The 1972 Presidential Election: The Changing United States and its Search for a Leader The election of 1972 was one of the largest landslide victories by a presidential candidate in United States history. President Nixon was reelected to the presidency by beating Senator George McGovern of South Dakota in an impressive victory. The Nixon landslide victory tied FDR’s 60. 8 percent of the popular vote in 1936 for the second largest popular vote get in American history. Nixon’s 60. 8 percent of the vote compared to McGovern’s 37.
6 percent, a difference of 23. 2 percent, was also the fourth largest margin of victory in a presidential election in United States History. Nixon not only won with an impressive popular vote margin, but he also won 49 of the 50 states’ electoral votes amounting to 520, while McGovern only received 17 electoral votes. He only won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The Nixon landslide victory cannot necceasarily be attributed to Nixon’s policy beliefs, but there are a number of factors which gave Nixon his impressive win. A possible realignment among the American electorate, McGovern being seen as having few leadership capabilities, along with McGovern’s possible failure to get his political message out to the American electorate, and a divide within the Democratic Party are all possible explanations for the Nixon landslide win.
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With the country at war, and high inflation rates plaguing the economy, the presidential election of 1972 would play a major role in the what direction the American government would move in. The movement started in the presidential primaries of 1972. The democrats were seen to have many possible contenders to go up against the incumbent President Richard Nixon. Going into the New Hampshire Primary in early March, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was seen as the likely contender to face President Nixon in the general election.
Muskie also had some strong opponents for the democratic nomination for president. Hubert Humphrey who lost to Nixon in 1968 was seen as a possible contender, along with Alabama Governor George Wallace, and Senator George McGovern of South Dakota. Muskie’s campaign was crippled when he only won the New Hampshire primary with 47 percent of the vote compared to the 65 percent he was predicted to receive. Followed by bad publicity and his fourth place finish in Florida Muskie began to finish poorly in the remaining primaries.
When McGovern won Massachusetts Muskie halted his campaign. Wallace was still considered a possible contender until an attempt to assassinate him left Wallace paralyzed and he thus withdrew from the campaign. Humphrey and McGovern were the remaining contenders. The California primary was one that left the Democratic Party divided. In debates between Humphrey and McGovern, Humphrey accused McGovern of being too liberal. Although McGovern won California, he won by a narrower margin than expected, which seemed to show that Humphrey’s attacks had taken their toll.
McGovern won most of the remaining primaries and received the democratic nomination for president. Although McGovern received the nomination, a divided Democratic Party may have hurt his campaign early on. The policy issues of the 1972 presidential election were some of the most highly publicized issues of any modern day election. The war in Vietnam was a hotbed of conflicting viewpoints among Americans.
The role government should play in social assistance to the needy was another issue that seemed to capture the attention of many Americans. Not only did these issues weigh on the minds of many Americans, the economic state of the U. S was in a down period. Inflation was extremely high and many Americans were worried about job security. The country was divided about all of these issues and many others. Although it may seem clear to some the positions the two candidates took on these issues, there is evidence that shows that many Americans were not convinced as to which candidate held a issue position closer to their own view.
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McGovern was clearly in favor of immediate withdraw from Vietnam. “I’m fed up with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in,” McGovern said in his print advertising. “The war in Indochina is the greatest military, political, economic, and moral blunder in our nation’s history… .” However, one poll indicates that there were a large number of Americans who believed that Nixon was closer to their position of favoring withdraw from Vietnam. 22 percent of Americans surveyed saw Nixon as closer to their own position of favoring withdraw. Compared to 62 percent of those surveyed saw McGovern as closer to their own position of favoring withdraw.
