In 1968, Richard Nixon used the recent social and political chaos to win the presidency with only 43.4% of the popular vote. Four years later, he hoped to win in a landslide. Could the Democrats’ new primary system produce a suitable opponent? Was the vice presidential choice the most important factor??
The Last Four Years
Unlike his Democratic predecessors, Nixon did not have party control of Congress to enact his agenda. This produced more progressive domestic legislation than you might expect. Nixon signed into existence the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and numerous environmental regulations. He increased Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He also created the Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provided needs-based income for the elderly and disabled.
As the post-WWII economic boom finally started to wear off, the US entered a period of high inflation, referred to as “stagflation.” Initially, Nixon relied on monetary restraint, known as “gradualism,” to cool down what his administration considered to be an overheating economy. As its name suggests, gradualism proved to be a slow solution and left room for rising unemployment. Following a Camp David meeting with economic advisors in August, 1971, Nixon reversed course with the “New Economic Plan.” This included a series of aggressive policies such as price freezes, tax cuts, increased import tax, and a pause on the ability for other nations to exchange US dollars for gold (known as the “Gold Window”). Luckily, Nixon benefitted from an economic boom just as the 1972 campaign season began.
Nixon’s true passion was foreign policy. Although he first gained fame in Congress for his extreme anti-Communist views, as president, Nixon worked hard to ease Cold War tensions through a process known as Détente. He worked closely with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, more so than even his Secretaries of State and Defense. As border disputes soured the relationship between the USSR and China, Nixon sensed an opportunity. He made small efforts to show his openness to China, such as referring to the country by its proper name, the People’s Republic of China. In 1971, Chinese leader Mao Zedong invited the American table tennis team to participate in exhibition matches in China. A year later, Nixon himself visited Beijing. The highly televised event was a huge step forward in normalizing relations. Many joked that “only Nixon could go to China,” because no one could accuse him of being a secret Communist. His strategy of “triangulation” worked to reduce tensions with the USSR, as well. Nixon became the first president to visit Moscow and the two countries signed a strategic arms treaty.
Of course, Nixon’s biggest challenge was Vietnam. He hoped that improved relations with Russia and China would convince the North Vietnamese to reach a settlement, but had no luck. Publicly, his strategy was “Vietnamization,” or the process of training and arming South Vietnam to take on more responsibilities and allow for US troop withdrawal. In reality, Kissinger was conducting secret negotiations with the North. Though he did not actually intend to use nuclear weapons, Nixon intentionally acted like an irrational madman to scare the Communists. He demanded progress or he would “take measures of the greatest consequences.” While the public believed that the war was deescalating, Nixon actually expanded the war to nearby Cambodia with bombing campaigns aimed at enemy supply lines. After a coup, in which the neutral Cambodian leader was replaced with a pro-American substitute, Nixon ordered a temporary invasion of the country (or incursion, as he called it), to provide stability. This led to a spike in anti-war protests and violence. The most infamous demonstration occurred at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, where four students were murdered by the National Guard. Nixon considered ending the war in 1971, but Kissinger convinced him to push another year, so that any negative results would not be felt until after the election. In March, however, another Communist offensive forced Nixon to get aggressive, approving the use of mines and bombs. Though a peace agreement seemed close in October, the South failed to approve it over territorial disputes.
The Vietnam War continued to be the most divisive issue on Americans’ minds. None of Nixon’s efforts seemed to weaken North Vietnamese resolve. Most voters, however, where happy enough to see US troops coming home in greater numbers. Although some politicians were critical of his détente strategy, it was hard to deny that Nixon’s foreign policy expertise was producing results in the Cold War.
To avoid chaos like they experienced in 1968, the Democratic National Committee appointed a commission to improve the nomination process. The McGovern Commission, named after South Dakota Senator George McGovern, recommended placing more importance on state primaries. This gave more power to young activists, women, and African Americans over the usual party bosses. Though the rule changes were intended for the Democratic Party, specifically, Republicans adopted roughly the same system, and thus, the primary system entered the modern era!
