The 1972 United States presidential election was the 47th quadrennial presidential election
. It was held on Tuesday, November 7, 1972. Incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon
from California defeated Democratic U.S. Senator George McGovern
of South Dakota. Until the 1984 election
, this was the largest margin of victory in the Electoral College for a Republican in a U.S. presidential election. It was the first time when California had more electoral votes than New York.
Nixon easily swept aside challenges from two Republican congressmen in the 1972 Republican primaries
to win re-nomination. McGovern, who had played a significant role in changing
the Democratic nomination system after the 1968 election
, mobilized the anti-war movement and other liberal supporters to win his party's nomination
. Among the candidates he defeated were early front-runner Edmund Muskie
, 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey
, and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm
, the first African-American to run for a major party's presidential nomination.
Nixon emphasized the strong economy and his success in foreign affairs, while McGovern ran on a platform calling for an immediate end to the Vietnam War
, and the institution of a guaranteed minimum income
. Nixon maintained a large and consistent lead in polling. Separately, Nixon's reelection committee
broke into the Watergate complex
the Democratic National Committee
's headquarters, a scandal that would later be known as "Watergate
". McGovern's campaign was seriously damaged by the revelation that his running mate, Thomas Eagleton
, had undergone electroconvulsive therapy
as a treatment for depression
. Eagleton was replaced on the ballot by Sargent Shriver
Nixon won the election in a landslide
, taking 60.7% of the popular vote and carrying 49 states while being the first Republican to sweep the South
. McGovern took just 37.5% of the popular vote, while John G. Schmitz
of the American Independent Party
won 1.4% of the vote. Nixon received almost 18 million more votes than McGovern, and he holds the record for the widest popular vote margin
in any post–World War II United States presidential election. The 1972 presidential election was the first since the ratification of the 26th Amendment
, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Within two years of the election, both Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew
resigned from office: the former in August 1974, due to Watergate, the latter in October 1973, due to a separate corruption charge. Gerald Ford
succeeded Agnew as vice president, then in the following year succeeded Nixon as president, making him the only U.S. president in history not to be elected to the office on a presidential ticket.
, this was the last time that Minnesota
voted for the Republican candidate in a presidential election, the longest such streak for any state, and only once since then have Rhode Island
done so, when they voted for Ronald Reagan
in the 1984 election
. This was also the most recent presidential election in which the entire Midwest
was won by a single candidate.
Despite this election delivering Nixon's greatest electoral triumph, Nixon later wrote in his memoirs that “it was one of the most frustrating and in many ways the least satisfying of all.”
, President of the United States
who formed his Committee for the Re-Election of the President
*John M. Ashbrook
, Representative from Ohio
Richard Nixon was a popular incumbent president in 1972, as he was credited with opening the People's Republic of China
as a result of his 1972 visit
, and achieving détente
with the Soviet Union
. Polls showed that Nixon held a strong lead in the Republican primaries. He was challenged by two candidates, liberal Pete McCloskey
from California and conservative John Ashbrook
from Ohio. McCloskey ran as an anti-war candidate, while Ashbrook opposed Nixon's détente
policies towards China
and the Soviet Union
. In the New Hampshire primary
McCloskey garnered 19.8% of the vote to Nixon's 67.6%, with Ashbrook receiving 9.7%. Nixon won 1323 of the 1324 delegates to the Republican convention, with McCloskey receiving the vote of one delegate from New Mexico. Vice President Spiro Agnew
was re-nominated by acclamation; while both the party's moderate wing and Nixon himself had wanted to replace him with a new running-mate (the moderates favoring Nelson Rockefeller
, and Nixon favoring John Connally
), it was ultimately concluded that such action would incur too great a risk of losing Agnew's base of conservative supporters.
Primaries popular vote result:
– 5,378,704 (86.92%)
*Unpledged – 317,048 (5.12%)
– 311,543 (5.03%)
– 132,731 (2.15%)
Seven members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
were brought on federal charges for conspiring to disrupt the Republican convention.
