print logo

From McGovern to Obama

Monday, October 22, 2012

If you look at the map of the states where McGovern ran ahead of his national average, you see something very much like the map of the states carried by Obama.

Others who knew George McGovern much more closely than I have written warm remembrances of the former South Dakota senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee; see, for example, Bob Dole’s article in the Washington Post. But I feel some personal closeness to him, not just as a not entirely unrepentant McGovern voter and supporter in 1972, but also as a one-time neighbor — in Diamond Lake, Illinois, in 1947.

McGovern was then a graduate student at Northwestern University and a minister in Diamond Lake, northwest of Chicago and some 10 miles west of Lake Michigan. The minister post provided him with housing, which was scarce in those postwar years for a young veteran with a wife and infant children. My parents faced the same problem. My father was an Army doctor stationed at Fort Sheridan, on the lakefront, and my parents were fortunate to find a not particularly well heated house to rent in Diamond Lake. My parents had only a vague memory of the McGoverns; they were strong nonbelievers and McGovern was a preacher, and I suspect that both young couples had little time for socializing in any case. My own memory of Diamond Lake is limited to old photographs and a visit there in 1992. But in conversation perhaps 20 years ago, McGovern and I agreed that we were indeed neighbors.

Twenty-five years later, McGovern was the Democratic nominee for president and I was the coauthor of the first (and, I suspected, only) Almanac of American Politics. Who could have imagined that back in Diamond Lake? McGovern was reticent about his distinguished record as a bomber pilot with 35 missions in World War II, including a forced landing on an airstrip which was half the required length and ended with a sheer cliff — the crew would have died if McGovern hadn’t managed to stop the plane just in time.

McGovern was reticent about his distinguished record as a bomber pilot with 35 missions in World War II, including a forced landing on an airstrip half the required length.

McGovern came out of that with a dovish, though not pacifist, bent and dabbled with supporting the left-wing Henry Wallace for president in 1948 before finally coming out for Harry Truman. Eight years later, back in his native South Dakota, he was elected to the House of Representatives even as Republican Dwight Eisenhower was winning reelection; McGovern won again in the heavily Democratic year of 1958 and lost by only 52%–48% to Republican Senator Karl Mundt in his 1960 Senate campaign. He served in the Kennedy administration as head of the Food for Peace program, which was designed to distribute some of the surpluses generated by farm subsidy programs to needy places around the world; it was on this issue that he joined forces with Bob Dole, another World War II veteran from a farm state, after McGovern was elected to the Senate in 1962 by a 50.1%–49.9% margin.

As a Democrat in a Republican state, McGovern was never assured of reelection; he won with 57% in 1968 and 53% in heavily Democratic 1974 and lost 58%-39% in the Reagan year of 1980. Nonetheless, he emerged as a leading critic of the Vietnam War when President Lyndon Johnson was still in office, and on that basis was put forward as a candidate at the 1968 Democratic National Convention by supporters of the late Robert Kennedy who couldn’t stomach Eugene McCarthy. In 1972 he was the beneficiary of the peace movement, which, like the recent Tea Party movement, brought many idealistic newcomers into politics and reshaped a great political party. As the head of a party commission established by the one dissenting majority produced at the 1968 convention, he produced changes in the rules for the nominating process which led to many more presidential primaries and the Democratic Party’s practices of proportionate representation and quotas for various minority groups and women. In the race for the 1972 nomination, against Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, who had turned against the Vietnam War only when Richard Nixon became president, McGovern argued that he was “right from the start” — a pretty strong argument when you think about it.

McGovern lost the 1972 general election to Nixon by a 61%–38% margin and many have argued that he did great damage to the Democratic Party. I thought then and think now that that was mistaken. The numbers tell me that the old New Deal Democratic coalition was dead.

As the candidate of the incumbent Democratic Party, Hubert Humphrey won only 43% in 1968; he came close to Nixon in the popular vote only because George Wallace got 14% of the popular vote. When you compare McGovern’s numbers with Humphrey’s, they don’t look so bad. McGovern ran about even with or ahead of Humphrey in every southern state except West Virginia and Lyndon Johnson’s Texas; no Northern nominee would carry any state in the South until Barack Obama in 2008. In most of the West, and notably California, McGovern ran only a little behind Humphrey; similarly in the Midwest, where he ran even with Humphrey in perennially dovish Iowa and Wisconsin and ahead in his own South Dakota. McGovern ran farthest behind Humphrey in the East, which meant that he trailed far behind Nixon in states which Humphrey carried (but Humphrey lost New Jersey and carried New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland with less than 50%).

Many have argued that McGovern did great damage to the Democratic Party. I thought then and think now that that was mistaken.

By 1972, the old political machines were no longer capable of generating votes, and labor unions were declining in membership and salience. If these forces got less representation at national conventions under the McGovern-inspired rules, that simply reflected political reality. The peace movement and the McGovern candidacy were a force that brought new people into the Democratic Party — more upscale and highly educated people who became a constituency capable of producing, or at least contributing importantly to, the majorities that elected Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Barack Obama in 2008.

If you look at the map of the states where McGovern ran ahead of his national average, you see something very much like the map of the states carried by Obama in 2008. It includes the New England states (except Republican-leaning New Hampshire and the later demographically transformed Vermont); New York, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Delaware (where Joe Biden won his Senate seat the same year as McGovern’s presidential run) in the East; Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, and South Dakota in the Midwest (all of which Obama carried except Missouri, which he narrowly lost, and of course McGovern’s South Dakota); and the three West Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington, all safe for Obama in 2008, plus Montana, where McGovern ran strongly but lost. States where McGovern ran ahead of his national average and which Obama carried provided Obama with 273 electoral votes, 3 more than the 270-vote majority (however, this year those states have only 265 electoral votes). A claim can be made that the McGovern candidacy and the peace movement sowed the seeds for later Democratic triumphs and contributed importantly to the Democratic majorities that have emerged from time to time — and which could not have been produced by the pre-1968 Democratic Party.

Our political parties in their quests for votes adapt to terrain, and the McGovern candidacy in retrospect represents one such adaptation. Like Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964, McGovern's was highly unsuccessful in the short run but pointed toward a path to victory in the future. McGovern, like Goldwater, was a conviction politician who achieved electoral success in a state that had been dominated by the other party. Both men made a significant difference in important legislation and in presidential politics.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone also writes “States Aren’t Red or Blue Forever,” “How to Understand Obama’s Chances in 2012,” “If Obama Wins, Will He Be Another Woodrow Wilson?,” and “To More and More Women, Romney Is the Safer Choice.” Jonah Goldberg asks “Are the Dems Doomed?” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg discuss "Obama's Weakness in Historical Context."


Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

Most Viewed Articles

3-D Printing: Challenges and Opportunities By Michael M. Rosen 10/19/2014
With physical copying now approaching digital copying in terms of ease, cost, and convenience, how ...
Government Sponsors Truthy Study of Twitter By Babette Boliek 10/21/2014
The debate over the National Science Foundation study of Twitter is getting off track. The sole issue ...
Why Privilege Nonprofits? By Arnold Kling 10/17/2014
People on the right view nonprofits as a civil-society bulwark against big government. People on ...
Chinese Check: Forging New Identities in Hong Kong and Taiwan By Michael Mazza 10/14/2014
In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, residents are identifying less and less as Chinese, a trend that ...
How Green Is Europe? By Vaclav Smil 09/30/2014
A superficial look might indicate great achievements. Yet a closer view reveals how far European ...