The Election and the National Mood
The reasons underlying Senator McGovern’s defeat in the 1972 elections had been thoroughly analyzed long before the polls opened on November 7. There was, indeed, no great trick to predicting the likely drift of the vote, since the nation was wearing its motivations on its sleeve, and no polltaker or political analyst could fail to take notice. But apart from the specific issues and candidates, and apart from the idiosyncrasies of this particular election year, the results of the balloting afford an opportunity to relearn some important lessons about the continuing character of the American electorate.
In this election there was no real gap, on political issues, separating the body of McGovern voters and the body of Nixon voters. As the various polls indicated, getting out of the war was foremost in the minds of Americans, along with reducing the high cost of living. But on neither of these issues were the voters split along partisan lines. In a late Gallup poll, more than 7 out of 10 Nixon voters and 9 out of 10 McGovern voters said that getting out of Vietnam was a prime motivation for the way they were voting; pare away the ideological edges, and the figures would coincide.
Similarly with the general issue of the economy. Not surprisingly, over 90 per cent of both Nixon and McGovern voters felt that checking the rise in the cost of living was of major importance to them. But (again allowing for the ideological edges) about an equal percentage of Nixon and McGovern voters were also strongly against the lifting of wage and price controls (58 and 48 per cent), and both sets of voters were overwhelmingly in favor of the government’s guaranteeing a job to everyone (74 and 90 per cent). On the matter of crime, the third most pressing item on the minds of the voters, about the same percentage of Nixon and McGovern supporters were anxious for “tougher sentences for lawbreakers” (87 and 72 per cent). The voters, in fact, were on the same side of all political issues, including national health insurance. Haynes Johnson of the Washington Post recapitulated the typical experience of interviewers when he reported that with respect to issues, “the voters we met say they don’t see all that much difference between what the two Presidential candidates stand for.”
It would be wholly mistaken, then, to conclude that the results of the 1972 election represented a conservative backlash on political or economic matters. Nor, in addition, did evidence emerge of a racial backlash. About the same percentage of white Nixon and white McGovern voters said that they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who would improve opportunities for blacks; in each case, these voters constituted a majority of more than 2-1. The same pattern, but in reverse, applied to the issue of school busing. Both white Nixon and white McGovern supporters were overwhelmingly opposed to “busing schoolchildren to achieve racial balance.” Yet, according to the polls, less than 10 per cent of the people thought that busing was a major Presidential issue. It is highly questionable in any case whether opposition to busing can legitimately be seen as evidence of racial backlash, and it does not become less questionable when one considers the fact that only about half of the black people polled indicated they would support a candidate because he favored busing. About a third of the blacks said that they would be less inclined to support a candidate if he favored busing.
If political and racial issues were not the determinants of this election, neither was the personal attractiveness, or “charisma,” of the candidates. Americans were asked in October whether they thought Nixon or McGovern had a “more attractive personality.” The kindly poll-takers provided a third alternative, “Neither,” who won handily. Barely half of each of the candidate’s own committed supporters were willing to say that he had an attractive personality. Of course, one does not have to like a person to vote for him, if one thinks he can do an effective job; on the contrary, Americans do not normally expect effective politicians to be likable. But the factor of “trust, credibility, and effectiveness” was apparently equally unrevealing as an index of voter sentiment. On the one hand there was a clear-cut public reaction of mistrust to the McGovern “1,000-per-cent” syndrome, but on the other hand a plurality of Americans in one Harris poll felt that Nixon was also “uncertain and wishy-washy in what he stands for.”
