Ross Perot is back. Will the voters care? Jim Lehrer talks to a panel of political reporters about the Reform Party and its creator/leader.
JIM LEHRER: Now the Perot candidacy and what it may mean to the 1996 campaign as seen by political reporters David Broder of the Wall Street Journal--what did I say--Wall Street Journal?
DAVID BRODER, Washington Post: Try Washington Post.
JIM LEHRER: Washington Post--it's written right here. Thank you, David--Washington Post;, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, and Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio, and pollster Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. David Broder of the Washington Post, to begin with, in a general way, is this a legitimate reform party, third party, or is it strictly a Perot party?
MR. BRODER: It's in the process of becoming a legitimate party. I was in Valley Forge yesterday, and I was struck by the number of people who said that they are looking beyond this election now and see this as a vehicle. One person said we need Ross Perot to get us on the ballot and to get us the attention from you in the press. But we are not just Ross Perot's people, we are Reform Party people.
JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth, was there ever any doubt that it was going to end the way it did last night, that once this thing got started it was, the nominee was going to be Ross Perot?
ELIZABETH ARNOLD, National Public Radio: I don't think there was much doubt at all. In fact, I think Mr. Broder made a big wager on it, and he usually doesn't do that. And that's part of the problem, I think, and one reason that it's good that these people are looking beyond Ross Perot because in 92, it really was about Ross Perot, and the fact that he just jumped right in the day after Mr. Lamm got involved, it sort of hurts his credibility as this person who's not in it for himself, who was dragged, kicking and screaming, by all the voters who wanted to be at the top of the ticket.
JIM LEHRER: You would agree that, Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times, that, that Dick Lamm never really stood a chance or nobody else would have stood a chance?
RON BROWNSTEIN, Los Angeles Times: Well, Dick Lamm should have stood a chance, though, and I think the problem is, is I think, as Elizabeth suggests, I think Perot has actually set this thing back. I mean, it's a very complicated relationship. No one else could have logistically put this on the ballot and perhaps could have gotten the 5 percent to ensure the ballot status in the year 2000, but what he has done, I think, is indelibly stamped this as an extension of his own ego.
I mean, the way this process ran in 96 has to give anybody pause, any serious politician pause, about participating again in 2000. You had Ross Perot say for a year that he didn't want to be the nominee. Then one day after Dick Lamm says that he does, Perot comes in, runs an election process, it's very odd, and seems to be tilted in his favor, and I think that's got to have some long-term impact on the willingness of other serious politicians to be associated with this in the future.
JIM LEHRER: David, what about the issue of only 5 percent of the people who signed up, in other words 1.1 million said they were members, only 50,000 participated, does that mean anything?
MR. BRODER: I think they were clearly disappointed. They'd hoped for much more. There were some mechanical or sort of electronic problems on the phone voting, but it was a very small response, and not a sign of great vigor at all.
JIM LEHRER: So--and that touches on this question of whether or not there's a permanent movement here too, does it not?
MR. BRODER: Very much so, although I--much will depend first on how Perot does actually this time--secondly whether or not the two parties coopt their issues. Nobody else is really talking about political and campaign finance reform in the same way that they are. And neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are really talking about the debt and the deficit the way they are.
JIM LEHRER: Ron, what about this--what about the Perot decision to go for federal matching funds and use--and get individual contributions, rather than just to fund it himself?
MR. BROWNSTEIN: That could potentially mute his impact somewhat in 96 because I mean I don't know what the maximum is that he could raise. He's going to get $30 million approximately in public financing, and he might, at the best, raise eight, ten, twelve million. It's nowhere near--
JIM LEHRER: He could raise--
MR. BROWNSTEIN: He could raise--
JIM LEHRER: I mean, people could give it to him--he could raise $32 million.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: He may end up raising $2 million. He may end up raising $3 million.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: But, you know, I want to go to what David said. I think one thing to think about the Perot, the Reform Party movement, is that it really exists at two levels. You have the activists who may be motivated by issues like the deficit and campaign finance reform, but you look at who says they're going to vote for Ross Perot now; it's a very different group than the activists.
The mass movement right now has moved very much toward down scale, blue collar, disaffected workers, and who may be reacting much more to the economic nationalism or even more than that, there's just disaffection from the two parties. And so the ability of Perot, I think, to sort of craft the movement that speaks to both sort of a larger version of the people in the hall and also these other voters is very much up in the air.
JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth, how do you see the issues that Perot and his folks push in this campaign coming?
MS. ARNOLD: Well, I think that both President Clinton and Bob Dole are a little worried about their tax cut ideas being challenged by Ross Perot. If you've got Ross Perot up on the stage--maybe he does, maybe he doesn't--but if he's up on the stage during a debate saying, hey, folks, the truth here is we can't have a tax cut, that hurts them, and then they're worried about that.
JIM LEHRER: So he goes into the voodoo and the voodoo again and again and again.
MS. ARNOLD: And he goes out with the charts as red and black lines and says can't be done, that's got to be a problem for Bob Dole.
JIM LEHRER: Andy Kohut, let's bring you into this now. What--the newest poll that has come out on Perot is the Newsweek poll that came out over the weekend, said he had only 3 percent support. Give us a reading on that, or tell us how we should read that.
ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center: Well, that wasn't a fair test of Perot's support. He--they only tested the Reform Party, without mentioning Ross Perot as the candidate. But prior to this, in July, Perot was getting about 13 to 16 percent of support in the polls, and more recently, in the August polls about 8 to 11 percent. I'm sorry I'm getting a lot of feedback in this.
JIM LEHRER: I'm sorry. Can you hear me now?