On the other end of the spectrum there seems to be more clarity amongst Americans on who favored a military victory in Vietnam. 90 percent of those surveyed who favored a military victory saw Nixon as having a similar position, while only 6 percent who favored military victory saw McGovern as having a similar position. Benjamin Page claims that although McGovern was in disagreement with the public on a few dramatic issues, but looking at all the 1971-72 policy questions asked by Gallup, McGovern agreed with a plurality of the public 70 percent of the time. Although McGovern may have held the same issue positions as much of the American electorate, it may be argued that many Americans were not sure what position McGovern held on all the issues.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that there is a reason for the public’s uninformed perception of McGovern’s issue positions is due in part by poor advertising strategy. Jamieson faults McGovern for relying on half hour televised specials to layout his specific proposals. She claims that unlike TV spots that entice the unsuspecting viewer, longer programming tends to attract the true believers. Jamieson also makes the argument that the electorate as a whole was not exposed to McGovern’s vision of the future or to the specific form that vision would take. Voters were more likely to see the specifics of McGovern’s proposals retracted from attack ads by the republicans than in the democrat’s spot advertising. It can possibly be concluded that although McGovern may have held many of the same issue positions as many Americans, that his inability to inform the public about his issue positions may have been a factor in his loss of the election.
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The possibility that McGovern was unable to inform his potential supporters does not mean that Nixon was a victor based solely on the possible failures of McGovern. Nixon’s policy beliefs were shared with many Americans. In polling of four specific policy issues: Vietnam, Aid to Minority Groups, National Economic Maintenance, and Penalties for the Use of Marijuana, President Nixon was seen to share more of the same policy positions in all four categories amongst the people surveyed. In Vietnam policy, Nixon was seen to share the same policy opinion as 56 percent of those surveyed compared to McGovern’s 31 percent. Dealing with aid to minority 45 percent of those surveyed saw Nixon as holding a similar position to theirs, compared to McGovern’s 26 percent. Nixon’s position on economic maintenance was similar to the positions of 53 percent of those surveyed while McGovern only related to 27 percent.
The position Nixon took on penalties for use of marijuana were similar to that of 41 percent of those surveyed, while only 27 of the people surveyed identified McGovern’s position as close to their own. A similar survey done by the Gallup poll reported that 56 percent of Americans believed that Nixon could do a better job dealing with Vietnam than the 26 percent that thought that McGovern could do a better job. Also helping Nixon is the fact that he was the incumbent, most people already knew what he stood for, and they did not have to rely as much on advertising to be informed on Nixon’s positions. This polling data may give the perception that the majority of Americans favored Nixon’s policy beliefs but, as mentioned previously, Gallup polls showed that McGovern agreed with the public 70 percent of the time. Although McGovern may have had the same political beliefs as a majority of Americans, Nixon was seen by the majority of American people to be closer to their opinions. Even though there is evidence that shows that McGovern held similar policy preferences to that of many Americans, the evidence shows the majority of people saw Nixon as holding policy preferences similar to theirs.
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This helps to show that it could quite possibly McGovern’s inability to get his message out to the American electorate that cost him the election. A factor that may have played a larger role than policy issues or advertising in the election was the perception that the American electorate had on the leadership capabilities of each candidate. Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that McGovern and Nixon’s campaign advertising left the American electorate with the feeling that McGovern “feels,” and “Nixon acts.” Knowing that Nixon was not seen as a warm person, Jamieson argues that McGovern tried too hard to seem compassionate, and very well may have compensated his ability to be looked at as a leader. Nixon’s ads were based on the ability of Nixon to look presidential. Ads that talked about his overseas ventures with Russia and China, along with ads that described Nixon as inheriting a mess. The goal of the Nixon camp was to portray Nixon as the President.
Another factor that has been attributed to the perception that McGovern lacked strong leadership abilities was his handling of the situation with his original running mate Thomas Eagleton. Declaring that he was behind Eagleton “1000 percent” followed by Eagleton’s removal from the ticket after discovering Eagleton had a history of mental illness were seen as undermining McGovern’s reputation as a man of candor. After four years of Nixon as President people had a good perception of the leadership capabilities of the president or the lack of, depending on opinion. But McGovern had to rely on advertising and things said and done during the campaign, and as Jamieson argues any leadership capabilities McGovern may have had he did not show through his advertising.
