George McGovern and the 1972 Election

The death of George McGovern has got people thinking again about the 1972 presidential election. In Salon, Joan Walsh gives what might be called the extreme “journalistic” view of that contest:

In 1972 the populist war hero was destroyed by Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks and Democrats’ self-destructive fear . . . Protracted floor-fighting over the new rules pushed McGovern’s moving acceptance speech, “Come Home, America,” into the wee small hours when no one was watching. . . . The ’72 convention was another debacle for the Democrats, less bloody than Chicago ’68 but arguably no less damaging. . . . Once McGovern had the nomination, Nixon obsessed over defeating him. . . . It worked. . . .

A completely different, “political science,” take on the election is summarized by this redrawing of Doug Hibbs’s famous graph:


With the economy booming in 1972 and the U.S. mostly out of the Vietnam war, Nixon was set to win. McGovern’s position on the left of the party could well have cost him a couple percentage points of the vote, and Nixon’s aggressive campaign (notoriously fueled by millions of dollars in secret campaign contributions) could well account for another couple of percentage points. But it’s hard to imagine any Democrat in 1972 could’ve won.

David Rosenbaum in the New York Times gives this quotation from Theodore White: “Richard M. Nixon convinced the Americans, by more than 3 to 2, that he could use power better than George McGovern.” That’s about right, although in that economy we can (retrospectively) say that Americans didn’t need much convincing on this point.

If Nixon had realized he was such a shoo-in, he could’ve relaxed. No fear of losing (in the words of J. Anthony Lukas), no Watergate.

But I say this retrospectively. Political journalist Joan Walsh in 2012 should be aware of the Hibbs idea (“it’s the economy”), if only to dismiss it (she could, for example, point to the data point just below 1972 on the above graph, where Hubert Humphrey couldn’t pull off a win in 1968, despite the strong economy that year). But we could hardly expect Richard Nixon to be familiar with the idea back in 1972. For one thing, Hibbs had not written his paper, and the above graph was missing most of its points. The 1972 election is one of the pieces of evidence that leads us to believe that the economy is crucial in determining presidential election outcomes.

So let’s place ourselves back in 1972, The following is speculation, and I’d be happy to be corrected by any historians in the audience. Here’s my take on it. As of 1971, say, the Democrats were still viewed as the natural party of government. In addition to controlling a solid majority in both houses of Congress, the Democrats had won lots of presidential elections, with the exceptions seeming to be just that—-exceptions. In 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower was a war hero and the country was exhausted after 20 years of Democratic rule. In 1968, Nixon was elected as a minority winner with a narrow plurality in a three-candidate race. It was natural to think that, without some extreme effort, the Democrats would bounce back to power. In retrospect and with Hibbs-colored glasses, it seems very natural that Nixon was elected in 1972: an incumbent president in a booming economy, that’s a slam dunk. But from the perspective of 1971, it all looks different.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Andrew Gelman

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University.