Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Mar 18, 2016
‘Perot effect’ on ‘Trump card’ in US primaries? It’s too early still to predict how the US presidential polls would pan out this time. Even the respective primaries for the incumbent Democratic and rival Republican parties’ nominations are still wide open, technically at least. American presidential polls are fascinating, for more reasons than one. The process is complex, the calculations, particularly pre-poll is worse. That’s as far as the academic and the pollster go. Just as American pollsters, counterparts elsewhere too have learnt to explain their mistakes, post-polls, in equally convincing/unconvincing ways. Yet, it cannot be denied that American presidential polls are as much about pollsters as about policies, programmes and personalities. For the average man anywhere in the world, or his respective national leadership and government, the US is still the world’s single-most powerful nation, politically, militarily and economically. If the American President sneezes, it has turned into hot wars far away from the nation’s shores – whether it’s the Cold War era or not.

New-generation voter?

The Republican presidential poll primaries this year have continued to shock the traditional party leadership as it has surprised the rest, both inside the country and outside. Those that had dismissed Donald Trump as if he were the cartoon character, ‘Donald, the duck’, are eating their words – and some duck with it. It’s possibly not without reason that Trump has entered from nowhere and is making waves in the primaries – and waves otherwise. It may have been owing to the forgotten ‘Ross Perot effect’ from Elections-1992, and a revival of the same spirit and context in thenew-generation America, a generation or so away. Like Trump now, billionaire-independent Ross Perot was an ‘unknown quantity’ to established party leaderships on either side of the electoral spectrum, after a point. Trump has identified himself as a Republican still, Perot ran as an Independent, but policies that could be called ‘conservative’ at times. In the end, Perot bagged 18.91 percent of the popular vote from across the country. This was after his announcing his retirement from contest only weeks before polling and making a re-entry later. Ahead of retirement, Perot had even topped the nation-wide Gallop poll with 39-plus percentage point in popular vote-share. How such a figure, if he had maintained or improved upon from his nil-count in ‘electoral votes’ under the US presidential scheme, can at best be speculative. He drew a blank on ‘electoral votes’ despite scoring nearly a fifth of the popular vote also reflects in the inherent irony of the all-American poll system.


What was even more surprising was the post-poll bipartisan unanimity in declaring that “America will not allow this to happen again.” The so-called all-independent American media joined the political chorus. Together, they did ensure that ‘black swans’ do not upset the apple-cart. But then, contesting again as an independent four years hence, Perot still managed a respectable 8.4 percent popular vote-share, before disappearing in the political oblivion. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, and Donald Trump threatens to upset the apple-cart –- but using the very same political machinery and electoral scheme that has no place for ‘rank outsiders’ like Perot and just ‘outsiders’ like him. Ross Perot need not have been an exception. In the 1980 presidential polls, when Republican Ronald Reagan trounced incumbent Democrat Bill Carter, thanks also to the ‘Teheran Embassy crisis’, independent John Bayard Anderson polled a substantial 6.6 percent vote-share from across the country, but again without winning any State and thus any ‘electoral college’ votes.

‘Every vote counts’

Maybe, it owed to the ‘Perot effect’, too, but then the presidential poll of 2000 was mired in the controversy surrounding the ‘hanging charade’. It may thus be poetic irony/justice that the present-day Republican aspirant Ted Bush had to become the first candidate to retire from contest, despite having a huge money-chest for his campaign. As the Governor of home State Texas, his name got enmeshed in the controversy, which also saw brother, George Bush, Jr, getting elected. It all seemed to have continued in the next presidential polls too, in 2004. This time it was the Ohio State. As vote-counting was winding to an end, John Edwards, the vice-presidential running-mate of Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, kept repeating till the wee hours that they would ensure that “every vote counts, and every vote is counted”. But not long after day-break, they all had gone home, almost conceding the election. Obviously, some votes seemed to have counted more than some others. The promised court cases were never filed this time. In 2000, it was the Judiciary that threw out the Democrats’ case on the ‘hanging charade’ issue and the like. In 2004, the all-American media took over, and blared into every Democrat’s ears that ‘America needs to remain united’ and a division over the Ohio vote divided America, vertically, horizontally and every other way – or, so it seemed to them at the time. None heard of any opposition to the re-election of Bush Jr. The message was clear. America and Americans do not want anything to upset the existing system(s) and scheme(s), which have all contributed to making America, the ‘world’s greatest democracy’. The bipartisan compromises, it would seem, could also go to any length, to keep the ‘all-American’ character that way.

Inherent inadequacies

It may be surprising for those who do not know that the US does not have a central election authority, and that ‘elected’ State Governors and their State Secretaries discharge the functions, with the nation expecting the politicos to be non-partisan still. Even after the issues pertaining to 2000 and 2004 polls, the US has not re-visited the electoral system. It’s true that the ‘electoral college’ scheme was aimed at ensuring that even smaller States had their say in the affairs of the nation’s political administration, based on a federal policy. But in the absence of parity/equity between ‘popular votes’ and ‘electoral votes’, there have been ironical situations at times – challenging in spirit the very spirit of the very scheme. It was thus again in 2000, Al Gore, the losing Democrat candidate, polled 48.38 percent of the nation-wide popular-vote, but ended up with 266 ‘electoral votes’. Bush Jr (Republican) polled less in popular vote (47.87 percent) but came on top in ‘electoral votes’ (271). It owes to the ‘winner-takes-all’ approach in the case of individual States. Presidential poll candidates who obtain the maximum popular vote from an individual State bags all the ‘electoral votes’ assigned to it, based on population ratio, etc.

Sweet revenge?

Earlier, in 1960, charismatic Democratic candidate, John F Kennedy, almost pipped Republican rival, Richard Nixon, to the post, owing also to the ‘electoral college’ scheme. Kennedy polled only 0.17 percent more of popular vote (49.72 percent) against Nixon (49.55 percent), but in ‘electoral votes’, he beat Nixon near-hollow, 303-219. Another irony of the 1960 polls was the presence of Harry Byrd, the independent. Though he obtained only 0.42 percent of the popular-vote, Byrd still got 15 ‘electoral seats’ – not that it would have alerted the final outcome. Against this, Perot (1992: 18.91 percent, 1996: 8.4 percent) could not get a single ‘electoral seat’ after spending millions on his campaigns. Yet, Nixon, the Republican had his sweet revenge, if it could be called so, eight years late, in 1968. Nixon polled 43.42 percent popular vote and obtained 301 ‘electoral votes’. Democratic Party competitor, Hubert Humphrey recoded 42.72 percent popular vote and 191 electoral votes, respectively. Rather, the difference in the popular vote-shares was only 0.70 percent in Nixon’s favour this time. Thus, in eight years, the numbers game had played out between ‘seventeen’ and ‘seventy’, but with a decimal-point in place in both cases, as if for effect. The 1968 presidential poll is also known – or, forgotten – for another irony of the American presidential poll scheme. Contesting as an independent, George Wallace obtained a comparatively high 46 ‘electoral seats’. And what was his share in popular-vote? A substantial 13.53 percent, but an equally substantial 5.38 percent lower than Ross Perot’s in 1992. True, electoral figures are stand-alone affairs, yes, but in the fool-proof system that America and Americans pride in, there is a gap that they do not want to risk fill. Wallace and Perot in the past, and Trump at present may all be products of the process. Not wanting to revisit a scheme that might have been more suited to an era when Americans were still travelling across the country on horse-back, in this 21st century, Perots and Trumps cannot be wished away. Nor can the frequency of their visits, or visitations as the ‘America will not allow this to happen’ chanting said it all in 1992.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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