They were acquitted by a federal jury in Gainesville
Overall, fifteen people declared their candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination. They were:
from South Dakota
, Senator from Minnesota
, former Vice President
, and presidential nominee in 1968
, Governor of Alabama
, Senator from Maine
, vice presidential nominee in 1968
*Eugene J. McCarthy
, former Senator from Minnesota
*Henry M. Jackson
, Senator from Washington
of New York's 12th congressional district
, former Governor of North Carolina
, Mayor of New York City
, New York
, Representative of Arkansas's 2nd congressional district
, Senator from Indiana
, Senator from Oklahoma
, Mayor of Los Angeles
, Representative of Hawaii's 2nd congressional district
, Delegate from Washington, D.C.
Senate Majority Whip Ted Kennedy
, the youngest brother of late President John F. Kennedy
and late United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy
, was the favorite to win the 1972 nomination, but he announced he would not be a candidate.
The favorite for the Democratic nomination then became Senator Ed Muskie
vice-presidential nominee. Muskie's momentum collapsed just prior to the New Hampshire primary, when the so-called "Canuck letter
" was published in the ''Manchester Union-Leader
''. The letter, actually a forgery from Nixon's "dirty tricks" unit, claimed that Muskie had made disparaging remarks about French-Canadians
– a remark likely to injure Muskie's support among the French-American population in northern New England
Subsequently, the paper published an attack on the character of Muskie's wife Jane, reporting that she drank and used off-color
language during the campaign. Muskie made an emotional defense of his wife in a speech outside the newspaper's offices during a snowstorm. Though Muskie later stated that what had appeared to the press as tears were actually melted snowflakes, the press reported that Muskie broke down and cried, shattering the candidate's image as calm and reasoned.
Nearly two years before the election, South Dakota Senator George McGovern
entered the race as an anti-war, progressive candidate.
McGovern was able to pull together support from the anti-war movement and other grassroots support to win the nomination in a primary system he had played a significant part in designing.
On January 25, 1972, New York Representative Shirley Chisholm announced she would run, and became the first African-American woman to run for the Democratic or Republican presidential nomination. Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink also announced she would run, and became the first Asian American to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On April 25, George McGovern won the Massachusetts primary. Two days later, journalist Robert Novak
quoted a "Democratic senator" later revealed to be Thomas Eagleton as saying: "The people don't know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot. Once middle America – Catholic middle America, in particular – finds this out, he's dead." The label stuck and McGovern became known as the candidate of "amnesty, abortion, and acid". It became Humphrey's battle cry to stop McGovern—especially in the Nebraska primary.
Alabama Governor George Wallace
, an anti-integrationist
, did well in the South
(winning nearly every county in the Florida primary) and among alienated and dissatisfied voters in the North
. What might have become a forceful campaign was cut short when Wallace was shot
in an assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer
on May 15. Wallace was struck by five bullets and left paralyzed
from the waist down. The day after the assassination attempt, Wallace won the Michigan and Maryland primaries, but the shooting effectively ended his campaign and he pulled out in July.
In the end, McGovern won the nomination by winning primaries through grassroots support in spite of establishment opposition. McGovern had led a commission to re-design the Democratic nomination system after the divisive nomination struggle and convention of 1968
. However, the new rules angered many prominent Democrats whose influence was marginalized and those politicians refused to support McGovern's campaign (some even supporting Nixon instead), leaving the McGovern campaign at a significant disadvantage in funding compared to Nixon. Some of the principles of the McGovern Commission have lasted throughout every subsequent nomination contest, but the Hunt Commission instituted the selection of Superdelegates
a decade later in order to reduce the nomination chances of outsiders like McGovern and Carter.
Primaries popular vote results:
* Hubert Humphrey
– 4,121,372 (25.77%)
* George McGovern
– 4,053,451 (25.34%)
* George Wallace
– 3,755,424 (23.48%)
* Edmund Muskie
– 1,840,217 (11.51%)
* Eugene McCarthy
– 553,990 (3.46%)
* Henry M. Jackson
– 505,198 (3.16%)
* Shirley Chisholm
– 430,703 (2.69%)
* Terry Sanford
– 331,415 (2.07%)
* John Lindsay
– 196,406 (1.23%)
* Samuel Yorty
– 79,446 (0.50%)
* Wilbur Mills
– 37,401 (0.23%)
* Walter E. Fauntroy
– 21,217 (0.13%)
* Unpledged – 19,533 (0.12%)
* Ted Kennedy
– 16,693 (0.10%)
* Vance Hartke
– 11,798 (0.07%)
* Patsy Mink
– 8,286 (0.05%)
* ''None'' – 6,269 (0.04%)
1972 Democratic National Convention
*Henry M. Jackson
The vice presidential vote
Most polls showed McGovern running well behind incumbent President Richard Nixon
, except when McGovern was paired with Massachusetts
Senator Ted Kennedy
. McGovern and his campaign brain trust lobbied Kennedy heavily to accept the bid to be McGovern's running mate
, but he continually refused their advances, and instead suggested U.S. Representative
(and House Ways and Means Committee
chairman) Wilbur Mills
and Boston Mayor Kevin White
Offers were then made to Hubert Humphrey
, Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff
, and Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale
, all of whom turned it down. Finally, the vice presidential slot was offered to Senator Thomas Eagleton
of Missouri, who accepted the offer.