The Thomas Eagleton situation did not help McGovern’s cause to convince the American Electorate that he could be a trusted political leader. An issue that McGovern may have had no control of, given his strong liberal beliefs, is the possibility of a political realignment in the American electorate. One piece of evidence supporting the possibility of a political realignment is an increase in ticket splitting, voting for a republican for one office and a democrat for another. In 1948, only 38 percent of the country split their tickets, in 1960, only 34 percent split tickets, 42 percent split their tickets in 1964, in 1968, 56 percent of the country split tickets, and in 1972, 62 percent of the country split their tickets. More impressive than the national ticket splitting is the huge change in ticket splitting that occurred in the South and in the Northeast. The South went from straight ticket voting 76 percent of the time in 1960, to only voting straight ticket 36 percent of the time in 1972.
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The same type of numbers can be found in the northeastern states. They went from straight ticket voting 77 percent of the time in 1960, to only splitting tickets 40 percent of the time in 1972. Both of these regions have increasingly gone the opposite way of their previous traditions as far as partisan voting is concerned. The South voted more democratic than the national democratic vote in every election between 1932 and 1960 (+19% in 1932, +15% in 1936, +18% in 1940, +16% in 1944, +3% in 1948, +7% in 1952 and 1956, and +2% in 1960).
However in every election from 1964 until 1972 the South voted less democratic than the national democratic vote (-9% in 1964, -11% in 1968, and -7% in 1972).
The Northeast did the exact opposite. In every election from 1932 to 1956 except 1952 the Northeast voted less democratic than the national democratic vote (-6% in 1932, -2% in 1936, -1% in 1940, -1% in 1944, -2% in 1948, +1% in 1952, and -2% in 1956).
But, from 1960 to 1972 the Northeast has voted more democratic than the national democratic vote (+4% in 1960, +7% in 1964 and 1968, and +5% in 1972).
Another figure that may show a possible realignment in the South is the change in partisan identification. The South was nearly 80 percent democratic in 1936 and 1940, but slowly dropped to the lower 70 percents between 1944 and 1952, then dropped to the high 50 percents between 1956 and 1964. Then in 1972 the percent of Southerners identifying themselves with Democratic Party dropped to a 36 year low of 45 percent. There are many possible explanations for the large decrease in democratic voting in the South and the slight increase in democratic voting in the Northeast.
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The large civil rights movement in the South, seen as a liberal movement, may have caused many white voters to change alliances with the more conservative Republican Party. The growing urbanization of the Northeast, and the growth in minority population may have led to a somewhat stronger democratic support at the beginning of the 60’s and into the 70’s. The growth of ticket splitting in the South and the decrease in Democratic Party identifiers in the South along with an increase in democratic support in the Northeast may be seen as a possible realignment for each of those two regions. The increasing loss of democratic support in the South may be another reason that led to the landslide victory by Nixon. Senator George McGovern went in to the year of 1972 with a chance of winning the presidency of the United States. However, with a divided Democratic Party early in the campaign, McGovern went into the general election with a handicap.
Whether or not the division of support from the democratic effected McGovern’s chance to win the election can be argued, but no one will disagree that having the full support of his party would have hurt his chances. The failure of McGovern to turn potential supporters into actual supporters may have been his largest mistake. With a large portion of the electorate sharing similar views, McGovern should have been able to do somewhat better in the general election. A possible change in the mood of the South towards conservatism may have prevented McGovern from having any chance of winning being as liberal as he was presented to be.
Whether McGovern ran a poor campaign, or was too liberal, one thing is for sure President Nixon received one of the most impressive vote totals in the history of the United States. 6 a 3 Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Packaging the Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Ladd, Everett Carll Jr. and Seymour Martin Lip set. Academics, Politics, and the 1972 Presidential Election. Washington D. C. : American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1973.
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and Teresa E. Levit in. Leadership & Change. Cambridge, Mass. : Winthrop Publishers, Inc. , 1976.
Page, Benjamin I. Choices and Echoes in Presidential Elections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. Presidential Elections: 1972 Electoral Votes.
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