The Party grew out of Perot's efforts in the 1992 presidential election, where—running as an independent—he became the first non-major party candidate since 1912 to have been considered viable enough to win the presidency. Perot made a splash by bringing a focus to fiscal issues such as the federal deficit and national debt; government reform issues such as term limits, campaign finance reform, and lobbying reform; and issues on trade. A large part of his following was grounded in the belief he was addressing vital problems largely ignored by the two major parties. On these strengths, he won two of the three presidential debates and placed second in the other, according to some polls at the time.
A Gallup poll showed Perot with a slim lead, but on July 16 he suspended his campaign, accusing Republican operatives of threatening to sabotage his daughter's wedding, and was accused by Newsweek Magazine of being a "quitter" in a well-publicized cover-page article. After resuming his campaign on October 1, Perot was dogged by the "quitter" moniker and other allegations concerning his character, to the extent that on Election Day many voters were confused as to whether or not Perot was actually still a candidate. He ended up receiving about 18.9% of the popular vote, a record level of popularity not seen in an independent candidacy since former President Theodore Roosevelt ran on the "Bull Moose" Progressive ticket in 1912. He continued being politically involved after the election, formally turning his campaign organization (United We Stand America) into a lobbying group. One of his primary goals was the defeat of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during this period.
In 1995 the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, largely on the strength of the "Contract With America", which recognized and promised to deal with many of the issues Perot's voters had mobilized to support in 1992. However, two of the major provisions (Constitutional amendments for term limits and the balanced budgets) failed to secure the two-thirds congressional majorities required to take effect. The term limits amendment vote failed in the house on a 227-204-1 vote (288 votes were required); the balanced budget amendment passed in the House of Representatives, but failed by two votes in the senate. (Sen. Dole voted against the amendment on procedural grounds when it became apparent that it was going to fail; by voting no he could attempt to bring it up again at a later date. A second vote on the amendment in the Senate in 1997 failed by one vote in a 66-34 split.)
Dissatisfied, the grassroots organizations that had made Perot's 1992 candidacy possible began to band together to found a third party intended to rival the Republicans and Democrats. For legal reasons, the party ended up being called the "Reform Party" ("Independent Party" was preferred, but already taken, as were several variants on the name). A drive to get the party on the ballot in all fifty states succeeded, although it ended with lawsuits in some regions over state ballot access requirements. In a few areas, minor parties became incorporated as state party organizations.
When the 1996 election season arrived, Perot at first held off from entering the contest for the Reform Party's nomination, calling for others to try for the ticket. The only person who announced such an intention was Dick Lamm, former Governor of Colorado. After the Federal Election Commission indicated only Perot and not Lamm would be able to secure federal matching funds—because his 1992 campaign was as an independent—Perot entered the race. Some were upset that Perot changed his mind and in their view overshadowed Lamm's run for the party nomination. This built up to the beginning of a splinter within the movement when it was alleged certain problems in the primary process, such as many Lamm supporters not receiving ballots, and some primary voters receiving multiple ballots, were Perot's doing. The Reform Party claimed these problems stemmed from the petition process for getting the Reform Party on the ballot in all of the states, since the party claimed they used the names and addresses of petition signers as the basis of who received ballots. Primary ballots were sent by mail to designated voters. Eventually, Perot was nominated and he chose economist Pat Choate as his vice-presidential candidate.
Between 1992 and 1996, the Commission on Presidential Debates changed its rules regarding how candidates could qualify to participate in the presidential debates. As Perot had previously done very well in debates, it was a decisive blow to the campaign when the Commission ruled that he could not participate on basis of somewhat vague criteria --- such as that a candidate was required to have already been endorsed by "a substantial number of major news organizations", with "substantial" being a number to be decided by the Commission on a case-by-case basis. Perot could not have qualified for the debates in 1992 under these rules, and was able to show that various famous US Presidents would likewise have been excluded from modern debate by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
Despite legal action by the Perot team, and an 80% majority of Americans supporting his participation in the debates, the Commission refused to budge and Perot was reduced to making his points heard via a series of half-hour "commercials". In the end, Perot and Choate won 8% of the vote.
By 1997, factional disputes began to emerge with the departure of a small group that believed Perot had rigged the 1996 party primary to defeat Lamm. These individuals eventually established the American Reform Party. During this time, Perot himself chose to leave the party to its own devices, concentrating on lobbying efforts through United We Stand America.
According to the Women's League of Voters, Reform candidates obtained more votes nationwide in 1998 than did any other third party in America, even without those garnered by Ventura. Counting Ventura's performance, Reformers took in more votes than all other third parties in the United States combined, establishing the Reform Party as America's third largest party.
This was a particularly impressive feat when one considers that none of Perot's money, influence or organization was involved in any of the candidacies, including Ventura's. The party was operating entirely on its own resources, and had in fact run fewer candidates with less money than the next most-popular party, the Libertarians.
Because of organizational and financial problems in the party, it opted to support the independent campaign of Ralph Nader as the best option for an independent of any stripe that year. While the endorsement generated publicity for Nader and the Reform Party, the party was only able to provide Nader with seven ballot lines down from the 49 of 51 guaranteed ballot lines the party had going into the 2000 election
In early 2005, press releases from the Reform Party indicated that the party was in the process of rebuilding, with appeals for donations, attempts to reconstitute state party affiliates that were lost during the breakaways of such groups as the Independence Party of Minnesota and the America First Party, and the election of new party officials.
In response to a suit filed by the group that met in Tampa, leaders of the Reform Party filed a RICO complaint claiming the Tampa group were extremists and guilty of conspiracy.
A noticeable absence from the Reform Party platform has been what are termed social issues, including abortion and gay rights. Reform Party representatives had long stated beliefs that their party could bring together people from both sides of these issues, which they consider divisive, to address what they considered to be more vital concerns as expressed in their platform. The idea was to form a large coalition of moderates; that intention was overridden in 2001 by the Buchanan takeover which rewrote the RPUSA Constitution to specifically include platform planks opposed to any form of abortion. The Buchananists, in turn, were overridden by the 2002 Convention which specifically reverted the Constitution to its 1996 version and the party's original stated goals.