With hundreds of delegate
s displeased with McGovern, the vote to ratify Eagleton's candidacy was chaotic, with at least three other candidates having their names put into nomination and votes scattered over 70 candidates. A grassroots attempt to displace Eagleton in favor of Texas state representative Frances Farenthold
gained significant traction, though was ultimately unable to change the outcome of the vote.
The vice-presidential balloting went on so long that McGovern and Eagleton were forced to begin making their acceptance speeches at around 2 am, local time.
After the convention ended, it was discovered that Eagleton had undergone psychiatric electroshock therapy
and had concealed this information from McGovern. A ''Time
'' magazine poll taken at the time found that 77 percent of the respondents said, "Eagleton's medical record would not affect their vote." Nonetheless, the press made frequent references to his "shock therapy", and McGovern feared that this would detract from his campaign platform. McGovern subsequently consulted confidentially with preeminent psychiatrists, including Eagleton's own doctors, who advised him that a recurrence of Eagleton's depression was possible and could endanger the country should Eagleton become president. McGovern had initially claimed that he would back Eagleton "1000 percent", only to ask Eagleton to withdraw three days later. This perceived lack of conviction in sticking with his running mate was disastrous for the McGovern campaign.
McGovern later approached six different prominent Democrats to run for vice-president: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie
, Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Ribicoff
, Larry O'Brien
and Reubin Askew
. All six declined. Sargent Shriver
, brother-in-law to John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy, former Ambassador to France
and former Director
of the Peace Corps
, later accepted. He was officially nominated by a special session of the Democratic National Committee
. By this time, McGovern's poll ratings had plunged from 41 to 24 percent.
The only major third party
candidate in the 1972 election was conservative Republican Representative John G. Schmitz
, who ran on the American Independent Party
ticket (the party on whose ballot George Wallace
ran in 1968). He was on the ballot in 32 states and received 1,099,482 votes. Unlike Wallace, however, he did not win a majority of votes cast in any state, and received no electoral votes, although he did finish ahead of McGovern in four of the most conservative Idaho
counties. Schmitz's performance in archconservative Jefferson County
was the best by a third-party Presidential candidate in any free
or postbellum state county since 1936 when William Lemke
reached over twenty-eight percent of the vote in the North Dakota counties of Burke
and Tonie Nathan of the newly formed Libertarian Party
were on the ballot only in Colorado and Washington
, but were official write-in candidates in four others, and received 3,674 votes, winning no states. However, they did receive one Electoral College vote from Virginia
from a Republican faithless elector
(see below). The Libertarian vice-presidential nominee Theodora "Tonie" Nathan
became the first Jew
and the first woman in U.S. history to receive an Electoral College vote.
was nominated by the Socialist Workers Party
, with Andrew Pulley
as her running-mate. Benjamin Spock
and Julius Hobson
were nominated for president and vice-president, respectively, by the People's Party
McGovern ran on a platform of immediately ending the Vietnam War and instituting guaranteed minimum income
s for the nation's poor. His campaign was harmed by his views during the primaries (which alienated many powerful Democrats), the perception that his foreign policy was too extreme, and the Eagleton debacle. With McGovern's campaign weakened by these factors, the Republicans successfully portrayed him as a radical left-wing extremist incompetent to serve as president. Nixon led in the polls
by large margins throughout the entire campaign. With an enormous fundraising advantage and a comfortable lead in the polls, Nixon concentrated on large rallies and focused speeches to closed, select audiences, leaving much of the retail campaigning to surrogates like Vice President Agnew. Nixon did not, by design, try to extend his coattails to Republican congressional or gubernatorial candidates, preferring to pad his own margin of victory.
