The United States presidential election of 1972, the 47th quadrennial presidential election was held on Tuesday, November 7, 1972. The Democratic Party’s nomination was eventually won by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who ran an anti-war campaign against Republican incumbent President Richard Nixon, but was handicapped by his outsider status, limited support from his own party, the perception of many voters that he was a left-wing extremist and the scandal that resulted from the stepping down of vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton.
Emphasizing a good economy and his successes in foreign affairs, such as coming near to ending American involvement in the Vietnam War and establishing relations with China, Nixon won the election in a landslide. Overall, he won 60.7% of the popular vote, a percentage only slightly lower than Lyndon B. Johnson’s in 1964, but with a larger margin of victory in the popular vote (23.2%), thus becoming the fourth largest in presidential election history. He received almost 18 million more popular votes than McGovern, the widest margin of any United States presidential election. McGovern only won the electoral votes in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. No candidate since has managed to equal or surpass Nixon’s total percentage or margin of the popular vote, and his electoral vote total and percentage, which rank sixth, have been surpassed only once, and his state total matched only once, by Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Also in this election, Democrat Shirley Chisholm became the first African American to run for a major party nomination, and Patsy Mink was the first Asian American candidate to run for the Democratic Party candidacy. It was also the first time that Hawaii was carried by a Republican. Together with the House and Senate elections of 1972, it was the first electoral event in which people aged 18 to 20 could vote in every state, according to the provisions of the 26th Amendment. It was also the first election in which California had the most votes in the electoral college and it has remained the most populous state since then.
Furthermore, the presidential term of 1973–1977 is notable for being the only one in American history in which both the original President and Vice President fail to complete the term. Vice President Spiro Agnew, who resigned less than a year after the election over allegations that he had accepted bribes as Governor of Maryland, was replaced by Gerald Ford under the terms of the 25th Amendment, while Nixon would resign due to the Watergate Scandal in August 1974. Ultimately, the 1973–77 term would see two different Presidents and three different Vice Presidents. As of 2017, the 1972 election was the last one where the winning candidate did not serve their full term of office.
Senate Majority Whip Ted Kennedy, the youngest brother of late President John F. Kennedy and late United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was the favorite to win the 1972 nomination, but he announced he would not be a candidate. The favorite for the Democratic nomination then became Senator Ed Muskie, the 1968 vice-presidential nominee. Muskie’s momentum collapsed just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when the so-called "Canuck letter" was published in the Manchester Union-Leader. The letter, actually a forgery from Nixon’s “dirty tricks”unit, claimed that Muskie had made disparaging remarks about French-Canadians – a remark likely to injure Muskie’s support among the French-American population in northern New England. Subsequently, the paper published an attack on the character of Muskie’s wife Jane, reporting that she drank and used off-color language during the campaign. Muskie made an emotional defense of his wife in a speech outside the newspaper’s offices during a snowstorm. Though Muskie later stated that what had appeared to the press as tears were actually melted snowflakes, the press reported that Muskie broke down and cried, shattering the candidate’s image as calm and reasoned.
Nearly two years before the election, South Dakota Senator George McGovern entered the race as an anti-war, progressive candidate. McGovern was able to pull together support from the anti-war movement and other grassroots support to win the nomination in a primary system he had played a significant part in designing.
On January 25, 1972, New York Representative Shirley Chisholm announced she would run, and became the first African-American woman to run for the Democratic or Republican presidential nomination. Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink also announced she would run and became the first Asian American to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On April 25, George McGovern won the Massachusetts primary. Two days later, journalist Robert Novak quoted a “Democratic senator” later revealed to be Thomas Eagleton as saying: “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.” The label stuck and McGovern became known as the candidate of "amnesty, abortion, and acid." It became Humphrey’s battle cry to stop McGovern—especially in the Nebraska primary.
Alabama Governor George Wallace, an anti-integrationist, did well in the South (he won every county in the Florida primary) and among alienated and dissatisfied voters in the North. What might have become a forceful campaign was cut short when Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer on May 15. Wallace was struck by five bullets and left paralyzed from the waist down. The day after the assassination attempt, Wallace won the Michigan and Maryland primaries, but the shooting effectively ended his campaign and he pulled out in July.
In the end, McGovern won the nomination by winning primaries through grassroots support in spite of establishment opposition. McGovern had led a commission to re-design the Democratic nomination system after the divisive nomination struggle and convention of 1968. The fundamental principle of the McGovern Commission—that the Democratic primaries should determine the winner of the Democratic nomination—have lasted throughout every subsequent nomination contest. However, the new rules angered many prominent Democrats whose influence was marginalized, and those politicians refused to support McGovern’s campaign (some even supporting Nixon instead), leaving the McGovern campaign at a significant disadvantage in funding compared to Nixon.
