Getty Images

The Billionaire Who Made 1992’s Election Even Stranger Than 2016’s

The ’92 race got real strange real fast — and it can teach us something about what’s happening now

In July 1992, antiestablishment candidate Ross Perot was winning the presidential race. Then he dropped out. Then, in October, he got back in. Then he went on 60 Minutes and accused the Bush administration of being part of a conspiracy involving sex, wiretapping, and his recently married daughter. After all that, he still won 19 percent of the popular vote — the most of any third-party candidate in nearly a century.

The fall of 1992 was real weird. Like, clowns-in-the-woods weird.

Ross Perot was (and is) a billionaire. Not a Donald Trump–esque sort-of billionaire, an actual billionaire. A native Texan, Perot began his career as a salesman at IBM before founding Electronic Data Systems in 1962. Over the next 30 years, he became one of the wealthiest people in America, helped rescue his own employees from an Iranian prison, bought a copy of the Magna Carta, saved Steve Jobs’s career, and most importantly, came to believe that he had the answers to America’s problems.

His plan was simple: rein in spending, reduce the federal deficit, stop gun control and NAFTA, and get more people involved in politics through “electronic town halls” where every American could decide how their lawmakers should vote on bills by pressing a button on their remotes at home. Perot wasn’t particularly personable (in an interview with MTV News, he said to people who used drugs, “You’re a burden to society, and you’re selfish”). But in 1992, at least, he seemed sane, knowledgeable, and, to Americans lacking enthusiasm for a second Bush term or a Clinton presidency, like the perfect option.

His supporters opened offices nationwide. In a 10-day period, over a million people called in to a Ross Perot phone bank, set up to get him on the ballot — and it worked. By June of 1992, Perot and his running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, were leading the race.

One month later, Perot quit. His polling numbers were slipping, and his advisors told the press that he refused to listen to them. Both the Clinton and Bush campaigns started wooing Perot supporters, and it became a two-horse race again. And then, just as quickly, it wasn’t; on October 1, 1992, Perot restarted his campaign. He said that he wanted another chance to explain his positions to the American people, so he paid for 30-minute infomercials on network television, in which he used pie charts to explain the economy. He participated in the presidential debates (and did a pretty good job!), and tried to explain why he’d dropped out in the first place.

That’s about when it all kind of went to hell (again).

In an interview on October 25, as well as in campaign speeches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Perot alleged that the Bush campaign had threatened to release a photograph of his daughter, doctored to make her appear to be engaging in a lesbian sex act, before her August wedding unless Perot dropped out. After her wedding, Perot told the press and his supporters that his daughter had told him to get back into the race, so he did. In addition, the Perot campaign got the FBI to launch a sting operation on the Bush campaign to find out if they’d been tapping into Perot’s phone calls. Perot had already said (in a debate on live television!) that the Vietnamese had sent a team of Black Panthers to kill him in 1969, so he was clearly not afraid of sounding conspiratorial. But in accusing the sitting president of tapping his phones and trying to blackmail his daughter, Perot started to sound, well, not well. (NB: His campaign song was Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”)

Perot was the best-performing third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, but his campaign fell apart in a cloud of odd. And it got even stranger after that. The source of Perot’s fears was a man named Scott Barnes, who claimed to have been a Green Beret (he wasn’t) and a CIA agent (he wasn’t). Five years after telling Perot that the Bush administration wanted to embarrass his daughter, Barnes admitted that the whole thing had been a sham. Tucker Carlson, a conservative pundit and writer, told MTV News, “As a general matter, outsider candidates are susceptible to conspiracy theories. They’re usually running in the first place because they consider the system rigged. They may also lack knowledge of how government actually works and therefore tend to mistake incompetence for treachery.” Perot was no exception.

In a world without high-speed internet, social media, or cell phones, Perot still built up a nationwide campaign without being a Democrat or a Republican, and saw it all crumble in under three months because someone in his own office told him something so ridiculous that only a person prone to believing conspiracy theories could fall for it. In 2016, we have Twitter and Donald Trump, an antiestablishment (sort-of) wealthy candidate prone to conspiracy theories of his own.

And we have 56 days left until Election Day.