Nixon's percentage of the popular vote was only marginally less than Lyndon Johnson's record in the 1964 election
, and his margin of victory was slightly larger. Nixon won a majority vote in 49 states, including McGovern's home state of South Dakota
. Only Massachusetts
and the District of Columbia
voted for the challenger, resulting in an even more lopsided Electoral College
tally. McGovern garnered only 37.5 percent of the national popular vote, the lowest share received by a Democratic Party nominee since John W. Davis
won only 28.8 percent of the vote in the 1924 election
. The only major party candidate since 1972 to receive less than 40 percent of the vote was Republican incumbent President George H. W. Bush
who won 37.4 percent of the vote in the 1992 election
, a race that (as in 1924) was complicated by a strong third party vote
Although the McGovern campaign believed that its candidate had a better chance of defeating Nixon because of the new Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution
that lowered the national voting age to 18 from 21, most of the youth vote went to Nixon.
This was the first election in American history in which a Republican
candidate carried every single Southern state
, continuing the region's transformation from a Democratic bastion
into a Republican stronghold as Arkansas
was carried by a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in a century. By this time, all the Southern states, except Arkansas and Texas, had been carried by a Republican in either the previous election or the one in 1964 (although Republican candidates carried Texas in 1928, 1952 and 1956). As a result of this election, Massachusetts became the only state that Nixon did not carry in any of the three presidential elections in which he was a candidate. This is one of only two elections since 1856 that Massachusetts and Rhode Island did not support the same candidate. The other election which the two states did not do so is 1980.
This presidential election was the first since 1808
in which New York
did not have the largest number of electors in the Electoral College, having fallen to 41 electors vs. California
's 45. Additionally, through 2020
it remains the last one in which Minnesota was carried by the Republican candidate.
[Sullivan, Robert David]
'How the Red and Blue Map Evolved Over the Past Century'
''America Magazine'' in ''The National Catholic Review''; June 29, 2016
McGovern won a mere 130 counties, plus the District of Columbia and four county-equivalents in Alaska, easily the fewest counties won by any major-party presidential nominee since the advent of popular presidential elections. In nineteen states, McGovern failed to carry a single county; he carried a mere one county-equivalent in a further nine states, and just two counties in a further seven. In contrast to Walter Mondale
's narrow 1984 win in Minnesota, McGovern comfortably did win Massachusetts, but lost every other state by no less than five percentage points as well as 45 states by more than ten percentage points – the exceptions being Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and his home state of South Dakota. This election also made Nixon the second former vice president in American history to serve two terms back-to-back, after Thomas Jefferson
. Since McGovern carried only one state, bumper stickers reading "Nixon 49 America 1", "Don't Blame Me I'm From Massachusetts" and "Massachusetts: The One And Only" were popular for a short time in Massachusetts.
Nixon managed to win 18% of the African American vote (Gerald Ford would get 16% in 1976). He also remains the only Republican in modern times to threaten the oldest extant Democratic stronghold of South Texas
: this is the last election when the Republicans have won Hidalgo
counties, the only time Republicans have won La Salle County
between William McKinley
in 1900 and Donald Trump
in 2020, and one of only two occasions since Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 that Republicans have gained a majority in Presidio County
More significantly, the 1972 election was the most recent time several highly populous urban counties – including Cook
in Illinois, Orleans
in Louisiana, Hennepin
in Minnesota, Cuyahoga
in Ohio, Durham
in North Carolina, Queens
in New York and Prince George's
in Maryland – have voted Republican.
Nixon, who became term-limited
under the provisions of the Twenty-second Amendment
as a result of his victory, became the first (and, as of 2020, only) presidential candidate to win a significant number of electoral votes in three presidential elections since ratification of that Amendment. Prior to ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment, three other presidential candidates (Andrew Jackson
, Grover Cleveland
and Franklin D. Roosevelt
) also polled significant electoral votes in at least three elections (unlike Nixon, Jackson, Cleveland and Roosevelt also won the popular vote at least three times although only Roosevelt was elected President more than twice). Counting Nixon's successful runs for vice president in the 1950s, he matched Franklin Roosevelt's achievements of five elections polling significant electoral votes and four elections won as a presidential and/or vice presidential nominee.