MR. KOHUT: I can.
JIM LEHRER: Is that bad? Can you--
MR. KOHUT: No. I can hear you. That's fine.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. How does that compare with the way he--the way he finished in 92--just in terms of public support, how the public viewed him?
MR. KOHUT: Well, he had 19 percent of the vote in 1992 but he was seen at that time as a breath of fresh air. Since then, he's transformed himself from a breath of fresh air to eccentric at best and egotistical on the part of many people. When we ask people to use one word to describe him, the words are just awful. It's 'rich,' 'crazy,' 'idiot,' 'egotistical.' 60 percent of the American public has an unfavorable opinion of Ross Perot. 60 percent had a favorable opinion of him four years ago. So he really is discredited publicly, and he hurts the Reform Party.
JIM LEHRER: But where does he--when you look at where his strengths are--you've told us what his negatives are--when you look at what his strengths are based on the polls, what is your reading of who he hurts the most, Dole or Clinton?
MR. KOHUT: Well, I think if you look at the fact that when Dole came--when the gap narrowed, Perot's level of support was down to 6 to 8 percent, and when it was a wide margin, Perot was polling 16 to 18 percent. So I think just by, by observation, if Dole is going to catch Clinton, the Perot support, a strong Perot candidacy would make it very difficult, if not doom him, particularly if it goes above the 16 percent level.
JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the same way, David?
MR. BRODER: Well, more importantly, the Dole people, the campaign people, clearly would rather have a one on one race with President Clinton. The White House isn't saying that they're happy to have Perot in the race, but you don't hear them grumbling about it the way you hear it from the Dole people, so I think the professional's reading is clearly that Perot is more of a problem for Dole than he is for Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: Do you hear it the same way, Elizabeth?
MS. ARNOLD: Well, but the Dole people have one optimistic point that they make, and that is that half the people who voted for Perot in 92 say they won't vote for him this time around. And the people who are peeling off are the opposite of what you are describing. People who are peeling off are wealthy, educated, older Republicans. And so the Dole people think they're coming home. The only fly in the ointment there is if Ross Perot goes out with his charts and says, hey, tax cuts aren't such a good thing, and it's going to be bad for the deficit, then they might leave home again.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: There's a separate fly in the ointment. I think Perot hurts--Perot hurts Dole I think clearly in two different ways. One is that Perot voters are people generally dissatisfied with the direction of the country, and in the end, most of those tend to vote against incumbents at any level, especially the President. And second, and more importantly, Dole--Perot's vote is overwhelmingly white.
And as such, it tends to put a lot of southern states and to some extent mountain states in play for Bill Clinton that would not otherwise be in play. It's very hard for Bill Clinton to get to 51 percent in Georgia under any circumstances, the best circumstances, but can he get to 46 percent or 45 percent if Ross Perot is pealing away 10 or 11 percent of what is essentially a white vote? Yes, he can. And I think it really enlarges the map for Clinton and puts a lot of states in play that would not otherwise be so.
MR. BRODER: And one other thing.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
MR. BRODER: That Republican pollster Bill McInturff has pointed out--implicit in the Dole campaign strategy is bringing Bill Clinton down, a negative attack on Clinton. If it's a one on one, the votes that peel off of Clinton, you know that they have no place to go but to your candidate. If it's a three-way race, you have no assurance that you're going to get those votes, and the experience is often that people punish the candidate who is doing the attack ads and support the other candidate--the third candidate in the race.
JIM LEHRER: David, what about Andy's point about the negatives about Perot? People tend to use those negatives and kind of dismiss him. That would be a mistake, would it not?
MR. BRODER: The negatives are certainly present. You even hear it among some of the Perot people. That's why--
JIM LEHRER: Did you hear that in that report?
MR. BRODER: And that's why Dick Lamm, who was unknown to them, got a third of the vote against Perot, himself. They realized that he is a very flawed vessel for this. But he's also a very clever skillful deliverer of a message, and I think he's going to drive these other two guys crazy in the debates.
JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth.
MS. ARNOLD: I went to a focus group a couple of weeks ago and heard those same adjectives being used to describe him, but then when this group of people were asked a question about who-- if you got in a van and the van had to go some place, who would you pick as the navigator, and they had all the candidates and their wives. Second to Hillary Clinton was Ross Perot. He will get you where you want to go.
JIM LEHRER: Wow. Ron, what about the issue of debates, is it automatic now that, that Ross Perot will be in a three-way debate on these--if there are presidential debates with President Clinton and Bob Dole?
MR. BROWNSTEIN: Nothing is going to matter because the campaigns really can ultimately decide for themselves. They hold the negotiations, but I think it is in Bill Clinton's interest to have Ross Perot on the stage, rather than not on the stage, and, as such, I think it's overwhelmingly likely that he'll be there.
JIM LEHRER: And what do the--what do the polls show historically about the importance of those debates, Andy? I mean, those things could--could really change things around and--and Perot could play an interesting role, could he not?
MR. KOHUT: Absolutely, particularly if he attacked Dole on the credibility of his economic plan and it's not focusing on balancing the budget. Ross Perot singlehandedly took balancing the budget from a 1 percent issue in the polls for years to something that many Americans feel very important, particularly Republicans.
And there are a great number of Republicans who don't feel it's credible to both--to give--provide a tax cut and balance the budget, let alone independents who feel that way, so I think that, that Dole can really play a very effective role in this debate. I mean, Perot can play an effective role in this debate on that issue.
JIM LEHRER: On that issue alone?
MR. KOHUT: On that issue alone.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Andy, Ron, Elizabeth and David Broder of the Washington Post, thank you all four very much.
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