A Tale of Two Elections

After we had attended a panel discussion to help promote Heather Gautney’s new book, Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement and to analyze the significance of Sander’s 2016 effort, I remarked to friends that it was interesting to compare the very different responses of the Republicans and Democrats to two presidential campaigns that have gone down in history as disasters, those of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. I had intended to write something from scratch about this but when I started my research, I came across a fairly recent article that covers the subject well, so I am going to share excerpts along with some of my own additional information and perspective.

The article, published in The New Republic in February, 2016 is, What the Democrats Still Don’t Get About George McGovern, by Josh Mound, who holds a PhD in history and sociology from the University of Michigan (entire article can be found here: https://newrepublic.com/article/130737/democrats-still-dont-get-george-m...). Mound starts off by recounting something that will ring true for many of us:

For the past 40 years, whenever a Democratic presidential hopeful has given off the slightest whiff of leftish anti-establishmentarianism, party leaders and mainstream pundits have invoked McGovern’s name. In 2004, Howard Dean was the new McGovern. In 2008, Barack Obama became the new McGovern. This year, it’s Bernie Sanders’s turn.

For Mound, Democrats fear of “McGovernism” is misplaced. McGovern didn’t lose because he was too far left but for the following reasons:

1) He was facing a popular incumbent presiding over a booming economy

2) He made a mistake that seriously hurt his campaign

3) He was actively opposed and attacked by powerful constituencies in his own party

Mound contrasts this with the response of the Republicans to Barry Goldwater’s equally stunning defeat in ’64, which he writes, “was, in many ways, a mirror image of McGovern’s defeat at the hands of Nixon eight years later.” Mound continues:

Whereas the Democrats shifted away from McGovernism towards tepid centrism, Republicans ultimately embraced Goldwater’s radical conservatism, paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s eight Goldwater-esque years in the White House. Most importantly, the parties’ divergent responses to sweeping defeat at the ballot box explain a great deal about the state of American politics today, especially the Democrats’ inability to effectively counter either the expanding extremism of the GOP or the increasing economic inequality and persistent racism that Republicans’ Goldwater-tinged radicalism has facilitated.

McGovern and the ’72 campaign deserve a much closer look than some of the myths that have grown up around them. McGovern declared his candidacy in January 1971. According to Mound, by August, Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder gave him scant 200-to-1 odds of securing the Democratic nomination. Heading into the election year, McGovern’s poll numbers sat in the single digits.

As Mound points out, McGovern and his advisers recognized early on that the South’s shift to the Republicans, which began with Goldwater, was here to stay. Their strategy to deal with this was twofold. First, McGovern would “align himself with recent social movements to a degree no previous Democrat had contemplated.” Second, he would woo poor and working-class whites in the North away from the likes of conservative Democrat George Wallace with “a populist pocketbook pitch that foregrounded issues of economic inequality and the political power of the wealthy.”

Like Sanders in 2016, McGovern couldn’t expect help from a lot of the more traditional Democratic Party interest groups and moneymen, so, his response was similar. The McGovern campaign tapped direct mail wizard, Morris Dees to create a mass fundraising campaign from small donors. The result was over 40,000 contributions, averaging less than $30 by February 1972.

As Mound reveals, to the surprise of nearly everyone outside of the McGovern campaign itself, the strategy worked. In confidential memos, the Nixon reelection campaign called the both the Wallace and McGovern efforts “the only two smart campaigns.” McGovern, in particular, worried Nixon’s advisers because his “class appeal” was “pinning the adjective ‘rich’ to Republicans.” McGovern had been “badly underestimated” and was “potentially very dangerous to the President,” the Nixon analysis concluded.

Unfortunately, the McGovern campaign began to falter almost immediately after he had secured the nomination. I’m going to go into a little more detail on this than Mound did because I think it’s important. Most polls showed McGovern running well behind Nixon, except when he was paired with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy but Kennedy refused to accept the VP spot. So, the search began for a Kennedy-like figure to balance the ticket: an urban Catholic with strong ties to organized labor and other working-to-lower middle-class constituencies.

After being turned down by several more high-profile Democrats, McGovern finally settled on Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri after some very minimal vetting. With Eagleton relatively unknown to the convention delegates, the balloting for the vice-presidential slot was chaotic and not completed until 1:40 am. This meant that McGovern and Eagelton weren’t able to give their acceptance speeches until around 3:00 am, in an era before they could be reposted on Facebook and YouTube. Thus, any chance for a post-convention “bounce” was lost. Then, though Eagleton had assured McGovern he had no skeletons in his closet, it soon leaked that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy. After initially supporting Eagleton, McGovern ended up removing him from the ticket, which made him look both incompetent and cruel.

But, as Mound shows, perhaps the deepest damage to McGovern’s campaign came not from its own ineptitude, but from the candidate’s fellow Democrats. Early in the primaries, an adviser for Hubert Humphrey, one of McGovern’s main opponents for the nomination, promised, “We are going to show that McGovern is a radical, just like Goldwater was in 1964.”

Mound continues:

As McGovern barreled toward the nomination, leading Democrats’ attacks became more desperate. Anti-McGovern Democrats staged an “Anybody But McGovern” movement at the convention. When that failed, some pledged that they would not campaign for him and might even support Nixon. A Democrat even handed Republicans their best attack line: “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot,” an unnamed Democratic senator told the press. Hugh Scott, the GOP’s Senate minority leader, transformed the quote into “the three A’s: Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” and a golden political slur was born. (Ironically, the unnamed Democratic senator who had originated the line was none other than Eagleton, though McGovern didn’t know it at the time).

But despite all of this, the most important factor in the 1972 election was probably the condition of the U.S. economy, the popularity of President Nixon and the real and perceived successes of his administration. As Mound points out:

Nixon took any guesswork out of this by encouraging expansive fiscal and monetary policy. When polls showed that the public preferred McGovern on issues like inflation and taxes, Nixon shifted to the left. He took the unprecedented step of instituting wage-price controls to clamp down on inflation and promised to sock it to the rich and slash tax rates on the working class if reelected. “The essence of this is redistribution,” Nixon’s top domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, told an astonished press. On foreign affairs, Nixon could justifiably claim that he was not only winding down the war in Vietnam, but also cooling off the Cold War, thanks to his famous trip to China [and the policy of Détente with the Soviet Union]. The Democrats could have resurrected FDR and Nixon would have trounced him in 1972.

The Republicans seem to be less traumatized by defeat than Democrats. After the 1964 blowout, Goldwater and “Goldwaterism” didn’t become pejoratives. The Republicans allowed space for their conservative wing to have a real voice and nearly nominated Goldwaterite Ronald Reagan for president in 1976. They played a long game, waited for conditions to change, finally got Reagan elected in 1980 and took back the Senate as well in 1982. After another stinging defeat in 2008 that left both the White House and Congress in Democratic hands, Republicans didn’t head for group therapy. Rather, they rapidly formed a plan to take over a majority of state legislatures and governorships in 2010 that would give them the power to redraw state legislative and congressional district lines. This has now created a tough obstacle for the Democrats to overcome in 2018. Rahm Emanuel, an archetypal, neo-liberal, “New Democrat” has said that, “winning is everything.” But in the era of DLC, New Democrat, centrist domination, the party has lost an estimated 1,030 seats in state legislatures, governor’s mansions and Congress as well as the presidency in 2016. If that’s “winning,” maybe it’s time to reexamine history with an eye towards change.

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store