George McGovern lost 49 states in 1972, but it was a weird year.
Photo: Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images
One of the most persistent arguments surrounding the 2020 presidential contest is that Democrats are heading “off the deep end” on a left-wing ideological bender that will mean disaster in the general election. The warning is very often associated with the specter of 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who lost 49 states four years after Hubert Humphrey lost by an eyelash and four years before Jimmy Carter won the presidency. The obsession with the idea that 1972 may repeat itself is a bipartisan phenomenon. Some McGovern Redux takes are from conservatives who are simply promoting the perennial claim that Democrats have become an anti-American cabal of baby-killing hippie socialists with a fresh urgency given the current extremism of the GOP. And some of these takes are (and have been for many years) from self-styled moderate Democrats grinding axes against self-consciously progressive aspirants to the presidential nomination.
Sometimes the latter includes a separate grievance against McGovernism beyond ideological extremism: divisiveness. A good example of this argument was recently provided by former Clinton and Obama staffer, “moderate” congressman, and former mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, as quoted by Todd Purdum:
Rahm Emanuel, the former Clinton adviser and Obama chief of staff, told me he likens the current environment to the period following 1968, when Lyndon B. Johnson was succeeded by Richard Nixon, in a right-wing victory that exploited and exacerbated deep internal divisions in the Democratic Party, just as Trump’s ascendance has. Emanuel acknowledged that Johnson’s war in Vietnam makes the analogy imperfect — “unless you think the surge in Afghanistan counts as that, and I don’t” — but added, “We have seen this movie before.”
“Here’s the thing,” Emanuel told me. “Today’s progressives are more angry at Clinton and Obama than they are at Bush 43. Whether it’s Clinton’s ‘small ideas’ and welfare reform, or Obama’s Affordable Care Act without a public option — those are the things where they feel like there were missed moments for big, bold ideas. Really? And that’s what drives the energy. Yes, they’re angry at Trump. Yes, they’re angry at Bush. But a lot of the energy is directed at the fact that they don’t love those two presidents — which I’d remind everybody are the only two Democrats to get reelected since Franklin Roosevelt.”
Embedded in this complaint is the idea that McGovern represented a revolt against the long line of successful Democratic presidents from FDR through LBJ, dividing the Democratic electorate and handing victory to Nixon. Today’s progressives, the thinking goes, are McGovernesque because they, too, are more interested in a hostile takeover of the party than in winning the general election.
As a 1972 McGovern precinct chairman, and much later as a professional card-carrying Democratic centrist, I’m familiar with both sides of these ancient arguments. A fresh examination of the evidence, however, should pretty much put to rest the idea that McGovern and his supporters guaranteed a disastrous defeat that might otherwise have been a victory by “moving too far to the left” and by challenging Democratic orthodoxy.
Here are a few relevant points:
The real disaster for Democrats wasn’t in 1972 under the lefty McGovern; it was in 1968 under the consummate New Dealer Hubert Humphrey, when the Democratic share of the popular vote dropped from 61.1 percent (under LBJ in 1964) to 42.7 percent. What happened? The civil-rights revolution happened, and the southern (and southern-adjacent) wing of the party made their exit, only returning (briefly) for native son Jimmy Carter, as I noted in 2012 when McGovern died:
McGovern took the blame for the first and most dramatic election in which the collapse of the New Deal Coalition became fully manifest. Humphrey’s near-win in 1968 distracted attention from the fact that he won the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any major-party candidate since Alf Landon. In 1976 Jimmy Carter disguised the structural trends by winning the South and southern-inflected voters in border states and the midwest–voters who, by and large (aside from the Deep South regional loyalists who stayed with Carter in 1980), weren’t going to vote Democratic in a presidential election again. When Fritz Mondale got blown out in 1984, it represented the fourth time in five cycles that the Democratic candidate won less than 43% of the popular vote nationally. Yet this era of defeat is very often associated with McGovern alone.
Mondale, by the way, was no lefty, but rather the favorite candidate of the Democratic Establishment, as opposed to his primary rival, Gary Hart, who had been McGovern’s 1972 campaign manager. More importantly, it is often forgotten that Nixon’s big 1972 landslide was mostly accomplished by appropriating George Wallace’s southern-based 1968 third-party vote, which Carter largely flipped back to the Democrats in 1976 after being endorsed for the general election by Wallace and virtually every other southern racist (along, remarkably, with every civil rights activist). As Carter’s regional religious appeal faded, Democrats fell back on the minority of the electorate that had regularly supported them after 1964.
For the most part, George McGovern was a standard-brand Democrat of his era who understood that his narrow path to the 1972 Democratic nomination required becoming the favorite of antiwar activists (who knew him well as the placeholder for Bobby Kennedy delegates at the 1968 Democratic convention after RFK’s death). But by 1972, McGovern’s Democratic rivals (with the exception of Scoop Jackson) had mostly turned against the Vietnam War as well.