Image:1972 United States presidential election results map by county.svg|Results by county, shaded according to winning candidate's percentage of the vote
Results by state
For the first time since 1828 Maine allowed its electoral votes to be split between candidates. Two electoral votes were awarded to the winner of the statewide race and one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district. This was the first time the Congressional District Method had been used since Michigan used it in 1892. Nixon won all four votes.
States where margin of victory was more than 5 percentage points, but less than 10 percentage points (43 electoral votes):
#Rhode Island, 6.19%
#South Dakota, 8.63%
Tipping point states:
(tipping point for a Nixon victory)
(tipping point for a McGovern victory)
Counties with highest percentage of the vote (Republican)
# Dade County, Georgia 93.45%
# Glascock County, Georgia 93.38%
# George County, Mississippi 92.90%
# Holmes County, Florida 92.51%
# Smith County, Mississippi 92.35%
Counties with highest percentage of the vote (Democratic)
# Duval County, Texas 85.68%
# Washington, D.C. 78.10%
# Shannon County, South Dakota 77.34%
# Greene County, Alabama 68.32%
# Charles City County, Virginia 67.84%
Counties with highest percentage of the vote (Other)
# Jefferson County, Idaho 27.51%
# Lemhi County, Idaho 19.77%
# Fremont County, Idaho 19.32%
# Bonneville County, Idaho 18.97%
# Madison County, Idaho 17.04%
Nixon won 36 percent of the Democratic vote, according to an exit poll
conducted for CBS News
by George Fine Research, Inc.
This represents more than twice the percentage of voters who typically defect from their party in presidential elections. Nixon also became the first Republican presidential candidate in American history to win the Roman Catholic
vote (53–46), and the first in recent history to win the blue-collar
vote, which he won by a 5-to-4 margin. McGovern narrowly won the union vote (50–48), though this difference was within the survey's margin of error of 2 percentage points. McGovern also narrowly won the youth vote (i.e. those aged 18 to 24) 52–46, a narrower margin than many of his strategists had predicted. Early on, the McGovern campaign also significantly overestimated the number of young people who would vote in the election: they predicted that 18 million would have voted in total, but exit polls indicate that the actual number was about 12 million. McGovern did win comfortably among both African-American
and Jewish voters, but by somewhat smaller margins than usual for a Democratic candidate.
Post-election investigations into the Watergate break-in
On June 17, 1972, five months before election day, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee
headquarters at the Watergate hotel
in Washington, D.C.; the resulting investigation led to the revelation of attempted cover-ups of the break-in within the Nixon administration. What became known as the Watergate scandal
eroded President Nixon's public and political support in his second term, and he resigned on August 9, 1974, in the face of probable impeachment
by the House of Representatives and removal from office by the Senate.
As part of the continuing Watergate investigation in 1974–75, federal prosecutors offered companies that had given illegal campaign contributions to President Nixon's re-election campaign lenient sentences if they came forward.
Many companies complied, including Northrop Grumman
, American Airlines
and Braniff Airlines
By 1976, prosecutors had convicted 18 American corporations of contributing illegally to Nixon's campaign.
*1972 United States House of Representatives elections
*1972 United States Senate elections
*1972 United States gubernatorial elections
*George McGovern 1972 presidential campaign
*Second inauguration of Richard Nixon
*''Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72
'', a collection of articles by Hunter S. Thompson
on the subject of the election, focusing on the McGovern campaign.
Bibliography and further reading
* Nevins, Allan
. ''Ordeal of the Union: Volume I. Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852'' (1947).
* Rayback, Joseph G.
''Free Soil: The Election of 1848''. (1970).
* Silbey, Joel H. ''Party Over Section: The Rough and Ready Presidential Election of 1848'' (2009). 205 pp.
* Chester, Edward W. (1977)''A guide to political platforms''
* Porter, Kirk H. and Donald Bruce Johnson, eds. ''National party platforms, 1840–1972'' (1973)
1972 popular vote by states1972 popular vote by states (with bar graphs)
* — Michael Sheppard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Campaign commercials from the 1972 electionC-SPAN segment on 1972 campaign commercialsC-SPAN segment on the "Eagleton Affair"Election of 1972 in Counting the Votes
Category:Presidency of Richard Nixon
Category:Articles containing video clips