Nevertheless, the American voter obviously did find a great difference between the two candidates, something not accounted for by divergencies in economic or political philosophy, or by varying appraisals of personal competency. Approximately where that difference lay was suggested by one typical Harris poll, which reported that the American people by a 2-1 margin found that McGovern had “too extreme liberal views.” On the eve of the vote they felt, again by a 2-1 margin, that he wanted to “change things too much.” This same thread ran through all the man-in-the-street interviews: “He’s too extreme . . . he’s too far ahead of his time. . . . He wants to turn things upside down,” To be sure, when it came to what McGovern was too “extreme” about, or what he wanted to “change too much,” clarity dissolved. Certainly, as we have pointed out, most voters were not disturbed by his desire to get out of Vietnam, or his support of national health insurance, or his proposal of a guaranteed job program. Even most Nixon supporters agreed with him on these basic issues. What disturbed people was the way they felt he would pursue these objectives. Thus, union members told pollsters that McGovern’s social program was more for “the little man” than was Nixon’s, but they also said that Nixon would treat unions “more fairly,” and gave him a voting edge on that account. Champ Clark of Time found that “Nixonians are not against change. I have yet to meet one who wants the U.S. to stay exactly the way it is. But they have in kindred spirit a sense of orderliness, of tidiness.”
“Orderliness” is the key word. It is tempting to say that whereas the 1972 election did not represent a backlash of political conservatism, or of racism, it did represent a cultural backlash. But to say that the election represented a cultural backlash, although true, would also be something of a confusion of cause and effect. It is a fact, for example, that cultural issues like the decriminalization of marijuana tended to be the only kinds of issues on which there was a wide disparity between McGovern and Nixon supporters. Thus, there was a 43-point spread between those Nixon supporters who opposed reducing penalties for marijuana use, and those who favored it, while only an 11-point spread separated McGovern supporters who opposed reducing penalties and those who favored it. And marijuana, like abortion and amnesty, was also an age-connected issue; there was a 45-point difference between those aged 18-24 and those 50 and over on the marijuana question. While McGovern did not end up with many more youth votes than did Nixon, young voters constituted over a fifth of those who voted for him altogether—twice the Nixon proportion—and thus showed up heavily on age-connected cultural issues like marijuana. But these issues did not in themselves determine the election.
More often than not in America’s social and political history, specific cultural issues have served as the symbolic expression of larger and deeper concerns. Americans are not typically opposed to economic and social change. Indeed, progressive change is an American tradition, part of the American creed. Moreover, large sectors of the electorate usually find their self-interest meshing with one or another movement for change. What they resist is change that takes place in a non-traditional manner. One would not, of course, wish to deny the threat of status deprivation which drastic change poses, but the basic threat perceived by the electorate in the McGovern candidacy was not so much to existing social arrangements as to the social order itself, and especially to due process. That is the “extremism” which the voters finally rejected, not any liberal social or economic policy per se.
McGovern’s Presidential campaign formally began and practically ended with the Democratic party convention. With very few exceptions (the disastrous 1968 Chicago convention is one), nominees customarily make great gains in the polls immediately after a national convention; for a week or so, a party has been given a monopoly by the media, and the electorate has heard repeated attacks on the opposition and has witnessed a demonstration of party unity at the end of the convention. But in the 1972 campaign, virtually no change was registered in public support for McGovern after the convention that nominated him—a phenomenon which has occurred only once before in modern election history, in the case of Barry Goldwater. Richard Nixon, on the other hand, increased his support in the polls twice, the first time immediately after the Democratic convention, when support for him jumped from 53 to 56 per cent, and then again after the Republican convention, when it went from 57 to 64 per cent.
