George McGovern and the 1972 election

The death of George McGovern has got people thinking again about the 1972 presidential election. In Salon, Joan Walsh gives what might be called the extreme “journalistic” view of that contest:

In 1972 the populist war hero was destroyed by Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks and Democrats’ self-destructive fear . . . Protracted floor-fighting over the new rules pushed McGovern’s moving acceptance speech, “Come Home, America,” into the wee small hours when no one was watching. . . . The ’72 convention was another debacle for the Democrats, less bloody than Chicago ’68 but arguably no less damaging. . . . Once McGovern had the nomination, Nixon obsessed over defeating him. . . . It worked. . . .

A completely different, “political science,” take on the election is summarized by this redrawing of Doug Hibbs’s famous graph:


With the economy booming in 1972 and the U.S. mostly out of the Vietnam war, Nixon was set to win. McGovern’s position on the left of the party could well have cost him a couple percentage points of the vote, and Nixon’s aggressive campaign (notoriously fueled by millions of dollars in secret campaign contributions) could well account for another couple of percentage points. But it’s hard to imagine any Democrat in 1972 could’ve won.

David Rosenbaum in the New York Times gives this quotation from Theodore White: “Richard M. Nixon convinced the Americans, by more than 3 to 2, that he could use power better than George McGovern.” That’s about right, although in that economy we can (retrospectively) say that Americans didn’t need much convincing on this point.

If Nixon had realized he was such a shoo-in, he could’ve relaxed. No fear of losing (in the words of J. Anthony Lukas), no Watergate.

But I say this retrospectively. Political journalist Joan Walsh in 2012 should be aware of the Hibbs idea (“it’s the economy”), if only to dismiss it (she could, for example, point to the data point just below 1972 on the above graph, where Hubert Humphrey couldn’t pull off a win in 1968, despite the strong economy that year). But we could hardly expect Richard Nixon to be familiar with the idea back in 1972. For one thing, Hibbs had not written his paper, and the above graph was missing most of its points. The 1972 election is one of the pieces of evidence that leads us to believe that the economy is crucial in determining presidential election outcomes.

So let’s place ourselves back in 1972, The following is speculation, and I’d be happy to be corrected by any historians in the audience. Here’s my take on it. As of 1971, say, the Democrats were still viewed as the natural party of government. In addition to controlling a solid majority in both houses of Congress, the Democrats had won lots of presidential elections, with the exceptions seeming to be just that—-exceptions. In 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower was a war hero and the country was exhausted after 20 years of Democratic rule. In 1968, Nixon was elected as a minority winner with a narrow plurality in a three-candidate race. It was natural to think that, without some extreme effort, the Democrats would bounce back to power. In retrospect and with Hibbs-colored glasses, it seems very natural that Nixon was elected in 1972: an incumbent president in a booming economy, that’s a slam dunk. But from the perspective of 1971, it all looks different.

7 Responses to George McGovern and the 1972 election

  1. Aidan October 22, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Nixon was certainly aware of the importance of economic conditions. He was convinced that the Fed’s monetary tightening cost him the 1960 election (he blamed Chairman William McChesney Martin Jr. in his book Six Crises), and he demanded that Arthur Burns engage in massive easing in the run up to the 1972 election. Nixon’s people planted negative stories about Burns and threatened to dilute his authority unless he agreed.

  2. Phil October 22, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    Aidan makes a good point. Also, Nixon’s approval rating in late 1971/early 1972 wasn’t particularly strong. According to Gallup, it was only 49% in January 1972. The trips to China (February) and Moscow (May) helped bump that up. Finally, it wasn’t clear whether or not George Wallace would run again as an independent. Nixon, probably correctly, figured that an independent Wallace candidacy would steal most of its votes from him, make it much more difficult for him to win against even a weak Democratic candidate. It wasn’t until Wallace was shot in May that the possibility of third-party candidacy went away.

  3. will October 22, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    The economy, from that chart, was not determinative in 1968. In fact if Wallace had not been in the race the result almost surely would have been a larger victory for Nixon. The only explanation was, well, something like the standard journalistic narrative of 1968 (although said narrative doesn’t explain why the left didn’t desert Humphrey en masse to some third party…). 1972 was similarly dominated by the war and social issues, so why would it be any different? I’m sure it helped Nixon, I just find the “1972 was just like 1984” explanation much less plausible than “even many Democratic voters saw McGovern as a dirty hippie, or at least a naive idealistic incompetent”. Is it really plausible that Muskie would have lost by a similar margin, or (like McGovern) lose traditional Democratic strongholds and have no advantage with the working class? 20 point margins can’t happen without crossover votes from partisans, and that can’t happen without a good reason. In 1984 the economy was such a reason–but 1984 was not only a good year but one which occured in the context of a slew of bad ones, high inflation as well as high unemployment. I don’t think the end of the 1971 recession would be quite as big a deal. McGovern’s problem was not just perceived ideologically extremism but also not being fully endorsed by prominent people within the Democratic coalition–even if political scientists discount the former surely the latter is a big deal. I have trouble believing that Rockefeller-Johnson would have been similar to Goldwater-Johnson for similar reasons. And if I’m right that 1964 and 1972 are rather fluke-y data points, where objectively awful candidates just happened to coincide with great economic performance by the incumbent party, they are making economically deterministic models look much better than they really are.

    Also, the swings between McGovern 1972 and Carter 1976 don’t make sense based on the economy alone, especially in the south. There were lots of clear deviations from uniform swing in the 1960s and 1970s, with the party coalitions in severe flux.

    • will October 22, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      also, note that 1956 supports the economic correlation but 1952 does not. And both elections were extremely similar, with Eisenhower being the common factor as someone who attracted an unusual degree of crossover voting. (Though I could believe that the effects of a strong economy in ’56 offset Truman’s ’52 unpopularity no longer being a factor).

  4. LFC October 22, 2012 at 7:06 pm #

    “…the US mostly out of the Vietnam War…”

    Not really. Kissinger/Nixon were pursuing ‘Vietnamization’ (i.e. withdrawing US ground forces) but substituting air power (incl the secret, illegal bombing of Cambodia and Dec. 72 bombing of N Vietnam). The Kissinger-Tho agreement wasn’t announced till Jan 1 ’73. Kissinger’s statement during the election that peace was at hand was premature. The Vietnam war was a very live issue during the 72 campaign, indeed the main motivation for McGovern’s candidacy.

  5. Don Green October 22, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    What is “weighted income growth” for the Obama vs. Romney contest?

  6. Tommy the Brit October 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm #

    George McGovern was the type of elder statesman that every party loves to have among the ranks; fondly remembered by many but never actually elected to have caused any real havoc. Was George McGovern the President the world missed out on, or a dangerous liberal trounced by that stalwart of the Republican movement Richard Nixon? Either way – his death marks the end of the ‘Liberal Left’ within the Democrats: