Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who died on Tuesday, played a major role in the presidential election in Ohio in 1992, possibly costing then-President George H.W. Bush the state’s 21 electoral votes.
However, most experts believe Perot did not play a major role nationally in the outcome and that Bill Clinton would have still defeated Bush even if Perot was not in the race.
In an analysis based on exit polls by Voter Research and Surveys, Ohio was the only state that might have shifted from Clinton to Bush had Perot not been in the race.
In Ohio in 1992, Perot received more than 1 million votes and 21% of the vote. He ran better in Ohio than he did nationally where he won 19% of the vote.
In Ohio, the race between Clinton and Bush was one of the closest in the nation. Clinton had 1.98 million votes and Bush had 1.89 million. The difference between them was less than 100,000 votes statewide.
Clinton won the state by just 1.83%.
“There is a chance that Perot’s candidacy did tilt the balance towards Clinton in Ohio — one of the closest races that year,” said Wright State University political science professor Lee Hannah. “Perot had a crosscutting message that picked off voters for both major parties. While a study conducted leading up to the election did find that Bush would have won the vote of more Perot voters than Clinton in Ohio, the difference in vote share was still within the margin of error.”
Perot ran strong in some local counties. He won 24% of the vote in Champaign County, 25% of the vote in Darke County, and 25% of the vote in Preble County. The top county for him in the state was actually Shelby County where he defeated Clinton 29-26% coming in second to Bush.
In the end, Clinton won 370 electoral votes to just 168 for Bush. Even if Ohio flipped for Bush, Clinton would have won the election. Perot, despite winning 19% of the popular vote, did not win any electoral votes.
“It’s a common argument that Perot’s candidacy spoiled President Bush’s re-election campaign. However, it is hard to prove the counterfactual,” Hannah said. “For one, it assumes that all Perot voters would have turned out and voted for a major party candidate were he not on the ballot and second, it assumes that more would have voted for Bush over Clinton. That’s a hard case to make at the national level.”
Perot’s local campaign in 1992
During the week’s before Election Day, Perot supporters held a rally at Courthouse Square in downtown Dayton.
“I know he can win,” said Donnie Branch, who was Perot’s Dayton district coordinator. “My dream is that the people in America, the evolution of bad politics in America — Democrat, Republican, Republican, Democrat, over and over again — they’re going to be so sick of that that they’re going to go to the polls on Election Day and vote for Perot.”
Supporters also held a rally for Perot at Island Park in the days before the election.
Tom Class converted his wife’s business in West Carrollton into the local Perot headquarters. He was driving around a 15-county area in a conversion van with “Go, Go, Ross Perot” emblazoned on the vehicle’s sides, according to a Dayton Daily News article.
Perot had a lot of support locally when he first entered the race, but he dropped out during the summer and re-entered the race in September. For some it was too late.
In the Sept. 26, 1992, edition of the Dayton Daily News, local social worker Paula Humphrey said she was encouraged when Perot announced his candidacy for the presidency.
“Then when he dropped out, I was very disappointed,” she said. “It proved to me when he got out he wasn’t fully committed to stand his ground and to see his campaign through, and I cannot take him seriously as a candidate again.”
Perot had momentum when he entered the race, said Darrell Green, then 28, of Dayton, an assistant bank vice president at NBD.
“People believed in him,” Green said, “and they looked at his business background and said, ‘He might be the guy we need with those business skills to focus on the deficit.’ But since he got out, he’s lost that momentum.”
The 1996 campaign
Perot ran again in 1996 against President Bill Clinton and Republican Bob Dole. The second time around, Perot did not do as well.
This time running under the banner of his new Reform Party, Perot only received 483,000 votes in Ohio, getting just 11% of the vote in the state. However, his Ohio results were better than his national result where he won just 8% of the vote.
Again Shelby County was the local county giving him the most support, but it was down to 14%.
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