In the case of McGovern, even more than in that of Senator Goldwater in 1964, the negative image that helped destroy his campaign was fixed by the convention itself. And as also with the subsequent campaign, what created the image was not the political issues which emerged from the convention, but the way in which the McGovern forces appeared to be disregarding traditional due process. Senator Abraham Ribicoff exclaimed during the convention: “Just look at what’s happening: Averell Harriman being beaten by a 19-year-old girl for a place on the New York delegation! That’s why I think McGovern is going to win. . . .” But that is exactly why McGovern had so little chance of winning. People may not have cared one way or another about Averell Harriman, but they were suspicious of the arbitrary manner in which he and so many others were being displaced. When Senator Eagleton requested that his nomination be seconded by his friend, Governor Warren Hearns of Missouri, millions of television viewers saw him being turned down in this request in favor of a seconding speech by an undergraduate coed. There was a consistent pattern being followed here. Adult white males were being symbolically ignored or even, as in the case of the duly-elected Daley delegation from Illinois, expelled from the convention. Party regulars, representatives of labor and of traditionally Democratic ethnic blocs, were being systematically passed over and displaced, in an apparently high-handed manner, by a faction identified with the “new” constituencies: the young, the poor, women, homosexuals. At the head of this faction stood George McGovern.1
McGovern himself seemed aware that he was an outsider in the traditional party, and not only from the point of view of the older politicians. At the post-convention Al Smith dinner in New York, he commented, “I feel a little like Al Smith addressing the Baptist League of Eastern Texas.” This was an amazing statement to come from the Presidential nominee of the Democratic party. The Al Smith dinner, after all, is not only a Catholic commemoration, it is de facto a significant Democratic party festival; Protestants and Jews like Herbert Lehman, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson have addressed it in their time, men who were not and could not be ill at ease among the core constituency of New York’s Catholic Democrats. But the real irony of the moment lay in McGovern’s comparison: for the hard-necked Southern Baptists before whom Al Smith spoke during his campaign ended up voting for Herbert Hoover!
But if the new McGovernite politicians were factionalists, they also had qualities generally associated with extremism: they were ideological, moralistic, and evangelistic. These are characteristics which a coalition party, containing sharply diverse factions, cannot afford to harbor or encourage. In a system based on two competing coalition parties, there has to be a much greater capacity for fudging issues, for hedging, for ideological compromise and impurity, than in multi-party systems in which each party appeals during elections to limited sectors of the nation. Only thus can a coalition-party system reflect the needs of a highly diversified society. But the McGovern convention, like McGovern himself, shunned political compromise, and embraced instead a fundamentally religious notion of purity, suitable more to a third-party movement than to the standard-bearers of a coalition party. In the course of an interview McGovern remarked: “All my life I’ve grown up in a religious climate where I was taught that life is a struggle between good and evil, and that’s what it’s all about.” But this kind of political moralism makes the electorate uneasy. When McGovern told an interviewer, William Greider of the Washington Post, that he felt very strongly that the 1972 election should be seen in moral terms, Greider, startled, commented: “Well, the good-and-the-evil—Washington would say certainly, wow, that’s an arrogant black-and-white description of the choice.” Unfazed, the candidate replied, “That’s the way I feel.”
In this, McGovern clearly resembled another Democratic nominee of three-quarters of a century ago, William Jennings Bryan, who also lost heavily among traditional Democratic voters, particularly Catholics and Jews. Both combined an evangelical Protestant outlook and style with an effort to push the country to the Left. McGovern, like Bryan, moved through his campaign with the “deep inner certitude of godly men.” As Peter Goldman and Richard Stout noted, he engaged basically in “the politics of the revival tent.” A critical section of the American electorate has a highly developed distaste for political moralism of this kind, and the combined experience of 1964 and 1972 shows that this distaste extends in both directions, to the Left as well as to the Right.
Where McGovern was concerned the paradox was that many of those who were repelled by the moralistic tone of his campaign saw that campaign, and even the candidate himself, as representing or embodying an immoral force. For McGovern’s campaign repeatedly associated itself with the more permissive position in the area of personal morals, and, thanks in part to astute political maneuvering on the part of President Nixon, also came to be linked with an anti-work, “welfare-ethic” view of society. The issue of “quotas” and “proportional representation” fell partly within this rubric, as did the question of whether the candidate favored the principle of equal results over the principle of equal opportunity as the basis of social and economic policy. The general populace perceived this cluster of issues as a single whole. It regarded marijuana abuse, sexual excess, the subversion of the work and performance principle, as signals of a total attack on the American social order, and it identified them all with the McGovern candidacy.
