Where Have All The Perotians Gone?

IN THE SPRING OF 1992 RICK ROBINSON was a gung-ho Ross Perot supporter. Fed up with government regulations, mush-mouthed career politicians and a Republican Party seemingly unable to revive the economy, the 48-year-old Vietnam veteran enlisted in Perot's populist army. He set up a table in his Hyannis, Mass., hardware store-right next to the nail bin and the grass-seed mix-for customers to sign petitions putting Perot on the state's presidential ballot. Robinson even spoke at a huge Perot rally on Boston Common that June. His 10th Congressional District, full of retirees and aging white boomers in the fast-growing outer-rim suburbs of Boston and resort towns along Cape Cod, was prime Perot Country: the Texan received 25 percent of the vote (19 percent nationally). But this fall Robinson's political activity has been limited to his local merchants association, and he'll be voting Republican. He still respects Perot but says he thinks he's failed as a political leader. "He let a lot of people down," Robinson said.

Perot's message-deficit reduction, campaign-finance and lobbying reform. deep distrust of the political class-still resonates with Robinson and others in this surly campaign season. But their ardor for the messenger has faded. A recent poll by the Tarrance Group and Mellman, Lazarus and Lake shows that just 59 percent of his 1992 supporters would vote for him again.

Some of the disaffected had high hopes for the 1994 elections. Robinson had wanted to see United We Stand America (UWSA), Perot's national organization, evolve into a political party that ran candidates in local and statewide contests. He also became disenchanted with what he came to regard as the endemic negativism of the Perotians. "We were being critical without coming up with constructive criticism." said Robinson. The movement became, he said, "a shooting gallery of everything that's wrong." Libby Smith, a Sandwich, Mass., housewife who collected signatures in 1992, sees Perot's defeat as proof of a system immune to change. "You just get disenchanted," Smith said. "It's all a big sham."

UWSA would not discuss membership figures last week. But a source extremely familiar with UWSA operations told NEWSWEEK that the numbers have plummeted: from 1.3 million in 1993 to slightly more than 300,000. In Massachusetts, according to the source, the ranks have thinned from 26,000 to just under 6,000. Bill Anderson. a Boston businessman and Perot's Massachusetts cochairman, until he quit after the 1992 campaign, says many who remain are "fundamentalists" personally loyal to Perot. "A lot of the middle ground, the core of his support, has evaporated." Supporters scoff at the notion of a Perot cult. "If you come to our meetings, you rarely bear Perot's name," says Paula Collins, current UWSA state chairman.

Who are Perot's supporters now? Democratic polltaker Celinda Lake says that as a group they are poorer and more male than his 1992 backers were. They're also angrier -- more hostile toward incumbents, especially members of Congress and President Clinton, who many believed raised their taxes. Their level of disaffection is so high that Lake actually expects many of them to sit out Election Day. "The ones that do show up will be very anti-Democratic," she says.

The Perot bloc may still be a force, holding the potential swing vote in a number of contests. A study by the newspaper Roll Call shows that Perot got at least 20 percent of the 1992 presidential vote in more than 50 congressional districts where Democrats are in danger of losing a seat or have a shot at blocking GOP gains. New York businessman Thomas Golisano, a Perot disciple, could peel away enough protest votes from Republican George Pataki to give Mario Cuomo a fourth term.

Perot has been rallying his base this fall, with a 10-city speaking tour and a new weekly radio show. But because he's no longer a standard-bearer, his influence is more indirect. Still, even the disillusioned say he has unleashed a free-flowing force of protest that is now a permanent presence in American politics. "He unscrewed the cap," says Anderson. "More than ever, a lot of us want to clear the decks." Next week many incumbents may find themselves thrown overboard.