The United States presidential election of 1972, the 47th quadrennial presidential election, was held on Tuesday, November 7, 1972. Incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon defeated Democratic Senator George McGovern of South Dakota.
Nixon easily swept aside challenges from two Republican congressmen in the 1972 Republican primaries to win re-nomination. McGovern, who had played a significant role in reforming the Democratic nomination system after the 1968 election, mobilized the anti-war movement and other liberal supporters to win his party's nomination. Among the candidates he defeated were early front-runner Edmund Muskie, 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American to run for a major party's presidential nomination.
Nixon emphasized the strong economy and his success in foreign affairs, while McGovern ran on a platform calling for an immediate end to the Vietnam War, and the institution of a guaranteed minimum income. Nixon's campaign successfully portrayed McGovern as a left-wing extremist, and he maintained a large and consistent lead in polling. Separately, Nixon's reelection committee broke into the Watergate hotel to wiretap the Democratic National Committee's headquarters, a scandal that would later be known as "Watergate". McGovern's campaign was further damaged by the revelation that his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had undergone psychiatric electroshock therapy as a treatment for depression. Eagleton was replaced on the ballot by Sargent Shriver.
Nixon won the election in a landslide, taking 60.7% of the popular vote and carrying 49 states, and he was the first Republican to sweep the South. McGovern took just 37.5% of the popular vote, while John G. Schmitz of the far-right American Independent Party won 1.4% of the vote. Nixon received almost 18 million more votes than McGovern, and he holds the record for the widest popular vote margin in any United States presidential election. The 1972 presidential election was the first since the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Within two years of the election, both Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned from office, the former due to Watergate and the latter to a separate corruption charge, and Nixon was succeeded by Gerald Ford.
|United States presidential election, 1972|
All 538 electoral votes of the Electoral College
270 electoral votes needed to win
|Democratic Party Ticket, 1972|
|George McGovern||Sargent Shriver|
|for President||for Vice President|
from South Dakota
U.S. Ambassador to France
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
Most polls showed McGovern running well behind incumbent President Richard Nixon, except when McGovern was paired with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. McGovern and his campaign brain trust lobbied Kennedy heavily to accept the bid to be McGovern's running mate, but he continually refused their advances, and instead suggested U.S. Representative (and House Ways and Means Committee chairman) Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and Boston Mayor Kevin White. Offers were then made to Hubert Humphrey, Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff, and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale, all of whom turned it down. Finally, the vice presidential slot was offered to Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who accepted the offer.
With hundreds of delegates displeased with McGovern, the vote to ratify Eagleton's candidacy was chaotic, with at least three other candidates having their names put into nomination and votes scattered over 70 candidates. A grassroots attempt to displace Eagleton in favor of Texas state representative Frances Farenthold gained significant traction, though was ultimately unable to change the outcome of the vote.
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.
|Republican Party Ticket, 1972|
|Richard Nixon||Spiro Agnew|
|for President||for Vice President|
President of the United States
Vice President of the United States
Richard Nixon was a popular incumbent president in 1972, as he was credited with opening the People's Republic of China as a result of his 1972 visit, and achieving détente with 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. Schmitz’ performance in archconservative Jefferson County was the best by a third-party Presidential candidate in any free or postbellum state county since 1936 when William Lemke reached over twenty-eight percent of the vote in the North Dakota counties of Burke, Sheridan and Hettinger.
John Hospers and Tonie Nathan of the newly formed Libertarian Party were on the ballot only in Colorado and Washington, but were official write-in candidates in four others, and received 3,674 votes, winning no states. However, they did receive one Electoral College vote from Virginia from a Republican faithless elector (see below). The Libertarian vice-presidential nominee Theodora "Tonie" Nathan became the first Jewish person and the first woman in U.S. history to receive an Electoral College 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, 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 stronghold 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 (although Republican candidates carried Texas in 1928, 1952 and 1956). As a result of this election, Massachusetts became the only state that Nixon did not carry in any of the three presidential elections in which he was a candidate.
Through 2018 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 four county-equivalents in Alaska,[a] 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;[b] he carried a mere one county-equivalent in a further nine states,[c] and just two counties in a further seven.[d] 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 18% of the African American vote (Gerald Ford would get 16% in 1976). 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[e] that Republicans have gained a majority in Presidio County. More significantly, the 1972 election is the last time several highly populous urban counties – including Cook in Illinois, Orleans in Louisiana, Hennepin in Minnesota, Cuyahoga in Ohio, 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[f]||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[g]||Theodora Nathan||Oregon||1[g]|
|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 of the break-in within the Nixon administration. What became known as the Watergate scandal eroded President Nixon's public and political support in his second term, 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 Watergate investigation in 1974–75, federal prosecutors offered companies that had given illegal campaign contributions to President 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.