woody zimmermann 120A year and a half ago I marveled at how Hillary Clinton’s campaign continued to sail serenely onward despite her numerous scandals and ethical baggage (“HMS Hillary Sails On Under Fire: How Can She Win?” – AH Herald, June 19, 2015). I suggested that Madam Hillary might have a few cards up her sleeve that assured her of a win. One of these was what I called “The Perot Solution.”

For readers who didn’t live through the interesting events of 1992 – or were too young to recall them – I recounted how a virtually unknown governor of Arkansas (Bill Clinton) managed to unseat a sitting president (George H. W. Bush). He performed this unlikely feat with the invaluable help of an outsider businessman with a large ego and a strongly conservative fiscal message who could run a plausible third-party campaign. That character was billionaire Ross Perot. His low-tax message resonated with voters who felt betrayed when President Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge. And his folksy style and semi-comical appearance (“I’m all ears…”) made him a media darling. He won no electoral votes, but he succeeded in drawing off 19% of the popular vote, nationally – most of which would probably have gone to the president. This left Mr. Bush with only 37.5% of the popular vote. Bill Clinton rode triumphantly into office with 370 electoral votes, while winning just 43% of the popular vote. (His winning popular vote total was the second-lowest in history. Only Abraham Lincoln’s 39.8% - achieved in 1860 over a split Democratic Party – was lower.)

Mr. Perot encored his 3rd party run in 1996, drawing 8.4% of the popular vote away from Republican Bob Dole, who won just 40.7%. Bill Clinton took 49.2% and 379 electoral votes to win his second term. After those two forays into national politics, Mr. Perot faded back into obscurity. A strong suspicion lingers that the Clinton Camp induced him to run – possibly even financing him – but nothing was ever proved. (In truth, the media did not look very hard into the details.)

In that June 2015 column I wrote:

“I have been waiting for a new Ross Perot to ride to the rescue of Mrs. Clinton’s flawed campaign. It would have to be a conservative figure – preferably with a dramatically attractive message and personality – who would think himself so important to the country that he might consider running as a third-party candidate if he is not accepted as the GOP nominee. This past week that dynamic figure appeared in the person of Donald Trump – a.k.a. ‘The Donald.’ Some Republicans will like him because his bold message resonates with their concerns for the country and for their personal situations. He’ll raise hell all over the place, and have fun doing it. The media will love him because he is such good copy. He probably won’t win the GOP nomination, but he’ll make the race exciting. Will he consider running on a Freedom Party ticket, or some such? Who knows? He has a giant ego and scads of dough, so he might go 3rd-party for the right inducement. He could be Hillary’s 5 o’clock surprise – the ‘miracle’ she needs to gain the Oval Office.”

As fate would have it, though, Mr. Trump did not just run as a “useful nuisance” candidate to divide the Republican vote and give Mrs. Clinton an easy win. Against all odds, he actually won the Republican nomination with a strong, conservative message, straight talk that resonated with “forgotten” middle-class voters, and a dramatic, “take no prisoners” style. Pundits and establishment pols could not believe he could be a plausible candidate, but their every effort to trash Mr. Trump as “unsuitable” failed.

Vastly enjoying the spectacle of the Republican Party destroying itself, the Clinton Camp lolled in their chaise lounges, sipping Evian Water and piña coladas, and dreaming of glorious White House careers. Too late they realized that The Donald was much more than a buffoon. He was a serious candidate who was barnstorming through the Rust Belt and ruined coal-producing states – drawing huge crowds with a message of renewal, economic recovery, protection from terrorism, border-security, and regained military greatness. He was even (gasp!) drawing reliably Democratic voters – the erstwhile Reagan Democrats – into his orbit. His attacks on Mrs. Clinton’s ethics, as well as on the Obama legacy, were drawing blood. He had to be stopped, but the hour was late.

In late May 2016, former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson stepped forward as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for the presidency. Mr. Johnson had run for president in 2012, and he made a big media splash at first, polling 10% in some national polls. Could he be Hillary’s “Perot Solution” who would guarantee her win?

Maybe. But which voters would Mr. Johnson attract? Would they be Republicans who disliked Donald Trump’s style? Or would they be Democrats alienated by Hillary’s leftward, anti-capitalist, anti-oil, anti-cop, pro-abortion posture? No one knew. Democrats had expected Donald Trump to wreck the GOP and possibly fill the 3rd-party role, so they had not prepared anyone else.

Democratic graybeards saw that it was doubtful that conservatives would accept the pro-choice, pot-smoking Johnson as a serious alternative to the aggressive, plain-speaking Donald. Indeed, any such hopes soon evaporated. Mr. Johnson’s campaign nose-dived when he showed ignorance of foreign affairs in a TV interview by asking, “What is Aleppo?” (i.e., a dangerous hot spot in Syria, teeming with desperate refugees.) After that, Big Media paid him little attention.

Jill Stein ran as the Green Party’s candidate, but she received even less media-coverage than Gary Johnson – probably because Clinton-supporters in the media saw that she would draw only Democrat voters away from Mrs. Clinton.

Together, Mr. Johnson and Ms. Stein drew about 5% of the popular vote, nationally. This kept both major candidates from gaining a clear majority – a non-decisive circumstance in the election, since only a candidate’s Electoral College votes are important. But they may have tipped the balance in Mr. Trump’s favor in four states where the vote was very close. These were Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – all states which Mr. Trump won narrowly. The vote-percentages are shown in the following table:

Dem GOP Other Reported Electors
Fla. 48% 49% 2% 100% 29
Pa. 48% 49% 2% 99% 20
Wis. 47% 48% 4% 100% 10
Mich. 47% 48% 4% 100% 16
TOTAL 75

Without the 3rd- and 4th-party candidates, It’s entirely possible that Mrs. Clinton might have won some (or even all) of those states. Just Florida and Pennsylvania would have given her the presidency (281-257); or Florida and Michigan (277-261); or Florida and Wisconsin (271-267). Any three of the four would have done it.

Thus, in one of history’s greatest electoral ironies – undoubtedly engineered by Bizzarro, the god of strange historical justice – the 3rd-party strategy that gave Bill Clinton the presidency might have lost it for the little woman and her Party of the Traveling Pantsuits. In baseball, it’s called “going to the well once too often.”

As Pastor Lon Solomon [1] likes to say, “Not a sermon – just a thought.”

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[1] Dr. Solomon is senior pastor of McLean Bible Church in McLean, Virginia.