In the great, late-era western “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” an aged United States senator comes home to attend the burial of a little known man who played a seminal role in the events that launched the senator’s career. The senator tells a newspaper reporter the real story of those events, which is at considerable variation with the legend, and the reporter effectively says, “When the facts collide with the legend, print the legend.” So it is with the 1992 presidential election, as even today many reporters state as fact that independent Ross Perot cost George H. W. Bush the presidency. It is, after all, a great narrative: Vengeful billionaire sinks President’s re-election bid. Much sexier than: Billionaire runs for president, draws votes equally from both candidates, doesn’t change outcome. The Perot-as-Bush-destroyer narrative is also highly favored by Republicans; it makes them blameless for the objective conditions in the country extant at the time of the election: “It was that crazy Perot’s fault, not ours.” How this canard gained such wide purchase among reporters, particularly given the wealth of easily available empirical evidence to debunk it, is a bit of a mystery. Most recently, Politico reporters John Harris and Jonathan Martin noted in a January 11, 2012, article that Perot “gravely damaged then-President George Bush’s re-election prospects.” They cite none other than Rush Limbaugh as a source for this. Mr. Limbaugh certainly carries considerable heft as a radio entertainer; as a serious political analyst, not so much.
We have pre-election polls and exit polling to make an assessment of what impact Perot actually had on the outcome. In a three-way match-up nationally, in early June 1992, Perot led with 39%, Bush was second with 31%, while Bill Clinton trailed with 25%, according to Gallup. Perot exited the race during the Democratic convention in mid-July. In the immediate aftermath of the convention, Gallup had Clinton leading Bush 56% to 34%, clearly a post-convention bounce. But a month later, Clinton still led -- by between 17 and 25 points -- in half a dozen national media polls, with President Bush not exceeding 37% of the vote in any of them. In mid-September, with Perot still out of the race, an ABC News/Washington Post poll gave Clinton a commanding 58%, with the incumbent still stuck at a very familiar 37%.