This perception of McGovern as an “immoral” political moralist colored public reaction in turn to the issues of corruption and hypocrisy. The charge of hypocrisy is a constant potential hazard to any politician who establishes himself as a factional leader and then attempts to make the delicate transition to coalition leader. Hubert Humphrey offers the example of a one-time factional leader who began this process of transition while serving in the Senate, and accomplished it successfully, but not without the image-trace of hypocrisy dogging him in certain quarters. Richard Nixon, similarly, was a factional leader in the 1950’s; he managed to. make the transition to coalition leader, within his party, partly because of his association with President Eisenhower, partly because of being set off in contrast to Barry Goldwater, whose arch-factionalist slogan in 1964 was “A choice, not an echo.” But like Humphrey, Nixon has never been free of the charge of hypocrisy. (It remains to be seen now whether Vice President Agnew, the factional leader par excellence, will make the necessary transition by 1976.)
Senator McGovern, however, never really moved beyond being a factional leader, despite his few efforts in that direction after the convention—efforts which opened him to charges of hypocrisy. Thus, when the Senator began to abandon a number of the more left-wing or extreme moralistic positions which he had taken during the primary campaign—especially with respect to welfare policy, the maintenance of military forces in Southeast Asia, tax reform, and the question of support for Israel in the Middle East—he found, to his amazement and fury, that such actions were regarded by many as hypocritical, and that in consequence a substantial majority of those polled saw him as less “moral” than Richard Nixon. He blamed this, in large part, on the press, which emphasized his shifts rather than what he regarded as the essential consistency of his position. But in fact the public’s impression was a reaction to the image he himself had created.
McGovern had presented himself as a new type of candidate who was above the petty compromises of politics, who was totally different in this respect from Richard Nixon. The standard image of Nixon, going back to the 1950’s, was above all that of a “politician,” that is, a man with relatively few principles, prepared to adjust his policies and tactics to fit the slightest shifts in the public mood. Nixon’s enemies called him an unprincipled opportunist, while his friends stressed his flexibility, his capacity to change with the times, his undoctrinaire conception of politics. Both descriptions referred basically to the same behavior, and it was the kind of behavior to which McGovern had defined himself as being absolutely opposed. Small wonder, then, that public reaction took the form it did when George McGovern, who had led the two-yearlong pre-convention battle against the “corrupt politicians” and labor bosses, turned around in the course of his campaign and said of President Lyndon Johnson that he had “sacrificed himself to gain peace”; endorsed Boston’s Louise Day Hicks against a liberal New-Politics opponent; went out of his way to praise Richard Daley (Hubert Humphrey stayed away from Daley during the 1968 campaign); dumped Senator Eagleton after giving him “1,000 per cent support.” The “politics of the revival tent” simply did not mix with those of Tammany Hall.
As with the issue of hypocrisy, so with the issue of corruption in government. The polls consistently showed a majority of the electorate believing that Nixon would be able to handle corruption better than McGovern. In the light of the Watergate scandal, this especially confused and infuriated McGovern and many of his supporters. But the relatively mild reaction to the Watergate affair must be seen in the context, not only of McGovern’s perceived hypocrisy, but of his perceived extremism: that is, his association with cultural radicalism. Under ordinary circumstances, with a more conventional coalition candidate, a scandal like Watergate would probably have cut seriously into Republican Presidential support (in fact it may have played a role in Congressional voting). It is likely that its impact was as small as it was not simply or even primarily because of public apathy about corruption, but because large segments of the public saw a bigger, more threatening, and ultimately more corrupting attack on the social order coming from the other side. Anarchic process and anarchic morals, pursued with evangelical fury, were evidently felt to be more ominous than political espionage.
In the spring of 1972, the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan asked the American people: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with life in the United States today?” More than three-quarters of those asked said that they were satisfied or very satisfied. Only 9 per cent indicated that they were dissatisfied. Surprisingly, those at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder indicated more satisfaction with American life than those higher up. For example, 42 per cent of those in the lowest economic rank said that they were “very satisfied,” as compared with 31 per cent of those in the highest. As to the black population, although in general it expressed less satisfaction than the white, only a total of 17 per cent expressed actual dissatisfaction. This overwhelmingly favorable response did not mean that the American people were without severe gripes. They had specific complaints: about income (a third), about housing (a quarter), about the schools (a third), and so forth. According to Gallup such complaints increased (except among blacks) in the two years preceding the election, while Harris reported an increase in “feelings of alienation” (that is, feelings of political powerlessness) among Americans from 1966 through 1972.
