Reading the Wikipedia article on the 1992 presidential candidacy of Ross Perot, one would get the impression that it made no difference to the outcome of the election.

However, after looking at the numbers myself, I thought it was pretty clear that if Perot had not been in the election, Bush would have probably won Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee, Washington, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa, Georgia and New Jersey. This would have been 105 electoral votes, enough to give Bush a narrow victory. Pennsylvania would have become close, as well.

Was there any attempt to carefully poll Perot voters in those states to determine if Bush actually would have won those states, such as New Jersey?

For example, to take New Jersey as the pivotal example, Clinton won by 80,000 votes and Perot won 520,000 votes in New Jersey. Therefore, if the Perot voters had split 310 to 210 for Bush in New Jersey, then Bush would have won New Jersey. Has a poll been done to determine this?


Some commenters seem to have the idea that Perot was mostly supported by Democratic voters. This seems to be some kind of modern revisionism. I well remember the 1992 election and Perot was getting most of his support from conservative voters. Here is a Field poll from 1993 that backs this up for those who are not old enough to remember:

enter image description here

As you can see Republican voters dominate Democratic voters in his support base, in some cases by a 2-to-1 ratio. I don't really consider it arguable that Perot candidacy hurt Bush. The question is whether it was enough to have turned the election or not. To answer that question I think we really need poll data from specific states such as New Jersey.

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    The general impression at the time was that Perot was drawing from Democrats who weren't happy with Clinton. Yet you seem to suggest that if Perot weren't involved, these voters would've gone for the Republican. I find that unlikely.
    – abelenky
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:51
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    The only polls of which I know are the exit polls, which indicated that Perot voters were evenly split between Bush and Clinton as their second choice. The presumption prior to that was that Perot, as a change candidate, took more from the other challenger (Clinton). It's possible that some states had splits other than 50/50, but the general rule is that you'd expect Bush to be the second candidate in states that Bush won and Clinton to be the second candidate in states that Clinton won.
    – Brythan
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:52
  • FiveThirtyEight has a film and podcast addressing it, but I haven't watched/listened, so I can't say what they say other than that they seems to be against the idea Perot swung the election.
    – Bobson
    Dec 19, 2016 at 18:28
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    I think you just answered your own question. Of course Perot voters were mostly GOP. Anyone alive at the time knows this. PS I still ridicule my brother for his Perot vote.
    – user9790
    Dec 19, 2016 at 20:18
  • There are a decent amount of logic jumps on the topic in general. A pro choice pro gay marriage pro tax hikes on the rich pro medicare expansion anti drug war PRO GUN CONTROL!!! "conservative" seems more likely to pull from both as @Brythan mentioned above. Here's someone who put together the logic a little more. city-data.com/forum/elections/…
    – discodane
    Apr 17, 2017 at 17:08

3 Answers 3


There are two aspects to this.

The first - Did the votes cast for Perot on Election Day swing the results?

The answer appears, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article cited by OP, and in the video and podcast from Five Thirty-Eight linked in the comments by Bobson, to be "no." Five Thirty-Eight is generally known for their very analytical approach to looking at on going polling and election results. In the linked sources, they paid particular attention to the fact that Perot was in, then he suspended his campaign, and then he jumped back in. If Perot was peeling off a particular partisan side of the equation, then you'd see his moves having a particularly significant impact on that side. That was not found to be the case.

Specifically, exit polling consistently showed that Perot voters, when asked what they would have done if not for Perot, and it was 38% each for Bush and Clinton, with 24% staying home. They also emphasized that when Perot got out of the campaign in July, it was because Clinton had surged from third to first after the Democratic convention, and that while Perot was out and after Perot got back in, Clinton was leading in the polls throughout.

Video - Five Thirty-Eight: The Ross Perot Myth: Deep voodoo, chicken feathers and the 1992 election (about 11 mins run time)

Cornell University also did a review of primary polling, looking at results when Perot was not yet an option and when he was in the race:

About 1/3 of the Republican voters in the primaries were not happy with Bush. Pre-Perot - Among those who were satisfied, he has 95% support. Among that 1/3, when Clinton was the nominee (as opposed to a "generic" Democrat), about 1/3 of them said they would vote for Clinton. About 1/2 said Bush would still get their vote, and about 1/6 said they'd stay home.