Democrats were torn on how to respond to Nixon. An unprecedented number of candidates entered the primary. This included the first female African American candidate, New York Representative Shirley Chisholm, and the first Asian American candidate, Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink. The initial frontrunner was the youngest Kennedy son, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. At this point, however, Ted was mostly seen as a stand-in for his brothers, whose untimely deaths cut their careers short. His reputation was also in question due to suspicious car crash in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, that resulted in the death of his passenger, a former secretary of Robert. He announced early that he would not seek the nomination. Next up was Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the vice-presidential pick four years prior. His campaign stopped short in New Hampshire, thanks to a forged letter (later revealed to be the work of the Nixon campaign). The author claimed that Muskie and his staff referred to French-Canadians, a common ancestry in New Hampshire, as Canucks, an offensive word at the time. The letter also implicated Muskie’s wife in the use of offensive language. Muskie defended their reputation in an emotional speech. Journalists claimed that Muskie even cried, though he later claimed the tears were actually snowflakes on his cheeks. Even though the letter was fake, Muskie’s response made him appear weak and he quickly lost support. 1968 presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey also attempted another run, but lost momentum after losing California. Another 1968 candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, returned to the Democratic Party for his next attempt. On May 15, however, he was shot at a campaign event. Wallace survived the assassination attempt, but was paralyzed from the waist down. He subsequently withdrew from consideration.
All of this uncertainty left the Democratic nomination open for dark horse candidate George McGovern. In addition to lending his name to the commission that made his candidacy possible, McGovern was a WWII veteran and served as a minor official in the Kennedy Administration. His main issue was Vietnam, and he made it clear that his first action would be to bring the troops home. He quickly became the spokesman of the anti-war and social justice movements. McGovern intentionally used the new primary rules to mobilize his young, anti-war base in hopes that the momentum would persuade party regulars to back him, too. Establishment Democrats resisted his pull. The threat of “amnesty, abortion, and acid” became a rallying cry of the stop-McGovern movement. But McGovern won enough states to secure the nomination on the first ballot of the convention. His supporters’ proposed platform continued to scare moderates. They called for immediate withdrawal of troops, amnesty for draft dodgers, busing to achieve racial integration in schools, abolishment of capital punishment, a ban on the sale of handguns, and a guaranteed minimum income. Most shocking of all, their platform declared, “Americans should be free to make their own choices of lifestyles and private habits without being subject to discrimination or prosecution.” The convention was full of young, radical activists. Television viewers got the impression that McGovern was the candidate of hippies, aggressive women, elitist college students, and militant blacks. In his acceptance speech, McGovern attempted to clarify that he was more moderate than he appeared. Unfortunately, the convention ran long and his speech was not delivered until 3:00AM, completely missing prime time.
McGovern’s pick for running mate, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, also easily won on the first ballot. He seemed like the perfect pick: a Catholic liberal from a border state with strong support from labor. But his addition to the ticket did not goes as planned. Reporters quickly revealed that Eagleton had previously suffered from severe depression, which required hospitalization and electro-shock therapy. Many called for him to be removed from the ticket. McGovern, instead, declared that he was behind Eagleton “one-thousand percent.” As the pressure increase, however, McGovern backed down and eventually dropped Eagleton. The campaign struggled to find a replacement, as no one wanted to be seen as the second choice of a doomed campaign. Finally, they landed Sargent Shriver, the former Peace Corps Director, Ambassador to France, and son-in-law to the Kennedys. Though he would surely have faced criticism either way, McGovern’s flip-flopping gave the impression that he could not make tough decisions. After this election, campaigns adopted an extreme vetting process for selecting running mates.
Like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon saw his opponent’s inability to unite his party as an opportunity for a landslide. He wanted to present himself as an expert on foreign affairs, and the candidate most likely to bring peace to Vietnam. He used his trips to Beijing and Moscow to showcase his position as a world leader. He had two major primary challengers. From his left, there was anti-war liberal Pete McCloskey, a representative from California; from his right, anti-détente conservative John Ashbrook, a representative from ohio. The challengers stood no chance against the incumbent president, who easily won re-nomination at the convention. Vice President Spiro Agnew also remained on the ticket. Nixon considered replacing him, but determined that his connection to Southern conservatives was too important. The Republican platform charged that the Democratic Party had been overtaken by radicals.