From other evidence, however, it became apparent that neither the specific complaints nor the feelings of alienation were directed against the nature of the traditional social order itself. Thus, more of the alienated people, according to Harris, were Nixon supporters than McGovern supporters. A similar perspective was offered by Teresa E. Levitin and Warren Miller of the Michigan Center, who built a portrait of two divergent streams in America which they called the Silent Minority and the Liberal Coalition. There were no specific “issues” involved in constructing this model, only “style,” related to a basic stance toward the American social order. The Liberal Coalition was comprised of those who favored protest and the counter-culture, and opposed law-and-order and the established agents of social control. Levitin and Miller calculated that only about 12 per cent of the public fell into this category. Conversely, only about 16 per cent fell into the category of the Silent Minority—that is, those who held reverse positions on all of the four criteria. The vast majority were in the middle.
It is relevant to note in this connection that not even the ideological edges—the Liberal Coalition and the Silent Minority as isolated by Levitin and Miller—were fixed in their place by social class. It was not just the affluent American who was found to feel a stake in the social order. There was, of course, an affluent-class bias toward the Republican party, but on the other hand there was also a tendency for some of the affluent to be attracted to the anti-order style of the Liberal Coalition. But their disaffection was of a different quality altogether from those who had specific gripes about housing, employment, and the working of the system. This was subsequently illustrated in the one major effort made by the McGovern convention leadership to accommodate an “opposition” faction, that of George Wallace. The McGovernites worked hard to prevent Wallace from losing the votes of delegates in states in which he had won the preferential primaries. Wallace delegates were offered every opportunity to present their case, both in committees and at the convention. Wallace himself was allowed to address the convention at length during the platform debate, a courtesy never before shown to an announced Presidential candidate. Orders were given, and carried out, not to boo or heckle this representative of the most powerful racist element in American politics.
All this was done by the McGovernites on the assumption that the name of the game was not “issues” but root alienation. It was hoped that the mass base of “alienated” and “populist” sentiment represented by Wallace could be attracted to the form of anti-establishment politics found in the McGovern movement. Yet, in the first place, any analysis of the opinions of Wallace supporters would have clearly suggested that their frustration had little in common with those associated with McGovern supporters. It should also have been clear that if the Wallaceites and McGovernites were both extremist, Wallace extremism leaned toward violating due process in order to maintain the social order, not in order to overturn it. Thus the Wallaceites ended up voting 2-1 for Nixon.2
In evaluating the response of the electorate to the strains of recent years, however, it is important to note the abundant evidence that the large majority of Americans have not only indicated their continuing commitment to the traditional social order; they have also indicated a continuing commitment to the traditional economic and class issues and values associated with the image of the New Deal-Fair Deal-Great Society policies pressed by Democratic leaders from Roosevelt to Humphrey. Opinion surveys show two seemingly contradictory findings. The proportion of Americans describing themselves as “conservatives” rather than “liberals” reached a point in the 60’s where the once-convincing liberal lead had been replaced by a conservative one on the order of 2-1 (although a recent Harris poll has indicated a very slight liberal upswing to 19 per cent once again). But while many more people now call themselves conservatives rather than liberals, the Democratic advantage over the GOP in party registration and in party identification in the polls is still extremely large. This seeming conflict appears to reflect a change in the meaning attached to the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” Where they once were seen primarily in economic terms, e.g., attitude toward social-security policy, governmental economic planning, trade-union rights, progressive tax policy, and the like, they now appear to apply more to feelings and attitudes on cultural and moral issues. Conversely, however, the variations between the two major parties are still seen in economic and class terms: most voters still identify the Republicans as the party of “big business,” and the Democrats as the party of the “people.” The Democrats continue to be seen as the best party for helping the poor, the trade unions, the workers, and for handling unemployment and other economic issues, including tax policy.
