Plurality Wins in the 1992 Presidential Race: Perot's Contribution to Clinton's Victory

In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton defeated Republican incumbent George Bush, with a comfortable Electoral College victory of 370 to 168. The size of that margin masked the overall closeness of the race, however. After polling above 50% in the summer, Clinton's winning percentage was reduced to 43%. Independent candidate Ross Perot won a full 19% of the vote, a larger margin than had been won by a non-major party candidate since popular former president Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" Progressive Party challenge in 1912.

Political scientists and practioners have vigorously debated the role of Ross Perot in Clinton's victory. Exit polls showed that Perot's voters apparently split their preferences between Clinton and Bush nearly equally, although approximately a third of them likely would not have voted without him on the ballot. Yet the very fact of the Perot candidacy might have changed the nature of which major party candidate Perot supporters were likely to support. Furthermore, the Perot vote didn't split equally in every state. Perot's impact in particular states was clear -- and almost certain to have been to the detriment of George Bush. In the 1976 presidential race, for example, another weakened Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford, nearly came back to defeat another Democratic governor of a southern state. Without Perot, it seems likely that the 1992 race would also have been closer.

A state-by-state analysis that compares the 1992 results with those from 1988 and 1996 provides support to this analysis. Clinton won 22 states that Bush had carried in 1988. Among these were some states that Clinton probably won only because of the Perot candidacy. With a total of 40 electoral votes, these states are:

Colorado, 8 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush won Colorado by approximately his national average: 53% to 45%. In 1996, Bob Dole won 46% to 44%, with Perot taking 7% of the vote. But in 1992, Perot won 23% of the vote, and Clinton carried the state with 40% to Bush's 36%.

Georgia, 13 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush won an easy 60% to 39% victory in Georgia, while in 1996 Dole won Georgia 47% to 46%. In 1992, however, Clinton won by an eyelash, with both candidates taking 43%. Perot won 13% of the vote.

Kentucky, 8 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush won by 56% to 44% in Kentucky. In 1996, Clinton barely defeated Dole, 45% to 44%, with Perot taking 8%. In 1992, Clinton defeated Bush 45% to 41%, with Perot taking 14%. The 1992 and 1996 results would indicate that a significant portion of the Perot vote was coming from Republicans. Republicans currently hold both U.S. Senate seats and five of six U.S. House seats in Kentucky.

Montana, 3 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush defeated Dukakis 52% to 46%, while in 1996, Dole defeated Clinton by 44% to 41%, with Perot picking up 14% of the vote. In 1992, however, Clinton narrowly edged Bush by 38% to 35%, with Perot collecting 26% of the vote.

New Hampshire, 4 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush crushed Dukakis by 63% to 36%. In 1992, however, Clinton narrowly defeated Bush, 39% to 38%, with Perot taking 23% of the vote. By 1996, New Hampshire was more securely Democratic, but for Clinton to win the state in 1992, it likely required the Perot candidacy to keep traditional Republican voters from supporting Bush.

Nevada, 4 electoral votes:  In 1988, Bush defeated Dukakis 59% to 38% in Nevada. In 1992, Clinton edged Bush 37% to 35%, with Perot picking up 26% of the vote. Clinton won Nevada again in 1996 by 1%, with a much lower turnout.

Here are four states that Perot's candidacy possibly allowed Clinton to win, although it is less persuasive. The total electoral vote in these states was 49. They are:

Louisiana, 9 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush defeated Dukakis by 54% to 44%. In 1992, Clinton won 46% to 41%, with Perot taking 12% of the vote. The Perot vote would have needed to break three to one for Bush over Clinton to change the result; unlikely, but possible.

Maine, 4 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush won Maine by 55% to 44%. In 1992, Clinton won 39% to 30%, with Perot taking fully 30% of the vote. By 1996, Maine was solidly in Clinton's camp, but Perot provided a gateway for traditional Republican voters to shift to Democrats. There is a chance that without Perot in 1992, a good number of these voters might not have been ready to shift to Clinton over Bush.

New Jersey, 15 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush won New Jersey by 56% to 42%. In 1992, Clinton edged Bush, 43% to 41%, with Perot taking 16% of the vote. Given the anti-tax spirit of many in New Jersey at that time, given the unpopularity of Gov. Jim Florioís tax increase, it is possible that the Perot vote would have broken toward Bush. By 1996, the state had become more firmly Democratic in federal elections ñ Clinton won by 18%.

Ohio, 21 electoral votes: In 1988, Bush defeated Dukakis 55% to 44%. In 1992, however, Clinton narrowly defeated him, 40% to 38%, with Perot taking 21% of the vote. If that Perot vote had split 12% to 9% in favor of Bush as a second choice, he would have won the state ñ a plausible assumption, although not a definite one.

Analysis:  Perot's vote totals in themselves likely did not cause Clinton to win. Even if all of these states had shifted to Bush and none of Bush's victories had been reversed (as seems plausible, in fact, as Bush won by less than 5% only in states that a Republican in a close election could expect to carry, particularly before some of the partisan shifts that took place later in the 1990s: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Dakota and Virginia), Clinton still would have won the electoral college vote by 281 to 257. But such a result obviously would have made the race a good deal closer.

Plurality victories in 1992

49 plurality victories total:
  • 31 won by Clinton
  • 18 won by Bush
Of 49 states won by a plurality:
  • 36 were won with less than 45%
  • 6 were won with less than 40%