McGovern was no pacifist (he had, after all, been a World War II bomber pilot), and his tentative support for an amnesty for draft evaders just anticipated Jimmy Carter’s (and to some extent even Gerald Ford’s) actual policy by a few years. The closest he came to a “socialist” domestic policy proposal was a famous $1,000-a-person Universal Basic Income proposal, which he abandoned during the course of the general-election campaign. Aside from anticipating Andrew Yang by nearly a half-century, it was pretty close to the Family Assistance Plan that Richard Nixon himself had earlier endorsed.
The ex post facto mythology of the McGovern campaign represented it as a takeover by a wild-eyed bunch of radicals determined to purge the Democratic Party of the “Establishment” elements (including the labor movement) that had sustained it for so long. As noted above, the white southern wing of the party had already seceded (at the presidential level, anyway). Also as noted above, McGovern and his supporters weren’t repudiating LBJ’s War in Vietnam; by then it was definitely Nixon’s War.
What did happen was a widespread abandonment of the Democratic presidential nominee, led by a labor movement (or at least by the leadership of the AFL-CIO) that was still loyal to Johnson and Humphrey and didn’t feel its interests would be particularly compromised if Nixon won reelection. Political historian Rick Perlstein reminds us that McGovern wasn’t the aggressor in intraparty strife:
Humphrey himself, backed by [AFL-CIO president George] Meany, ran a stupendously vicious primary campaign against McGovern in the late innings. Edmund Muskie, Scoop Jackson, and Humphrey even cast aspersions against McGovern on “Meet the Press” segments during the convention. Others were more casual — like the Catholic Missouri senator, one of the few up and comers associated with the regulars’ old order, who gave a blind quote to Evans and Novak at the height of the primary season, when McGovern looked to be clinching the nomination: “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot. Once Middle America — Catholic Middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead.”
Part of the reason Democrats indulged themselves in dumping McGovern is that this was (in sharp contrast to today) an era of heavy, heavy ticket-splitting. Democrats actually made a net gain of two Senate seats in 1972. They won Senate races in Alabama (where McGovern won 26 percent of the presidential vote); Arkansas (McGovern: 31 percent); Georgia (McGovern: 25 percent); Louisiana (McGovern: 28 percent) and Mississippi (McGovern: 20 percent). In 2016, not a single state elected a senator who was not from the party of the candidate who carried it in the presidential election. If they can just stop calling each other unelectable (and again, that’s mostly centrists calling progressives that), 2020 Democrats should be — and better be — united.
The criticisms of McGovern that are most justified had little to do with his ideology: He ran an amateurish general-election campaign, punctuated and exemplified by his sloppy vice-presidential election process that led to the selection and then the dismissal of running mate Tom Eagleton (the Missouri senator, by the way, who dissed McGovern in Perlstein’s account). Another really bad sign was McGovern’s delivery of his nomination acceptance speech (perhaps his best speech of the entire campaign) at 2:48 a.m. Eastern Time. The contrast with Nixon’s highly regimented 1972 Republican convention was astonishing, which leads to perhaps the most important distinction of them all between 1972 and 2020.
Perceptions of McGovern’s 1972 opponent have been heavily influenced by Nixon’s subsequent disgrace and resignation from office. But in 1972 itself, Nixon was brilliant, in a devious, unprincipled sort of way. He had already defied conservative orthodoxy by imposing wage and price controls (1971) and visiting the previously forbidden kingdom of the People’s Republic of China (a maneuver so audacious that Nixon-to-China became a general term for politicians going sharply against type).
Nixon’s campaign relentlessly appealed to Democratic constituencies, especially labor (the AFL-CIO was neutral in a presidential general election for the first time ever), southern white voters (a Democrats-for-Nixon organization was headed by LBJ crony John Connally), and Catholics. He falsely promised imminent peace in Vietnam and used fiscal stimulus to pump up the economy (helping to create later inflation that would bedevil his successors). He gave every appearance of being a very successful president, successfully disguising the moral rot within his White House. His job-approval ratings in 1972 breached 60 percent in May and were at 62 percent on Election Day. Trump has never been within hailing distance of this sort of popularity, and has never shown any interest, much less ability, in appealing beyond his electoral base.
The more you look at him, the more George McGovern is an unfairly maligned figure of Democratic failure, whose actual failures are not relevant to any 2020 nominee of his party. Yes, many baby-boomer Democrats will always be haunted by Election Night 1972, when their ancient enemy Tricky Dick won New York, California, Michigan, and McGovern’s own South Dakota — just as millennial Democrats will never forget HRC’s shocking 2016 defeat. Neither defeat offers any clear guidance for 2020, truth be told. But 1972 is about as illustrative of what to do or not do as 1928 or maybe the Battle of Agincourt. The best evidence we have is that thanks to extreme partisan polarization exacerbated by the terrifying example of the 45th president, any competent Democrat, whether she or he is a centrist or a progressive — a moderate or a democratic socialist — can beat Trump and can probably lose to him as well if everything goes wrong. If there’s anything about McGovernism to be avoided, it’s simply this: The 2020 Democratic nominee needs a lot more practical campaigning skill and also a bit of the luck that relentlessly eluded the very decent and well-meaning 1972 candidate.