, who was involved in the early draft effort, was hired as legal adviser. Sharon Holman, who worked for Perot since 1969, was hired as press secretary, and friend Murphy Martin was added as the media chief.
Ross Perot employed a massive marketing strategy, spending $34.8 million to buy half hour and hour segments on major television networks, memorably using charts to illustrate his ideas for the economy. His first infomercial was aired on October 6, and viewed by 16.5 million people. He used two dozen charts and a metal pointer during the ad, explaining that “We got into trickle-down economics and it didn’t trickle.” He later concluded that “our President blames Congress, Congress blames the President, the Democrats and Republicans blame each other. Nobody steps up to the plate and accepts responsibility for anything.” He spent a large portion of the infomercial speaking into the camera while sitting at a desk in front of a bookshelf. Political experts commented that the nature of the ad was groundbreaking. Two days later, an ad campaign was unveiled that included three new 60-second commercials to air on ESPN, CNN and five other cable networks. One commercial entitled “Red Flag” displayed a waving red flag with a background drum roll and the statement: “While the Cold War is ending another war is upon us. In this new war, the enemy is not the red flag of Communism, but the red ink of our national debt, the red tape of our government bureaucracy. The casualties of this war are counted in lost jobs and lost dreams.” A second half hour infomercial was shown on October 9.
Here is the announcement and reports immediately afterwards, as it was unfolding on July 16, 1992.