Ross Perot is in the ring again: He "would accept" the nomination for president of the Perot-created-and-financed Reform Party, if such a nomination is forthcoming.
But last week's signal from the Texas billionaire obscures some key facts. His voter base has shifted, suggesting he may not get the support he once did. Perot supporters are "less well-off and slightly less-educated," says Frank Luntz, who was Perot's pollster until July 1992, when Perot temporarily dropped out of the last presidential race. "They have a more blue-collar feel, less of a suburban feel. Some suburban voters looked at him and decided he wasn't presidential."
The main reason for this was Perot's sudden decision four years ago to quit the race, citing a federal plot to disrupt his daughter's wedding. Before this episode, some analysts saw the possibility that Perot - then a fresh face who spoke bluntly about economic concerns during a recession - could actually squeak through and win the presidency. Now focus groups are telling pollsters Perot's more a protest vote, a vote for "none of the above."
But he's a "none of the above" who could still swing the outcome of the election - and affect congressional races. Currently, Perot has held about 13 to 17 percent of the vote.
Perot's Reform Party is relatively large and well-organized in some crucial electoral states, such as California and Texas. In fact, Mr. Luntz says, it's conceivable Perot should siphon off enough of President Clinton's big lead in California to make that state competitive, and even give it to the GOP's Bob Dole. If Mr. Dole won vote-rich California, the whole electoral calculus would change, and he could even win the presidency.
Analysts say Perot helps Mr. Clinton more than Dole - a view held both by Clintonites (who reacted positively to Perot's semiannouncement) and the Dole camp (which groaned at what it saw as another setback).
Perot steals media attention, making it harder for Dole to carve out a clear distinction between himself and Clinton. Perot also takes anti-Clinton votes away from Dole. But much depends on how Perot handles himself, assuming he wins his party's nomination against his only opponent, the less-known ex-governor of Colorado, Richard Lamm. It's not clear how Perot will campaign, or who his prime target will be, Dole or Clinton.
But as the sitting president, Clinton is more vulnerable to attack. Four years ago, when Perot won 18.9 percent of the vote, exit polls showed Perot took votes evenly from President Bush and Clinton, but the consensus is that he damaged Bush more by attacking him repeatedly on the economy.
Below the presidential level, Perot could help Republican candidates for both the House and Senate. Two years ago, Perot voters broke 2 to 1 for Republican candidates. With Perot on the ballot in '96, he could spur turnout that helps these candidates again.
If nothing else, Perot's injection into American politics has helped give form to the substance of growing voter dissatisfaction with the two-party system. His candidacy four years ago spawned the eventual creation of the Reform Party, a nationwide network that is not 100 percent pro-Perot.
Four years ago, Phil Madsen of Minneapolis was a Perot person. When Perot dropped out, Mr. Madsen became disillusioned and channeled his energy toward starting a new party, called the Independence Party. That party has now become Minnesota's chapter of the Reform Party. But Madsen won't go back to Perot. "I'm for Lamm, big time," he says.
PEROT'S treatment of Mr. Lamm could hurt Perot among third-party voters. Perot encouraged Lamm to run without indicating whether he himself would jump in. The day after Lamm's announcement, Perot signaled he would accept his party's nomination - squashing Lamm's effort instantly. "He demonstrated this was all a charade," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg.
If Perot's mercurial behavior hinders his ability to fully harvest the potential third-party vote, the state of the economy also likely cuts into the size of that constituency. Four years ago, economic anxiety was stronger. "I'm seeing some of the highest levels of job satisfaction I've ever seen," says Karlyn Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute. "Huge majorities are feeling secure in their jobs."
This may explain why some suburban, white-collar voters are defecting from the ranks of Perot supporters. Though polls show a high number of voters would like more choices for the presidency, that's more a general reflection of Americans' general desire for choices (in selection of schools, for example) than a sign of profound dissatisfaction with the current political setup, Ms. Bowman says.
Still, Perot's message about the need for reform of the political system resonates, say analysts. Campaign-finance reform has gone nowhere since 1992, and Perot is likely to highlight that in public appearances to come.