United States presidential election, 1972

The United States presidential election of 1972 was the 47th quadrennial presidential election, held on Tuesday, November 7, 1972. The Democratic Party's nomination was eventually won by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, who ran an anti-war campaign against incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon, but was handicapped by his outsider status, limited support from his own party, the perception of many voters that he was a left-wing extremist and the scandal that resulted from the firing of vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton.

Emphasizing a good economy and his successes in foreign affairs, such as coming near to ending American involvement in the Vietnam War and establishing relations with China, Nixon decisively defeated McGovern. Overall, Nixon won 60.7% of the popular vote, a percentage only slightly lower than Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but with a larger margin of victory in the popular vote (23.2%), the fourth largest in presidential election history. He received almost 18 million more popular votes than McGovern, the widest margin of any United States presidential election. McGovern only won the electoral votes of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. No candidate since had managed to equal or surpass Nixon's total percentage or margin of the popular vote, and his electoral vote total and percentage has been surpassed only once, and his state total matched only once, by Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Also in this election, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American to run for a major party nomination, and Patsy Mink was the first Asian American candidate to run for the Democratic Party nomination. It also was the first time that Hawaii was carried by a Republican, becoming the last of the 50 states to do so. Together with the House and Senate elections of 1972, it was the first electoral event in which people aged 18 to 20 could vote in any state, according to the provisions of the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This is also the most recent presidential election where at least one electoral vote was won by a candidate who, at the time of the election, was neither a Republican or Democrat.

Democratic nomination

United States presidential election, 1972

Overall, 15 people declared their candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination. They were:

  • George McGovern, Senator from South Dakota
  • Hubert Humphrey, Senator from Minnesota and former Vice President, presidential nominee in 1968
  • George Wallace, Governor of Alabama
  • Edmund Muskie, Senator from Maine
  • Eugene J. McCarthy, former Senator from Minnesota
  • Henry M. Jackson, Senator from Washington
  • Shirley Chisholm, Representative of New York's 12th congressional district
  • Terry Sanford, former Governor of North Carolina
  • John Lindsay, Mayor of New York City, New York
  • Wilbur Mills, Representative of Arkansas's 2nd congressional district
  • Vance Hartke, Senator from Indiana
  • Fred Harris, Senator from Oklahoma
  • Sam Yorty, Mayor of Los Angeles, California
  • Patsy Mink, Representative of Hawaii's 2nd congressional district
  • Walter Fauntroy, Delegate from Washington, D.C.

Candidates gallery


Senate Majority Whip Ted Kennedy, the youngest brother of late President John F. Kennedy and late Attorney General 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 Ed Muskie, the 1968 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 â€" 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 claimed in a column that a Democratic senator whom he did not name said of McGovern: "The people don't know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot. Once middle America â€" Catholic middle America, in particular â€" 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 â€" especially in the Nebraska primary.

Alabama Governor George Wallace, an anti-integrationist, did well in the South (he won every county in the Florida primary) and in the North among alienated and dissatisfied voters. 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 four bullets and left paralyzed. The day after the assassination attempt, Wallace won the Michigan and Maryland primaries, but the shooting effectively ended his campaign.

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. The fundamental principle of the McGovern Commissionâ€"that the Democratic primaries should determine the winner of the Democratic nominationâ€"have lasted throughout every subsequent nomination contest. 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.

Primary results

Primaries popular vote results:

Notable endorsements

1972 Democratic National Convention


The vice presidential vote

With hundreds of delegates angry at McGovern for one reason or another, the vote was chaotic, with at least three other candidates having their names put into nomination and votes scattered over 70 candidates. The eventual winner was Senator Thomas Eagleton.

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 for depression 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 as his 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.

Republican nomination

United States presidential election, 1972

Republican candidates:

  • Richard Nixon, President of the United States
  • Pete McCloskey, Representative from California
  • John M. Ashbrook, Representative from Ohio

Candidates gallery


Richard Nixon was a popular incumbent president in 1972, as he was credited with achieving détente with the People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Polls showed that Nixon held a strong lead in the Republican primaries. He was challenged by two candidates, liberal Pete McCloskey of California and conservative John Ashbrook of 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 the loss of Angew's base of conservative supporters would be too big of a risk.

Primary results

Primaries popular vote result:

  • Richard Nixon â€" 5,378,704 (86.92%)
  • Unpledged â€" 317,048 (5.12%)
  • John Ashbrook â€" 311,543 (5.03%)
  • Pete McCloskey â€" 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, Florida.

Third parties

United States presidential election, 1972

The only major third party candidate in the 1972 election was conservative Republican Representative John G. Schmitz, who ran on the American 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.

