This Day in History: George McGovern is nominated...with huge consequences for our primary system
On this day in 1972, the Democratic Party nominates George McGovern as its candidate for President of the United States. Did you know that McGovern’s failed campaign is at least partly responsible for the use of superdelegates in the Democratic presidential nomination process?
Democrats hoped to avoid a repeat of McGovern’s crushing loss to Richard Nixon.
Perhaps nothing about the 1972 presidential election went as expected. Surely no one really expected McGovern to get nominated in the first place! Instead, early favorites included such names as Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, and Hubert Humphrey.
In the end, the lesser-known McGovern emerged from the divided field. He benefited from recent changes that had been made to the nomination process. (Maybe unsurprising, since he’d helped to write the new rules?!) The 1972 nomination process was more dependent on primary outcomes than the 1968 process had been. It also prompted a move toward less deliberation at party conventions, something that had been historically important.
Naturally, McGovern also got a few unexpected boosts when his opponents’ ran into problems. (Kennedy, for instance, was never able to rehabilitate his reputation after Chappaquiddick.)
When the Democratic Party convention met in July, McGovern was easily elected on the first ballot. But he still had a big problem on his hands. The convention did not come across well on television—not at all!
“Televiewers got the impression that McGovern was the candidate of hippies, aggressive women, smart-aleck collegians, and militant blacks,” historian Paul Boller explains, “they were also shocked to hear some of the delegates espouse homosexual rights, abortion, and amnesty for deserters.”
Maybe not the best way to unify our country, especially in the early 1970s?
McGovern came to be known as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” Party regulars never really came on board. There was an “Anybody but McGovern” movement, aided by Jimmy Carter! Whether fairly or not, McGovern was perceived as too extreme.
“McGovern’s strategy,” Boller concludes, “was to do well in the primaries, achieve the nomination with the help of his anti-war constituency, and then persuade party regulars to work for his election. He never really achieved his last objective.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Nixon ended up winning in a landslide. McGovern won only one state (Massachusetts) and Washington, D.C. Nixon obtained more than 60% of the national popular vote.
After McGovern’s loss, Democrats spent the next few election cycles seeking reforms for their nomination process. The new system wasn’t working! They’d nominated someone who appealed to a faction of Democrats in the primaries, but who could not appeal to the general electorate.
It took about a decade, but a solution was finally implemented: Superdelegates were added to the nomination process. “Supers are a hedge against disaster,” one Democratic Party activist recently explained. They give the “party some wiggle room to avoid electoral catastrophe.”
It’s a fair point. The Electoral College requires coalition-building! The most successful candidates are the ones who do the best job of reaching out to and unifying a variety of voters. Historically, candidates such as McGovern simply don’t win.
Perhaps it’s a lesson that both Republicans and Democrats should keep in mind.
Elaine C. Kamarck, Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System (2009)
Eleanor Clift, Democratic Superdelegates: How the Party Learned to Start Worrying and Fear Its Voters, The Daily Beast (April 4, 2016)
Elections A to Z (David Tarr & Bon Benenson eds., 4th rev. ed. 2012)
History of American Presidential Elections: 1789-2008 (Gil Troy et al. eds., 4th ed. 2012)
L. Sandy Maisel and Jeffrey M. Berry, The Oxford Handbook of American Political Parties and Interest Groups (2012)
Paul C. Boller, Jr., Presidential Campaigns (rev. ed. 1996).