Monday, July 22, 2013

More on the "Perot coalition"

Sean Trende said that Ross Perot appealed to "downscale" voters because "his campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics."  As I noted a previous post, Perot's strongest support actually came from the middle class.  Also, as I remember it, his campaign wasn't focused on economics, but on "fixing the mess in Washington."  Perot's pitch was that he was an outsider, a businessman with no history of political involvement, who would straighten things out by applying common sense.  In his more visionary moments, he talked about "electronic town hall meetings" in which the people could weigh in directly.

Of course, that's just my memory, and it's hard to get clear evidence on what a campaign was about.  But there was a lot of dissatisfaction with government in the early 1990s.  This is an index based on questions in the American National Election Studies.*

Confidence in government fell pretty steadily through the 1960s and 1970s to a low in 1980.  It then rebounded, but started to fall again after 1984.  In 1990, it was back down to the 1980 level, and it was only slightly higher in 1992.  It fell to a new low in 1994, and then started to recover.  The peak in 2002 was probably partly an aftereffect of 9/11, but in 2000 confidence was at its highest level since 1984.

It's not clear why people were so discontented in the early 1990s.  The two biggest events around that time were the breakup of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War, which could both be claimed as major successes for the American government.  There was a recession in 1990-1, but it was pretty mild.  But whatever the reason, people were unhappy with the government.  All this suggests that Trende is right in the most general sense:  that there are parallels between 1992 and today.  But they don't involve "downscale" voters and economic populism (especially a "populism" based on being a "deficit hawk").

*Specifically, "How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right," "Would you say that the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves or that it is run for the benefit of all the people," "Do you think that people in the government waste a lot of money we pay in taxes," "Do you think that quite a few of the people running the government are crooked," "People like me don't have any say about what the government does," "Public officials don't care much what people like me think," and "Over the years, how much attention do you feel the government pays to what the people think when it decides what to do."  Not all of the questions were asked in all years, but I adjusted for that by treating the observed data as indicators of a latent variable.

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