Hello to another edition of the presidential election series, I’ll talk about the election of 1972, Richard Nixon is looking for re-election but he got a few problems along the way just as election season began to heat, and a little problem called “Watergate”
The Nixon Administration
Following the chaotic mess that was the 1968 election, Richard Nixon who was now the 37th president of the United States began his plans to reform the country how he seemed fit while also dealing with foreign conflicts regarding the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam.
In regards to international matters, Nixon approved of CIA interventions in Latin America which led to the overthrowing of a democratic elected dictator in Chile, but he also was able to ease tensions with the soviets through negotiations and sent his new National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger to begin what would be Nixon’s visit to Communist China which would open the door to a better relationship between the U.S. and China.
When it comes to Vietnam things weren’t so good as Nixon’s secret plan to end the war like how he promised in 1968 was instead a plan to continue the conflict by dropping dangerous chemicals into North Vietnam while also expanding the war into places like Cambodia and Laos.
Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War wasn’t well received by most Americans including the Hippies/Anti-War Movement and this was made especially clear on May 4th 1970 when at least four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guards who were called in to break up the non-violent protests that were taking place.
Despite the bombings persisting under Nixon, a period of American soldiers being pulled out of the war was beginning and with the president’s successes in cooling animosity between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, his first steps in building relations with China plus his creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and taking the U.S. off the Gold Standard, Trick Dick’s approval rating reached around 60% and was able to defeat his primary challengers to win his party’s re-nomination.
Now let’s look at who the Democrats will be nominating as their candidate for president.
The Race for the Democratic Nomination
Coming out of the late 1960’s, the Democrats were in utter shambles, sure they still held control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but when it came to winning back the White House their chances were slim at best, that didn’t stop 15 Democrats from making a run at it in hopes of winning the nomination.
Here are just a few of the names that ran:
- Eugene McCarthy: Former Senator from Minnesota
- Shirley Chisholm: U.S. Representative from New York
- Hubert Humphrey: Former Vice President
- George McGovern: Senator from South Dakota
- Patsy Mink: U.S. Representative from Hawaii
- George Wallace: Governor of Alabama
- Edmund Muskie: The Senator from Maine & Humphrey’s running mate in the 1968 election
At first many wanted, Ted Kennedy who was not only the younger brother of John and Robert Kennedy but also the Senate Majority Whip from Massachusetts to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, but Kennedy would announce that he wouldn’t be running as a candidate and considering the infamous Chappaquiddick Incident in which Kennedy drunkenly drove a car off a bridge resulting in the death of his female passenger occurred just a few years ago…It was probably for the best that he didn’t run.
Edmund Muskie was soon seen as the front runner in the minds of many including the Nixon Administration who allegedly forged a letter that negatively painted the Senator when it came to a question regarding how Muskie could understand the problems African Americans were dealing with when his state of Maine doesn’t have a large percentage of black people.
The letter also contained a response from someone in Muskie’s staff who allegedly responded to the question by saying that Maine doesn’t have blacks but ‘canucks’ which for those who don’t know is a slang word in Canada and with one of the Democratic Primaries taking place in a state that has Canadians, this letter damaged Muskie’s chances in the race.
Muskie’s response to the ‘Canuck Letter’ was memorable for all of the wrong reasons as he gave it in the middle of a snow storm which made it look like he was crying although others claim it was just snowflakes in his eyes, but still Muskie’s campaigning for the nomination pretty much ended soon after that and Eugene McCarthy would be gone as well as his poor showing in the primaries compared to four years ago led to him dropping out.
Both Mink and Chisholm were the first Asian American and African American women respectively to run for president for a major political party, however, it wouldn’t be until 2008 and 2016 that the idea of a woman being a candidate for president was taken seriously so they also dropped out of the race.
Similarly to his performance in the 1964 primaries, George Wallace was doing surprisingly well, however unlike the ’64 primaries Wallace’s dreams of being the nominee were gunned down both metaphorically and literally when he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down by a guy named Arthur Bremer who was soon committed and later released from prison in 2007.
With many of the other Democrats dropping out, refusing to run or being critically injured in Wallace’s case, the Democratic Primaries came down to Humprhey and McGovern; Although Humprhey secured the nomination in 1968, he did so without competing in the primaries as the party bosses had everything lined up for the former VP to win, but with the rules being changed since that election in which candidates had to win the most primaries to win the nomination, Humphrey didn’t campaign that strongly.
McGovern’s Troubled Campaign
With his grassroots/anti-war support continuing to build steam since the last election and the fact the new rules for how candidates can win the nomination through primary wins were co-created by him, it soon became clear that McGovern would become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president…Sadly McGovern’s fortunes going into the election would turn sour real quickly.