Primaries popular vote results:
Henry M. Jackson
With hundreds of delegates displeased with McGovern, the vote was chaotic, with at least three other candidates having their names put into nomination and votes scattered over 70 candidates. The eventual winner was Senator Thomas Eagleton from Missouri.
The vice-presidential balloting went on so long that McGovern and Eagleton were forced to begin making their acceptance speeches at around 2 am, local time.
After the convention ended, it was discovered that Eagleton had undergone psychiatric electroshock therapy for depression and had concealed this information from McGovern. A Time magazine poll taken at the time found that 77 percent of the respondents said “Eagleton’s medical record would not affect their vote.” Nonetheless, the press made frequent references to his "shock therapy," and McGovern feared that this would detract from his campaign platform. McGovern subsequently consulted confidentially with preeminent psychiatrists, including Eagleton’s own doctors, who advised him that a recurrence of Eagleton's depression was possible and could endanger the country should Eagleton become president. McGovern had initially claimed that he would back Eagleton "1000 percent," only to ask Eagleton to withdraw three days later. This perceived lack of conviction in sticking with his running mate was disastrous for the McGovern campaign.
McGovern later approached six different prominent Democrats to run for vice-president: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Ribicoff, Larry O'Brien and Reubin Askew. All six declined. Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law to John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy, former Ambassador to France and former Director of the Peace Corps, later accepted. He was officially nominated by a special session of the Democratic National Committee. By this time, McGovern’s poll ratings had plunged from 41 to 24 percent.
Richard Nixon was a popular incumbent president in 1972, as he was credited with achieving détente with the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Polls showed that Nixon held a strong lead in the Republican primaries. He was challenged by two candidates, liberal Pete McCloskey from California and conservative John Ashbrook from Ohio. McCloskey ran as an anti-war candidate, while Ashbrook opposed Nixon’s détente policies towards China and the Soviet Union. In the New Hampshire primary McCloskey garnered 19.8% of the vote to Nixon’s 67.6%, with Ashbrook receiving 9.7%. Nixon won 1323 of the 1324 delegates to the Republican convention, with McCloskey receiving the vote of one delegate from New Mexico. Vice President Spiro Agnew was re-nominated by acclamation; while both the party’s moderate wing and Nixon himself had wanted to replace him with a new running-mate (the moderates favoring Nelson Rockefeller, and Nixon favoring John Connally), it was ultimately concluded that the loss of Agnew’s base of conservative supporters would be too big of a risk.
Primaries popular vote result:
Seven members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War were brought on federal charges for conspiring to disrupt the Republican convention. They were acquitted by a federal jury in Gainesville, Florida.
The only major third party candidate in the 1972 election was conservative Republican Representative John G. Schmitz, who ran on the American Party ticket (the party on whose ballot George Wallace ran in 1968). He was on the ballot in 32 states and received 1,099,482 votes. Unlike Wallace, however, he did not win a majority of votes cast in any state, and received no electoral votes, although he did finish ahead of McGovern in four of the most conservative Idaho counties, becoming the first third-party candidate to finish even second in any free or postbellum state county since William Lemke did so in five North Dakota counties in 1936.
John Hospers of the newly formed Libertarian Party was on the ballot only in Colorado and Washington and received 3,573 votes, winning no states. However, he did receive one electoral vote from Virginia from a Republican faithless elector (see below). The Libertarian vice-presidential nominee Theodora "Tonie" Nathan became the first woman in U.S. history to receive an electoral vote.
Linda Jenness was nominated by the Socialist Workers Party, with Andrew Pulley as her running-mate. Benjamin Spock and Julius Hobson were nominated for president and vice-president, respectively by, the People’s Party.
McGovern ran on a platform of immediately ending the Vietnam War and instituting guaranteed minimum incomes for the nation’s poor. His campaign was harmed by his views during the primaries (which alienated many powerful Democrats), the perception that his foreign policy was too extreme, and the Eagleton debacle. With McGovern’s campaign weakened by these factors, the Republicans successfully portrayed him as a radical left-wing extremist incompetent to serve as president. Nixon led in the polls by large margins throughout the entire campaign. With an enormous fundraising advantage and a comfortable lead in the polls, Nixon concentrated on large rallies and focused speeches to closed, select audiences, leaving much of the retail campaigning to surrogates like Vice President Agnew. Nixon did not, by design, try to extend his coattails to Republican congressional or gubernatorial candidates, preferring to pad his own margin of victory.
Nixon’s percentage of the popular vote was only marginally less than Lyndon Johnson’s record in the 1964 election, and his margin of victory was slightly larger. Nixon won a majority vote in 49 states, including McGovern’s home state of South Dakota. Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia voted for the challenger, resulting in an even more lopsided Electoral College tally. It was the first election since 1808 in which New York did not have the largest number of electors in the Electoral College, having fallen to 41 electors vs. California’s 45.
