The angry centrist

Trunk, as something of a third party buff, I enjoyed your piece on the subject. The Perot campaign of 1992 is endlessly fascinating to me. What strikes me most about it is that, unlike nearly all third party candidacies of note, Perot ran his insurgency from the center. Moreover, he did this while running against a Republican president who was, at best, only moderately conservative and a Democratic candidate who was posing, for the most part, as a centrist. When John Anderson tried to run as a centrist in 1980 against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, there was much more room in the center. Yet, if I recall correctly, Anderson gained only 5 percent or less of the popular vote. And Perot’s success cannot fully be explained by “the economy, stupid.” Things were not going particularly well in 1980 either. Nor can the difference between the success of the two third party candidacies be explained by pointing to the weaknesses of the first President Bush and the unknown candidate Clinton. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was about as lame as an incumbent could be, and the public had enormous doubts about Reagan, who was widely portrayed as an extremist warmonger and advocate of voodoo economics.
Perot, of course, commanded enormous resources in 1992. However, I think the main reason why Perot did so well is that, unlike John Anderson, he was an angry centrist. Perot managed to sound like he was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” without actually advocating anything that would tend to frighten voters. This was the perfect posture in a year when people were unhappy about a recession but understood that things weren’t really all that bad.

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