Ross Perot, Donald Trump and the appeal of the outsider: One Florida voter’s story

On the day of Perot’s death, a St. Petersburg man reflects on his vote for the Texas billionaire in 1992: ‘I’d do it again’
Ross Perot waves to the huge crowd at the sun dome in Tampa.
Ross Perot waves to the huge crowd at the sun dome in Tampa.
Published July 9, 2019|Updated July 9, 2019

At age 20, Ryan Diefel stood among the 9,000 screaming and cheering Ross Perot supporters at the Tampa Sun Dome and declared his allegiance to the Texas billionaire.

“He’s a businessman. He’s what we need,” Diefel told the then-St. Petersburg Times.

It was Oct. 31, 1992, one of Perot’s last rallies in his idealistic campaign for president. Perot, his wife, Margot, and daughter Nancy took the stage to raucous applause. He asked all the young people to stand and, demonstrating Perot’s appeal among college-age voters, one-third of the crowd did. Diefel likely would’ve been one of them.

Four days later, Diefel would join more than 1 million Floridians who voted for the self-funded independent candidate. Though he lost, Perot’s third-party bid captured the imagination of millions disenchanted by the modern political system and had a lasting impact on presidential politics.

Perot died Tuesday. He was 89.

READ PEROT’S OBITUARY: Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot dies at age 89

Today, Diefel still lives in St. Petersburg. He’s married with four kids. To this day, he has not joined a campaign or supported a candidate as vociferously as he did for Perot in 1992, he said.

“I just basically thought he was different,” Diefel said Tuesday, caught by phone while exiting a pistol range. “He wasn’t a regular politician and that’s what we needed. He was a businessman. I still agree with my assessment. I think he would have done well.”

If that evaluation of Perot sounds familiar, it certainly is. It’s the same assessment that drew unsure and disenfranchised voters to take a risk on Donald Trump three years ago. At Perot’s Tampa rally, a sign flashed on the Sun Dome scoreboard: “TAKE BACK OUR COUNTRY.” It’s a phrase Trump would use often in his campaign more than two decades later.

For many of the reasons he voted for Perot, Diefel backed Trump in 2016. A self-described libertarian leaning conservative, he liked the way Trump spoke and that he came from outside the political class.

Perot’s appeal in 1992 and again in 1996 may have foreshadowed Trump’s victory three years ago. But unlike Trump, Perot did not enter the presidential fray through one of two major political parties and it certainly factored into his defeat. Still, he was the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt, winning 19 percent of the general election vote.

DELIVER TO  METRO -11/07/93 - TAMPA --  H. Ross Perot is greeted by his supporters as he enters the anti NAFTA rally at the Florida Expo Park. Photo by Dan McDuffie, with story by Ellen Debenport.
DELIVER TO METRO -11/07/93 - TAMPA -- H. Ross Perot is greeted by his supporters as he enters the anti NAFTA rally at the Florida Expo Park. Photo by Dan McDuffie, with story by Ellen Debenport.

Perot ran as an independent focused almost entirely on the deficit and his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (another harbinger of Trump’s 2016 campaign). His matter-of-fact style, folksy Texas accent and big ears became his trademark, and he delivered his message into American households through paid-for television specials.

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Diefel was captivated, he said. He waived signs on street corners and attended events. He stood by his vote in the face of those who said it stole the election for Democrat Bill Clinton and from Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush. (Analysts have since questioned that narrative.)

“Truthfully, I wouldn’t have changed my vote either way,” Diefel said. “I would still give it to Ross Perot today over either one of them, even knowing how it turns out. I’d do it again."

In 1992, Diefel told a reporter at the Tampa rally that it was his goal to start a small business, but “with Bush and Clinton, I don’t think I’d have a prayer.”

Except, it turned out, he was able to launch that small business. Diefel now runs a company that builds and installs water conservation machines in apartments. On the side, he moonlights as a firearms consultant. He worked on the James Franco flick “Spring Breakers.”

Diefel acknowledged his prediction didn’t hold and he did well under several presidents he didn’t support, including Clinton and later George W. Bush.

“No matter who gets office you have to take responsibility for yourself and your own life and do the best you can with whoever is in charge,” he said.

Diefel is less sure if he’ll support Trump again, but doesn’t yet see a Democrat that can win his vote. He imagines it will be a last minute decision. He would like a viable third-party candidate in the mold of Perot to emerge, but he’s not optimistic.

“I don’t think they’d make it," Diefel said. "I think they’d pull votes for one party or another. I don’t think the country can do it.”

Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Below is a St. Petersburg Times story from Perot’s 1992 rally at the Sun Dome in Tampa.

TAMPA — It was one of the biggest, one of the longest and certainly the noisiest of presidential campaign rallies in Florida this year.

Ross Perot exhorted and entertained his followers for nearly an hour Saturday. They filled the Sun Dome almost to the rafters, perhaps 9,000 of them,screaming and chanting and crying out "We love you, Ross!" to the man who has brought so many disaffected Americans into the political process.

The outcome of the presidential race in Florida surely will depend on Perot. President Bush and Bill Clinton are apparently tied here, and the support that Perot draws will tip the state's 25 electoral votes to one or the other.

Unless, of course, Perot wins outright.

His supporters are sure there's a hidden vote for Perot that will surprise the country on Election Day.