The various referenda in 1972 testify to the validity of this new set of findings. In California for example, the electorate voted by close to 2-1 against legalizing possession of marijuana and in favor of restoring the death penalty, but it also voted by an overwhelming majority against a proposition which had been defined as an effort to prevent the farm labor union led by Cesar Chavez from operating effectively. California gave Richard Nixon a substantial majority, but the GOP strength in the State Assembly fell from 35 seats to 29, while the Democrats jumped from 45 to 51. And the Republican Assembly leader, Robert Monagan, publicly expressed doubt that the Republicans would be able to retain the governorship in the 1974 elections.
The American electorate is thus caught in a crosscurrent between political liberalism and cultural conservatism. Its conservatism comes to the fore when the nature of cultural change seems to signify a basic threat to the social order. The McGovern campaign, starting with the convention, appeared to be doing that in 1972, and the population opted for the traditional social order. But few were happy with the choice they had to make. For the other side of the coin was that President Nixon had done nothing to convince the electorate that he possessed the kind of social sense which boded well for liberal domestic economic programs. In consequence, there was no Rooseveltian exultation among the populace about the election or its results. As a matter of fact, ambivalence at the polls was demonstrably deep. “Which candidate are you most apathetic about?” asked one cartoon pollster. And, even after voting, many people felt that they had not yet quite made up their minds. The abstention rate was high—an expression not so much of apathy as of liberal-conservative ambivalence.3
The principal issue which gave rise to the New-Politics campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and which underlay much of the ardor of the McGovern pre-nomination battle, was the Vietnam war. In spite of the poll data indicating that economic and class concerns were more likely to find support among traditionally Democratic groups, whose backing he desperately needed, McGovern returned time and again to the issue of the war, reserving his most extreme language for this topic.
Yet the record seems clear that McGovern misread the mood of the country on the war too, even though he had been personally involved in the publication of the most comprehensive and sophisticated book-length analysis of that mood, Vietnam and the Silent Majority: The Dove’s Guide (1970), written by three major academic authorities on public opinion, Milton Rosenberg, Sidney Verba, and Philip Converse. McGovern contributed the Foreword to this detailed analysis of the many opinion surveys on attitudes toward the war. Among other things, the book revealed that since 1969 a majority of Americans had been convinced that our involvement in the war in Vietnam was a mistake. On the other hand, the authors documented and stressed the fact that most Americans tended “to be patriotic, to be proud of the fact that we have ‘never lost a war,’ and to be moved by the symbols of patriotism such as the flag.” Moreover, the bulk of the public wished to end our commitment in Vietnam under conditions that would avoid a Communist takeover of South Vietnam. Most Americans (this continued to be the case well into the polls taken in 1972) favored giving support to the anti-Communist forces in South Vietnam after an American withdrawal.
Concurrent with a strong desire for peace on the part of the large majority was strong disapproval of the militant confrontationist tactics of sections of the anti-war movement. Even young people under 30—and by overwhelming majorities—condemned student strikes against the war. These negative attitudes toward anti-war and student protest were not limited to those with mild feelings about the war. As the authors pointed out about the results of a study completed in 1968:
Respondents were asked to evaluate a wide range of political leaders and groups on a “feeling” scale, ranging from extremely negative to highly positive. Reactions toward “Vietnam war protesters” were by a substantial amount the most negative half of the scale, and more than 33 per cent placed them at the extreme negative point, which was not otherwise much employed. But one can go further. Sixty-three per cent of those believing the war was a mistake viewed protesters negatively, and even of the group favoring complete withdrawal from Vietnam 53 per cent put the protesters on the negative side of the scale. Plainly, opposition to the war and opposition to active protest against it go together for a significant part of the population. [Emphasis in original.]
