Today’s news of former South Dakota Senator George McGovern’s move into hospice care came as no major surprise, given that he’d been hospitalized a couple of times already this year, but there’s an added poignancy that it’s taking place so close to the 40th anniversary of his attempt to defeat the criminal administration of President Richard Nixon.
McGovern’s name will be forever linked (as it is in the Washington Post headline) with an “historic landslide” by Nixon. That’s been the take-away for most people about McGovern for four decades, it’s the one thing people learn about him now—if they learn anything at all—and it’s been a story that the folks in the party who brought you the Vietnam War and its legacy have been more than happy to peddle. 520 electoral votes for Nixon, 17 for McGovern; just Massachussets and the District of Columbia, lost his home state, blah, blah, blah….
Sure, McGovern lost an election to the only man in American history to have to actually resign the presidency. A man whose administration was so corrupt his closest advisors went to jail. Whose vice presdent had to resign—less than a year after Nixon’s “landslide”—because of bribery charges. Whose former attorney general/re-election campaign manager went to prison for conspiracy, perjury, and obstruction of justice. The guy whose replacement attorney general was also convicted of perjury. No problem running a campaign against a bunch of crooks, right?
Hopefully, we won’t know for a while what will be at the top of the Post obituary for former Vice President Walter Mondale, but it probably won’t be that he was beaten in a landslide by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, despite the fact that Mondale got fewer electoral votes (14) than McGovern. Mondale won his home state (and DC), but that was the only state he won, and even though he got 40.6% of the popular vote compared to McGovern’s 37.5%, it’s a fair bet that the shellacking he took isn’t going to lead the story.
How can we tell? Well let’s take a look at Barry Goldwater. When he died in 1998, The Post story on him was “Barry Goldwater, GOP Hero, Dies”. His loss to President Lyndon Johnson is mentioned in the third paragraph as preparing the way for Reagan. Goldwater carried 6 states in 1964 (Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina) for 52 electoral votes but received just 1% more of the popular vote than McGovern.
What’s most annoying about the McGovern headline is that it was the Post that was a major player in the exposure of Nixon’s abuse of power. “Ex-Sen. George McGovern, who tried to defeat the criminal Nixon syndicate, enters hospice care” would have been a more appropriate headline, if the 1972 election was the lens they wanted to view this through.
Anyone who’s bothered to read this blog over time knows that I’ve had a bug for McGovern for some time now. I had some hopes about writing a book on the Democratic reaction to the 1972 campaign that sparked a couple years of research and my trip to South Dakota, but never managed to get any interest from a publisher and then other things intervened. But I’ll leave you with a little math.
As we know from the 2000 election, the Electoral College system is a screwed up way to run a democracy. But it could have worked to McGovern’s advantage, if just a few more people had known about Nixon’s crimes a little bit sooner.
McGovern carried Massachusetts and DC with 54% and 78% of the vote, respectively. But there were a number of key states he lost by margins of 10% or less. In fact, McGovern could have carried the election in the electoral college with a change of just 6% of the popular vote.
To win in the Electoral College, a candidate needs the majority of 537 votes, or 269 EV. In 1972, George McGovern got 14 for Massachusetts and 3 for DC.
In Rhode Island (4 EV), McGovern took 46.8% of the popular vote; a change of just over 3% would have given him a victory there. Around 4% of the vote switching from Nixon to McGovern in Minnesota (46.1%) could have garnered 14 EV. Another 4 EV from his home state of South Dakota would have been his if he’d gone from 45.5% to 50.5%. Changes of between 7% and 9% of the popular vote would have landed McGovern California (45 EV), Michigan (21 EV), Oregon (6 EV), and Wisconsin (11 EV). That’s 122 EV with less than 10% of the vote changing in seven states.
Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, and New York all switch with 10% of the vote, for another 83 EV: a total of 205 EV. Changes of between 11% and 13% bring in Maine, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington. 65 EV and a total of 270 electoral votes. If McGovern could have won 17 states and the District of Columbia (the ones where he had the highest percentage of voters), he would have won the race.
The number of voters needed to effect that change: 3,424,000, or 4.5% of the 76,341,970 voters in the 1972 election. McGovern would still have gotten less than 43% of the popular vote, but he would have won the Electoral College. Even if I would have cheered results like that, that’s one screwed-up system.
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