Once Perot was an option, he became the favorite among the unhappy GOP primary voters - he had up 40 to 50%, Bush stayed around 40 to 50%, so about a 5% average disaffected voter hit, and Clinton faded to about 10% as an option (about a 23% hit). Perot clearly picked up a good portion of the "stay home" voters.

Among the 2/3 happy with Bush's performance, he slight drop in support.

In terms of overall GOP base/primary support, Bush saw, roughly, an overall 8% drop, Clinton lost 8% of the overall GOP pool, that he previously had, to Perot. A pretty close split, though opinion polling that far ahead of elections is much less reliable than actual election day results. Clearly, there was an indication that a portion of the GOP voters (about 18% by this polling) was already going to defect from Bush or stay at home. By those estimates, Perot was peeling off about 16% of the GOP voters.

The Democratic impact was much harder to gauge, since Clinton ran in a contested primary, but the majority of Brown and Tsongas voters didn't have a great opinion of Clinton's worthiness for the White House, and among those dissatisfied with Clinton in New York, for example, the preference was evenly split between Bush and Perot.

exit polling '92: on the perot factor, and "who votes?" - Roper Center

Now, something that the GOP and conservative pundits, when faced with those facts, say is "you can't tell me he didn't have a bigger impact on Bush." This might seem like digging in the heels, but it speaks to a different matter than just counting where his votes came from. How did his candidacy shape perspective on President Bush?

Perot's persona and reputation was one of a straight-talking, no bs (albeit a bit quirky), no-nonsense person. He also didn't have a particular party history, platform and political base or hierarchy that he had to work his way through before becoming a candidate. As such, his views and utterances were perceived as being less influenced by party or ideological doctrine than the main party candidates.

So, there is the possibility that his criticisms would not be as easy to dismiss, out of hand, as knee-jerk partisan political utterances. Who did he attack more? Definitely Bush.

As the non-mainstream candidate, looking to topple the party politics cart, so to speak, he's going to attack the status quo of federal government. Any non-fringe third party candidate is generally going to take that tact. From a strategic political point of view, is he going to make a strong case as the outsider option to right a nation going in the wrong direction by attacking the incumbent and his policies, or by attacking the former governor of a state with the population the size of Atlanta, a median income ranked 47th and education rank of 49th? I mean, he might easily make a case that such a person is not qualified, but, unless that candidate is way ahead, it's only going to be about fighting for second place. To ascend to the top office, the case to be made is against the status quo, generally, and incumbency in any federal election is a huge advantage.

The big disadvantage of incumbency, and another reason why it makes for a target, is because there is an established track record to attack, much moreso than a small state office holder.

The strategic targeting of the status quo/incumbent, the track record to go after (especially with an economy struggling under massive, for that time, record deficits, and a recession that hit hard well after most of the "big name" Democratic possible contenders sat out because they didn't think incumbent war-president Bush was beatable) and the added effect of it basically being two out of three candidates going after the third could very well have hurt Bush's reputation and standing with voters more than if it was just Clinton.

However, generally, a third party candidate doesn't mount a campaign unless there is a weakness or public dissatisfaction with the incumbent. Was Bush weakened because Perot was in the race, or was Perot in the race because there was a weakness there?

The second of the two factors (votes cast vs public perception) has a possibility of being an impact on the results, but that's a much less tangible and more nebulous discussion. In terms of the actual votes cast and where they came from, it's pretty much accepted by those with objective expertise that Perot's disparate impact on Bush is a "myth."

As far as the OP's edit, where a single poll of like/dislike from a single state is cited, that seems to be a bit of a non sequitur. A like/dislike poll says nothing about whether that like/dislike translates to actual support for Perot over any particular candidate. I can say "I like Perot" while liking Bush or Clinton more, or just feeling they are better or more practical choices for candidate. OP's contention that his impressions are somehow verified by the historical record, with that poll snapshot is not accurate. It's a shame that OP didn't give the link to the original source of the image, so we can see which "statewide" impressions that came from.