H. Ross Perot displays his new book "Save Your Job, Save Our Country" as he addresses a "Not This NAFTA" rally in Tampa Sunday, Nov. 9, 1993. Perot, against the proposed treaty, will debate Vice President Al Gore on the subject Nov. 9. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)  TP101
H. Ross Perot displays his new book "Save Your Job, Save Our Country" as he addresses a "Not This NAFTA" rally in Tampa Sunday, Nov. 9, 1993. Perot, against the proposed treaty, will debate Vice President Al Gore on the subject Nov. 9. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove) TP101

"He's the greatest person on Earth," said Bill Salmans, an Orlando salesman who had been at the Sun Dome since 3 a.m. to help decorate with signs, bunting and balloons. "He's done more for the American people then anybody else this year. He has changed people's thinking."

Perot's supporters said they fear for the future and fear for their children if American government isn't radically changed and spending brought under control.

"He's a businessman. He's what we need," said Ryan Diefel, 20, of St. Petersburg, who will cast his first presidential vote for Perot. Diefel hopes to start a small business next year, but "with Bush and Clinton, I don't think I'd have a prayer."

"I want him to straighten out the government . . . so our children can be what we are," said Jim Miller, 62, a real estate broker in Sarasota. Miller, like Perot, has five children. "I love them just as much as he loves his children."

After Perot, his wife, Margot, and daughter Nancy took the stage to wild cheers from the crowd, Perot asked all the young people and college students to stand. About one-third of the audience stood, and Perot told them that everyone else, the parents and grandparents, were waging this fight for them.

"I want all of you to understand how much we love you and how everybody that's participating in this grass-roots effort is doing it for one thing: That's to make sure we pay these bills, clean up the mess and pass on the American Dream to you."

Then he lectured the young ones.

"It is wrong, dead wrong, for any of you young people to waste your mind on drugs or create an unwanted baby and ask your parents to sacrifice and clean up the mess for you. You've got to be earning that sacrifice.

"The saddest thing in the world is a little baby nobody wants. Don't create one if you don't want it!" he said, thumping the lectern.

The Sun Dome scoreboard flashed messages in red and gold lights: LET'S GET THE SHOVEL AND CLEAN OUT THE BARN . . . TAKE BACK OUR COUNTRY . . . HE'S ALL EARS.

A couple of people wore outsized plastic ears to show their support for Perot. He said if he weren't spending $ 60-million of his own money on the campaign, he could have plastic surgery.

"You vote for me on Tuesday, you'll be surprised. Most of those senators and congressmen will be having ear jobs," he said. The crowd loved it.

Perot derided Bush, as he always does, as a basically decent guy who can't run a country. But increasingly now, Perot is including Arkansas Gov. Clinton in his criticisms of government.

"Have you heard Gov. Clinton night after night on TV?" Perot asked. "He says, "Here's the way we did it in Arkansas: One, two, three, four, five,' and everybody says "Ooooooooo. Wow.' "

Perot will be on television tonight (7 p.m. on ABC and NBC) with the latest in his series of paid shows. This one is titled Deep Voodoo, Chicken Feathers and the American Dream, a clear indication he's going to attack Clinton along with Bush. Arkansas is known for its giant poultry industry.

"Raising chickens is not where America's future is," Perot said.

The campaign now is in a two-minute drill, Perot said, and he asked his followers to do two things: Drive with their headlights on until Tuesday to show support and get five friends to vote for him on Election Day. Then wait for the November surprise.

"All these old boys who used to make a living taking polls are going to be looking for work selling peanuts or something," he said.

The crowd seemed to be filled largely with people drawn into politics by Perot. Many said they wouldn't be voting in this election if it weren't for Perot; they never had any interest in politics in the past.

They were charmed by Perot's stories about visiting with "the little people" in coffee shops and barbecue stands. They felt empowered by Perot's reminder that elected officials are supposed to be servants of the people.

"I'm Ross. You're the boss," he said.

And, of course, they hated the media.

Betty Olsen, 52, of Tampa, remembered seeing a newscaster after one of the debates say "Ross Perot was "somewhat simplistic.' What the media doesn't understand is that we the voters like it simplistic. We want to cut through the rhetoric."

One of the loudest cheers of the day came when Perot scolded the press for moving out of place - albeit within their roped-off corral - to get a picture of an AIDS activist who briefly interrupted Perot.

"Would the press people please go back to where they're supposed to be?" Perot demanded.

As the Sun Dome filled with deafening jeers and screams, the photographers returned to their corner, sank back to their knees and pointed their cameras up toward Perot's face. The crowd was happy.

Perot's crowds are not like those at other political rallies. They have no doubts, no ambivalence about supporting him. Random interviews found no one undecided, no one attending just out of curiosity. The atmosphere was one of joy, energy and supreme confidence.

"There's nothing I don't like about him," said Tom Beougher, 68, of Bayonet Point.

"He's a savior. He's going to save the country," said Ellen Chambers, also from Bayonet Point.

If he quit the race in July, he had good reasons. If he hired private investigators, it's routine business practice. If he has a bad temper, well, they're angry, too.

Angela Cody, 25, of St. Petersburg said Perot "is bringing humor and sense back to the country."

What impressed her the most?

“The fact that he’s going to fix everything and that he loves us.”