John Hospers of the newly formed Libertarian Party was on the ballot only in Colorado and Washington and received 3,573 votes, winning no states. However, he did receive one electoral vote from Virginia from a Republican faithless elector (see below). The Libertarian vice-presidential nominee Theodora "Tonie" Nathan became the first woman in U.S. history to receive an electoral vote.

Linda Jenness 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.

General election


McGovern ran on a platform of immediately ending the Vietnam War and instituting guaranteed minimum incomes 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. He ran a campaign with an aggressive policy of keeping tabs on perceived enemies, and his aides committed the burglary of Watergate to steal Democratic Party information during the campaign.


Nixon's percentage of the popular vote was only slightly 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. The election saw the lowest voter turnout for a presidential election since 1948, with only 55 percent of the electorate voting, perhaps because of voter apathy caused by the foregone conclusion of a Nixon landslide. It was also the first election since 1808 in which New York did not have the largest number of electors in the Electoral College, having fallen to 41 electors versus California's 45.

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, a majority of those under 21 voted for Nixon. The 1972 election was the first 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 one. By this time, all the Southern states except Arkansas and Texas had been carried by a Republican in either the previous election or the 1964 election. As a result of this election, Massachusetts was the only state not to be carried by Nixon in any of his three presidential campaigns. As of 2012, this is also the last election where Minnesota was carried by the Republican candidate (Minnesota later being the only state not won by Ronald Reagan in either 1980 or 1984). This election also made Nixon the second former Vice President in American history to be elected and reelected, after Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and 1804.

Source (Popular Vote): Leip, David. 1972 Presidential Election Results. Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections (August 7, 2005). Source (Electoral Vote): Electoral College Box Scores 1789â€"1996. Official website of the National Archives. (August 7, 2005). Source (Close States): http://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/stats.php?year=1972&f=0&off=0&elect=0 (Retrieved: January 24, 2013).

(a)A Virginia faithless elector, Roger MacBride, though pledged to vote for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, instead voted for Libertarian candidates John Hospers and Theodora "Tonie" Nathan.
(b)In Arizona, Pima and Yavapai counties had a ballot malfunction that counted many votes for both a major party candidate and Linda Jenness of the Socialist Workers Party. A court ordered that the ballots be counted for both. As a consequence, Jenness received 16% and 8% of the vote in Pima and Yavapai, respectively. 30,579 of her 30,945 Arizona votes are from those two counties. Some sources do not count these votes for Jenness.

Results by state

Close states

States where margin of victory was more than 5 percentage points, but less than 10 percentage points (43 electoral votes):



On June 17, five months before election day, five men broke into the Democratic National Convention headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, D.C.; the resulting investigation led to the revelation of attempted cover-ups within the Nixon administration. Known as the Watergate scandal, the exposed corruption cost Nixon public and political support, and he resigned on August 9, 1974, in the face of probable impeachment charges by Congress.

Corporate campaign contributions

As part of the continuing investigation in 1974â€"75, Watergate scandal prosecutors offered companies that had given illegal campaign contributions to Nixon's re-election campaign lenient sentences if they came forward. Many companies complied, including Northrop Grumman, 3M, American Airlines and Braniff Airlines. By 1976, prosecutors had convicted 18 American corporations of contributing illegally to Nixon's campaign.

See also

  • George McGovern presidential campaign, 1972
  • 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

  • Giglio, James N. "The Eagleton Affair: Thomas Eagleton, George McGovern, and the 1972 Vice Presidential Nomination," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Dec 2009, Vol. 39 Issue 4, pp 647â€"676
  • Graebner, Norman A. "Presidential Politics in a Divided America: 1972," Australian Journal of Politics & History, March 1973, Vol. 19 Issue 1, pp 28â€"47
  • Hofstetter, C. Richard; Zukin, Cliff. "TV Network News and Advertising in the Nixon and McGovern Campaigns," Journalism Quarterly, Spring 1979, Vol. 56 Issue 1, pp 106â€"152
  • Nicholas, H. G. "The 1972 Elections," Journal of American Studies, April 1973, Vol. 7 Issue 1, pp 1â€"15
  • White, Theodore S. The Making of the President, 1972 (1973)

External links

  • The Election Wall's 1972 Election Video Page
  • 1972 popular vote by counties
  • 1972 popular vote by states
  • 1972 popular vote by states (with bar graphs)
  • How close was the 1972 election? at the Wayback Machine (archived August 25, 2012) â€" Michael Sheppard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Campaign commercials from the 1972 election
  • C-SPAN segment on 1972 campaign commercials
  • C-SPAN segment on the "Eagleton Affair"
  • Election of 1972 in Counting the Votes

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