Although the McGovern campaign believed that its candidate had a better chance of defeating Nixon because of the new Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution that lowered the national voting age to 18 from 21, the plan backfired when most of the youth vote went to Nixon. This was the first election in American history in which a Republican candidate carried every single Southern state, continuing the region’s transformation from a Democratic bastion into a Republican one as Arkansas was carried by a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in a century. By this time, all the Southern states, except Arkansas and Texas, had been carried by a Republican in either the previous election or the one in 1964. As a result of this election, Massachusetts was the only state that Nixon did not carry in any of his three presidential campaigns.
Through 2016 this remains the last election when Minnesota was carried by the Republican candidate. Minnesota was later the only state not won by Ronald Reagan in either 1980 or 1984. It also proved the last occasion that Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island and West Virginia would be won by Republicans until 1984.
McGovern won a mere 130 counties, plus the District of Columbia and three county-equivalents in Alaska, easily the fewest counties won by any major-party presidential nominee since the advent of popular presidential elections. In nineteen states, McGovern failed to carry a single county;[a] he carried a mere one county-equivalent in a further nine states,[b] and just two counties in a further seven.[c] In contrast to Walter Mondale’s narrow 1984 win in Minnesota, McGovern comfortably did win Massachusetts, but lost every other state by no less than five percentage points as well as 45 states by more than ten percentage points – the exceptions being Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and his home state of South Dakota. This election also made Nixon the second former Vice President in American history to serves two terms back-to-back, after Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and 1804. Since McGovern carried only one state, bumper stickers reading “Nixon 49 America 1”, “Don't Blame Me I’m From Massachusetts” and “Massachusetts: The One And Only” were popular for a short time in Massachusetts.
Nixon managed to win eighteen percent of the African American vote. He also remains the only Republican in modern times to threaten the oldest extant Democratic stronghold of South Texas: this is the last election when the Republicans have won Hidalgo or Dimmit Counties, the only time Republicans have won La Salle County since William McKinley in 1900, and one of only two occasions since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904[d] that Republicans have gained a majority in Presidio County. More significantly, the 1972 election is the last time numerous highly populous urban counties – including Cook in Illinois, Hennepin in Minnesota, Durham in North Carolina, Queens in New York and Prince George’s in Maryland – have voted Republican.
|Presidential candidate||Party||Home state||Popular vote||Electoral
|Count||Percentage||Vice-presidential candidate||Home state||Electoral vote|
|Richard Milhous Nixon (Incumbent)||Republican||California||47,168,710||60.67%||520||Spiro Theodore Agnew||Maryland||520|
|George Stanley McGovern||Democratic||South Dakota||29,173,222||37.52%||17||Robert Sargent Shriver||Maryland||17|
|John G. Schmitz||American Independent||California||1,100,868||1.42%||0||Thomas J. Anderson||Tennessee||0|
|Linda Jenness||Socialist Workers||Georgia||83,380[e]||0.11%||0||Andrew Pulley||Illinois||0|
|Benjamin Spock||People's||California||78,759||0.10%||0||Julius Hobson||District of Columbia||0|
|Louis Fisher||Socialist Labor||Illinois||53,814||0.07%||0||Genevieve Gunderson||Minnesota||0|
|Gus Hall||Communist||New York||25,597||0.03%||0||Jarvis Tyner||Pennsylvania||0|
|Evelyn Reed||Socialist Workers||New York||13,878||0.02%||0||Clifton DeBerry||Illinois||0|
|E. Harold Munn||Prohibition||Michigan||13,497||0.02%||0||Marshall Uncapher||Kansas||0|
|John G. Hospers||Libertarian||California||3,674||0.00%||1[f]||Theodora Nathan||Oregon||1[f]|
|John Mahalchik||America First||New Jersey||1,743||0.00%||0||Irv Homer||Pennsylvania||0|
|Needed to win||270||270|
Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. "1972 Presidential Election Results". Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved August 7, 2005. Source (Electoral Vote): "Electoral College Box Scores 1789–1996". National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved August 7, 2005. Source (Close States): Leip, David "How close were U.S. Presidential Elections?", Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved: January 24, 2013.
|States/districts won by Nixon/Agnew|
|States/districts won by McGovern/Shriver|
States where margin of victory was more than 5 percentage points, but less than 10 percentage points (43 electoral votes):
On June 17, 1972, five months before election day, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C.; the resulting investigation led to the revelation of attempted cover-ups within the Nixon administration. Known as the Watergate scandal, the exposed corruption cost Nixon public and political support, and he resigned on August 9, 1974, in the face of probable impeachment by the House of Representatives and removal from office by the Senate.
As part of the continuing investigation in 1974–75, Watergate scandal prosecutors offered companies that had given illegal campaign contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign lenient sentences if they came forward. Many companies complied, including Northrop Grumman, 3M, American Airlines and Braniff Airlines. By 1976, prosecutors had convicted 18 American corporations of contributing illegally to Nixon's campaign.
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