As of 1970, George McGovern seemed to understand the implications of these facts. In his Foreword to Vietnam and the Silent Majority he acknowledged that many Americans who opposed the war did so for the “wrong” reasons. As a result, he said:
Long-time apostles against our intervention in Vietnamese affairs must therefore face the disquieting choice between ending the war sooner for what we see as many of the wrong reasons—“it is costing too much,” “the general policy is sound, but it has not worked here,” and the like—or waiting and debating until a decisive majority of the American people accept our notion of an appropriate U.S. foreign policy and is thus ready to demand, for the right reasons, that the fighting be stopped.
The former approach is more compelling if we consider only the young men who must die and be maimed, the opportunities which will be lost, and the more complete physical and human destruction of a tiny nation which will be inflicted if we are to wait for the latter. Indeed, if it has been immoral for us to bring the battlefield of our misguided war with Communism to the innocent people of Vietnam and to sacrifice their country in pursuit of our “larger” interests, then it is just as immoral for advocates of peace to allow the annihilation to continue until we complete the ambitious task of putting America’s conscience in order.
By 1972 Senator McGovern had evidently forgotten these words. During his campaign for the Presidency he constantly issued statements which could only have outraged many Americans who opposed the war for the “wrong” reasons. His moralistic strictures against Richard Nixon, his comparing of the consequences of the President’s actions with those of Adolf Hitler, his seemingly unabashed assumption that his own election would probably be followed immediately by the fall of the Saigon government and its replacement by a Communist regime, his praise of draft-evaders who had fled the country, simply alienated many of these Americans.
The surveys summarized in Vietnam and the Silent Majority also pointed up, two years before the election, another basic weakness of the subsequent McGovern strategy, namely, its assumption that the enlarged youth vote would provide the margin for electoral victory. McGovern strategist Fred Dutton, in a pre-primary campaign memorandum which McGovern personally found credible, had anticipated a considerable majority for McGovern among the twenty-five million new voters between 18 and 24. Dutton estimated that three-quarters of them would actually vote, and that three-quarters of those who balloted would vote for a New-Politics Democratic nominee. This advantage would presumably be sufficient to offset any defections among the older segments of the electorate.
Yet a variety of opinion surveys, many of them reported in the volume introduced by Senator McGovern, indicated that these were ridiculously optimistic forecasts, and that in fact youth as such possessed no special anti-war or movement-oriented characteristics. The authors pointed out that strong anti-war sentiment was limited largely to students attending the minority of leading schools and to their parents. Otherwise, “there is no sign whatever of a younger generation—say those under 30—that makes consistently dovish responses, thereby putting it in sharp opposition to a hawkish older generation.” Just the reverse was true: “whites under 30, particularly males, have been in the aggregate quite hawkish in terms of desires to solve the Vietnam problem through escalation.” In effect, the authors concluded, as had many other analysts of youth and student behavior, there was no “generation gap” on this issue but rather “a profound cleavage on Vietnam among the young themselves.”
This, of course, was precisely what showed up in the pre-election surveys and in the voting returns. According to the findings of a CBS survey of 17,405 respondents taken as they were leaving the polls on election day, the 18-24 group divided 46 per cent for Nixon and 52 for McGovern; while among the 25-29-year-old group, Nixon led 54-44. McGovern did only slightly better among students, 54-45, than he did among first-time voters as a whole. And in conformity with all previous studies of the electoral participation of first-time voters, only 47 per cent of those under 24 actually bothered to go to the polls. Thus the generation of Consciousness III (McGovern also wrote a blurb for Charles Reich’s The Greening of America) turned out never to have existed, never to have been “out there,” available, and waiting for the call of a moralistic New Politics.
And if young voters—McGovern’s much-vaunted “sure” constituency—were split among themselves on Vietnam, it should hardly have come as a surprise to anyone that the country as a whole was similarly divided on this issue, nor that McGovern should have proved unable even to summon a majority among those favoring an end to the war. Indeed, survey after survey showed most people who favored peace in Vietnam believing that the reelection of Richard Nixon would be the best way to accomplish that goal. For Richard Nixon’s proclaimed policy was to describe American withdrawal as “peace with honor”—i.e., avoiding a Communist takeover—while Senator McGovern, in another display of his evangelical moralism, presented withdrawal as a deserved defeat—that is, the morally superior course of action.
