In this week’s newsletter, I talked about Donald Trump’s electoral prospects in the context to two other reasonably successful, non-traditional candidates: Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. My basic point is that voters are more likely to support fringe candidates than the establishment often assumes. And that if Trump were to run as a third-party candidate with even half as much success as Perot, then the Republicans are likely to lose in 2016, no matter who the two major party nominees are.
(Seriously: Ross Perot got 20 million votes in 1992. Mitt Romney only got 61 million in 2012. If Trump were to run as a third-party pulling 10 million votes next year, it’s difficult to imagine how any Dem-GOP split works out for Republicans.)
But if you want to really get depressed about democracy and the state of American politics, a friend reminds me that back during the 2000 cycle—when Trump was kind-of, sort-of flirting with running as a Reform party candidate—he, Perot, and Ventura were all brought together by the bizarre carnival that was the Reform party.
If you want a tiny slice of history from the Reform era, I can’t recommend Matt Labash’s triptych enough, here, here, and here. But the story of Jesse, Trump, and Perot really began in 1999—and Labash was there, too.
The short version is that Ross Perot’s 1992 run had created an infrastructure—and a cash pot, generated from federal matching funds—which went in search of a political movement to drive it. (Which is backwards from how these things are supposed to work.) As the 2000 cycle ramped up, Pat Buchanan was looking to take over the Reform party. Perot liked him, but Jesse Ventura—the newly-crowned governor of Minnesota—was interested in running for president in 2004. And he didn’t like Buchanan at all.
In an effort to keep Buchanan from winning control of the party machinery, the Ventura backers went looking for a stalking horse to challenge him. And they found Donald Trump, who took the job. Sort of. Trump ran for president in a perfunctory way.
In short order, Trump dropped out and as it became clear that Buchanan was headed toward capturing the nomination, matters got increasingly chaotic inside the party. Which is saying something, considering that the Reform movement was more or less an insane asylum from the start.
In the end, it got so bad that Donald Trump—the Donald Trump—wound up writing to Perot and Ventura, asking them to figure out some way to broker a peace.
Think about that for a moment: In the Reform party, Trump was the grownup.
In the end, Trump couldn’t get the two sides to sit down. Ventura left the party in a huff. Buchanan won the nomination, but performed so badly that the party lost its national ballot access and federal matching money. And then—because it never had any ideological rationale—the Reform party died a quiet death.
Perot and Ventura melted away. And Donald Trump is now leading in some polls for the Republican nomination.
First time farce, second time tragedy.