The trouble began when it came time to vote for a running mate at the convention with McGovern hoping to get Ted Kennedy on the ticket as his popularity was good enough to give the McGovern campaign a fighting chance, but Kennedy refused and this began a tedious problem in the convention where McGovern had to find a running mate that the delegates and the party could support which he did in the form of Thomas Eagleton who was a Senator from Missouri.
By the time Eagleton was nominated it was nearly two o’clock in the morning meaning that most Americans were asleep by the time McGovern gave his nomination speech, but that was the least of his worries as it was then discovered a few days later that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy to deal with his bouts of depression and this shocking news ultimately led to McGovern dropping Eagleton from the ticket which made the South Dakota Senator look indecisive as he had previously mentioned that he supported Eagleton 1000% per cent.
McGovern then had to desperately find a new running mate as the election was already underway but after asking six different people to join him, they all turned him down leading to further embarrassment for the McGovern campaign.
By the time he got Sargent Shriver the former Ambassador to France and brother-in-law to the Kennedy as his running mate, the Eagleton fiasco torpedoed McGovern’s polling numbers from 43% to an abysmal 24%.
The Watergate Break-In
While the majority of the election saw Nixon spend most of his time outside the U.S. dealing with foreign affairs and the McGovern campaign was struggling to make any traction, a few shocking discoveries were made with the first one occurring in 1971.
That year a series of documents were released by former military analyst, Daniel Ellsberg and published by the New York Times which revealed the U.S. Government was lying to the American people on matters regarding the Vietnam War and how the Nixon administration expanded their bombing attacks into Cambodia and Laos.
Despite an attempt by the Nixon administration to send their case against the New York Times to the Supreme Court, the judges ended up supporting the New York Times, but the following year would see an even bigger discovery that would be problematic for the President.
On June 17th 1972, five men were caught bugging and taking photos at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Office building as a way for the president to get important and incriminating evidence against his Democratic rivals.
When the five men were arrested, it was soon revealed that these men were connected to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President also known as the CRP or hilariously called ‘CREEP’.
This became an issue for the Nixon administration because if any connection was made that linked the president or members of his cabinet to the break-ins then it could lead to a much bigger scandal that could destroy Trick Dick’s presidency, but fortunately for Nixon, most of the media didn’t pay any attention to the Watergate break-ins and moved on from it.
The Campaigns & October Surprise
Despite the Watergate break-ins and expanding the Vietnam War bombings, Nixon lead in the polls going into election day and the stumbling blocks George McGovern faced only helped Trick Dick’s chances of winning.
In addition to the fallout from the Eagleton incident and the issues of finding a running mate, McGovern’s policies that promised to withdraw all American soldiers from Vietnam in 90 days to a guaranteed medium income for the poor to every American getting $1000 payment were deemed far too liberal.
Combined with the hatred many establishment Democrats had with McGovern for re-writing the rules that prevented their types of candidates from winning the nomination, then it should come as no surprise when a series of attack ads funded by the Democrats emerged that painted McGovern as a supporter of ‘Acid, Amnesty & Abortion’ while also being a flip-flopper on policy ideas.
The final nail in the coffin came on October 26th 1972, when Henry Kissinger emerged in front of the media and ensured the public that “Peace is at Hand” which made it sound like the Vietnam War was coming to an end and even assertions of a ceasefire from Saigon made things look all the more hopeful.
So with the Nixon campaign leading in the polls and announcements of peace being confirmed in Vietnam …How did the South Dakota Senator fare when it came time for election day? Well for that answer let’s take a look at the results.
When election day came on November 7th 1972, it became clear to everyone that Richard Nixon easily won re-election with a tremendous 520 electoral votes and 60.7% of the popular vote with Nixon winning roughly 18 million more votes than McGovern.
George McGovern received only 17 electoral votes from the District of Columbia and the state of Massachusett and got 37.5% of the popular vote; In terms of the popular vote this was the worst performance for a Democratic Party nominee since John Davis in the election of 1924, but in terms of the electoral vote this was the worse performance by a candidate attempting to beat the incumbent president in an election since Barry Goldwater in 1964.
One interesting footnote to mention is that a faithless elector in Virginia went on and voted for John Hospers who was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for president…making this the last time a candidate (who wasn’t previously associated with the Republicans or Democrats) won an electoral vote.
With this victory, Richard Nixon became the second of three presidents to be re-elected with over 500 electoral votes and the second time a former Vice President won a second term as commander-in-chief in 168 years with the last one to do so was Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1804.
So that was the election of 1972, Nixon won re-election in a landslide, but his victory will become hollow as the break-ins at Watergate haven’t disappeared and by the time of the next election and whole lot will have changed.
Be sure to follow me on X @FullertonHakeem for articles just like and I’ll see you for the next one…peace.