In sum, George McGovern and his strategists totally misjudged the character of the American electorate. The convention and the campaign were conducted as though the American public consisted of two large factions: one basically alienated from the American order, the other evilly dedicated to turning the clock back. There undoubtedly are such factions in the country, but they are hardly large ones, and they do not represent the greater majority of the American electorate. Throughout the 60’s, and especially since 1965, many Americans felt that they were experiencing an enormous amount of cultural change, and the last man they wanted for President in 1972 was one who was identified with those who proposed to carry cultural change further, when the social order was already a-tremble. This does not mean that these same Americans were prepared to reject programs for social reform in areas such as health, educational opportunity, equal rights, or the economy. The opinion surveys indicated clear and continuing majorities in favor of extending opportunity to the underprivileged, to those facing discrimination, to the handicapped, while at the same time restoring a sense of personal security to those who live in the urban areas.
Furthermore, all other things being equal, the majority of Americans would still prefer the “party of compassion” to the party they associate with the business elite; nothing attests to this fact more strikingly than President Nixon’s failure in the election to carry Republican Congressional or local candidates on his coattails. The GOP decline in governorships over a four-year period from 31 in 1968 to 19 in 1972 was a prolonged landslide in reverse. Indeed, in many ways the President was a tellingly weak candidate. In each of his previous national races, 1960 and 1968, as well as in the California gubernatorial contest in 1962, his Democratic rivals had started considerably back in the polls and had managed to close the gap: Hubert Humphrey, for example, came from 16 points behind to an almost dead heat in 1968. In 1970, when the President campaigned vigorously for Republican Congressional candidates, he failed utterly to sway the electorate. From this point of view the Nixon electoral victory was an amazing phenomenon; it occurred in spite of the fact that his campaign style and personality clearly had a negative effect on the public, and in spite of the fact that a majority of Americans still prefers the Democratic to the Republican party.
Through a peculiar accident of history, the Democratic party in 1972 was divided among a number of candidates. The representative of the smallest faction of a major party ever to secure the Presidential nomination won out within the party—and then continued to act like a factional leader (only 30 per cent of Democrats polled by Gallup just before the Miami convention favored McGovern). The result was a landslide for a Republican candidate who has never possessed widespread charismatic appeal, and who clearly polled more “reluctant” votes than any candidate in recent political history. There are lessons to be drawn from this event. The Republicans learned theirs after 1964; whether the Democrats will do likewise remains an open question.
1 See “The New Politics & the Democrats,” by Penn Kemble and Josh Muravchik in the December 1972 issue.—Ed.
2 Despite what McGovern said after the election, the Wallace vote was not a determining factor in the final result. If Wallace had run on his own ticket and secured around 15 per cent of the vote, the election would have wound up with 50 per cent for Nixon, 35 for McGovern.
There are other aspects of the final voting which will deserve greater study on this score as well. Over 90 per cent of the black vote in the ghettos was for McGovern, but he won only about 80 per cent of the black vote in non-ghetto areas. And only 67 per cent of the one out of 16 blacks who live in the suburbs voted for McGovern. Tangled in this pattern are a social-class pull, plus a new feeling of stake in the American society, plus a highly developed sense of the liberal political and economic agenda.
Analyses of Jewish voting are also instructive. On its face the Jewish vote represented a sharp departure from the recent past, 2-1 for the Democratic nominee as against 4-1 last time around. But actually the Jews were roughly at the same distance from the rest of the population in 1972 as they were in 1968. The unique aspect of the Jewish vote, the fact that Jews do not tend to vote more heavily Republican as their incomes rise, continued to show. The interesting fact is that preliminary precinct analyses indicate that lower-income Jews defected more sharply to the Republicans, on the Presidential vote, than did upper-income Jews (This was, of course, true of lower-income ethnics in general, but arose from a different initial pattern.)
3 In the Jewish precincts analyzed, the abstention rates in lower- and middle-income areas were staggering; in one case the percentage registered and not voting increased from 8 to 25 per cent between 1968 and 1972.