Also, the polling consistently showed that in states where Clinton won, Perot peeled off more Clinton voters than Bush voters (the ratios pretty much matched the differential), and vice versa in states that Bush won. So, if this one statewide poll was from a state that Bush won, it matches the polling data, and Perot having a 2 to 1 former Bush to former Clinton voter margin, in a state that Bush won, would not exactly bolster the argument that this hurt Bush. It would be useful to know what exact poll is being referred to.


In 1992, Perot certainly seemed quite Republican with his concern about balancing the budget; it is hard to imagine that there would have been many Democrat voters who would support that position - and the data show that Clinton would have needed about 1/3 of the Perot voters to have kept his victory in a 2-person race. OTOH, it is true that we vote by states for the presidency, and Perot's support varied greatly - not much in the south, for example. One conclusion seems fairly solid - even a good, strong candidate in a time that seemed to favor his candidacy will have a hard time winning as an independent; even Roosevelt couldn't do it. The "spoiler" role is much more common. Just last year our Republican Senator in New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte, lost by about 0.1% of the vote, and a conservative 3rd party candidate took several times that amount of the vote. Voting for a 3rd party may be fun but the voters will probably not like the results.

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    "Voting for a 3rd party may be fun but the voters will probably not like the results." based on? If I vote for X, I want X to win. If X loses, I am unhappy anyway, no matter if voted for Y or Z because X was an independent.
    – Federico
    Aug 21, 2017 at 7:13
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    "concern about balancing the budget; it is hard to imagine that there would have been many Democrat voters who would support that position" - what are you talking about? Democrats were the only ones concerned about balancing the budget, then and now. Look at who the deficits got raised under, and which presidents have reduced it. Debt more than quadrupled in the twelve years of Reagan and Bush I. That was a major criticism of the GOP by the Dems. Aug 21, 2017 at 14:25
  • @Federico in the US, we have a 2 party system (for the most part--especially at federal levels). As such, 3rd parties tend to be 'spoilers' and often align with one of the 2 main parties more than the other. As such, voting 3rd party can often lead to the election of the candidate you were least likely to vote for as the 3rd party split the votes of your preferred party. (At more local levels, there has been successful attempts at implementing instant run-off elections to try to avoid this particular issue)
    – user1530
    Aug 21, 2017 at 20:47

why would Bush have won Iowa or Wisconsin, when he couldn't even win them in 1988? His approval/favorable numbers were much lower in 1992 than in 1988, as were the GOP's on the whole. Reagan's legacy in popular opinion was faltering in 1992; Bush Sr.'s job numbers were barely 40% for most of the 1992 election season; that's where Carter was in the 1980 election season and look at how well he did in November. That being said, Bush Sr.'s low approvals make him winning all, or near all, the close states an extreme low-probability event, especially as a well known incumbent at the top of the exec branch for 12 years at that point (and lacked the unknown that a guy like Trump had in 2016)

Regarding the graphic you posted, note how much of the data was from AFTER the 1992 election, when Clinton had become President; Clinton's approvals sagged badly in 1993 and 1994 and the public in general had soured. Also, why does that graphic have no data on independents and only Dems and Reps?

So no, Perot did not swing the 1992 election. But the narrative that he did served many people; it served the GOP's operatives who didn't wanna lose their jobs/positions and thus could have a someone else to blame. It served the Bush family by making it so their nominee didn't "really lose" and thus Jeb and George W weren't "really" related to a loser. It served the media because the GOP tried to initially blame them for Bush's loss and the Perot-myth could deflect that blame, as well as go along with a GOP narrative. It served Clinton's progressive opponents who could use the Perot-myth to discredit the centrism and the DLC which he ran on at the time as well. Heck, it served Trump in 2015, who knew that the GOP's actual belief in the Perot-myth could be used to scare them into letting him run as a Republican.

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