Without George Wallace, the segregationist American Independent Party struggled to remain relevant. They selected California Representative John Schmitz as their nominee. New to the process was the Libertarian Party! They ran John Hospers, a political activist and friend of Ayn Rand. He was only officially on the ballot in Colorado and Washington.
Nixon regarded McGovern as an extreme leftist. He authorized the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP, or disparagingly, CREEP) to do whatever was necessary to discredit the candidate. CREEP raised funds separately from the Republican National Committee and was responsible for most of the questionable tactics of the campaign. For his part, Nixon ran what he called “the most restrained campaign of his career.” He focused on winning swing states and anti-McGovern Democrats, at the expense of down-ballot Republicans. Later in the year, he became more aggressive and attacked McGovern’s foreign policy as dangerous. Nixon supporters portrayed McGovern as impractical and indecisive. Nixon solidified his lead by announcing that he would end the military draft and shift to an all-volunteer army.
McGovern struggled throughout the campaign. He did not have the resources to fend off Nixon’s attacks. He was behind in polls from the beginning, in almost all demographics. Some unions, like the AFL-CIO, didn’t even endorse him. Although he was backed by former President Johnson, many Democratic leaders chose to stay on the sidelines. McGovern emphasized his position as an anti-interventionist. He asked the American people to “turn away from excessive preoccupation overseas to rebuilding our own nation.” He repeatedly used the slogan, “Come home, America.” McGovern struggled to communicate his actual moderate positions. He didn’t back full legalization of marijuana, but supported decriminalization; he didn’t want to expand abortion rights, but said the federal government shouldn’t interfere with state laws; he supported amnesty, but only after the war was over, and on a case-by-case basis. At a rally in Battle Creek, Michigan, McGovern lost his cool while being heckled by a Nixon supporter. He leaned over and whispered, “Listen, you son of a bitch, why don’t you kiss my ass?” The heckler happily repeated this message to reporters. “KMA” buttons soon began appearing at McGovern rallies.
On June 17, 1972, CREEP used campaign money to pay burglars to break into the Democratic campaign headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. Their goal was to take pictures of campaign documents and to wiretap phones. They were caught when a security guard found tape on the latches of the door. McGovern attempted to make this suspicious activity a campaign issue, but he just seemed desperate. Most Americans felt like both parties were guilty of playing dirty from time to time.
Republican domination. Nixon won every state besides Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia). Thanks to the 26th Amendment, 18-20 year-olds were finally allowed to vote! McGovern relied heavily on youth support, but less than half of these new voters took advantage of their new rights. Those that did, were split between the two candidates. Also in this cycle, California surpassed New York as the state with the most electors, per the 1970 census. One faithless elector in Virginia voted for the Libertarian candidate. It was the last time an elector voted for someone other than a Republican or Democrat until 2016.
Richard Nixon won a second term! The electoral results were 520-17, a margin second only to Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. Nixon won the popular vote by 18 million, the widest margin of all time. With 60.7%, he was just behind the records set by Lyndon Johnson (61.1%) and Franklin Roosevelt (60.8%). Despite this enormous landslide, Democrats remained in control of Congress yet again!
What Did It Say About America?
The most obvious comparison for McGovern is Barry Goldwater in 1964. Both were candidates from the fringes of their parties that alienated moderates and allowed for a huge incumbent victory. Personally, I think that’s unfair. McGovern was calling for an end to one of the most unpopular and unethical wars in American history. Goldwater wanted to introduce nukes to the conflict. But, that’s not how the American public saw things in 1972. Nixon was really, really popular. This election was a soft-ball. No reason to do anything risky!
Was It The Right Decision?
Hell no! Don’t forget to read my Impeachment Extravaganza to get the details on Nixon’s downfall. Nixon was a bad guy, but as far as the average American was concerned, things were going alright. McGovern stood for a lot of progressive issues that would become much more normalized in the future. I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet, but your kids are gonna love it.