Last July, The Bulwark‘s Charlie Sykes warned Democrats that 2020 could easily turn into a repeat of 1972 – when their party gambled on a far-left candidate to take on an unpopular, divisive President. The result:
Read it all, and tell me if you think the party has learned a friggin’ thing from 1972. Or 2016. Or 2018, when “The Squad” got all the attention after winning in overwhelmingly Democratic districts, but moderate Democrats actually flipped the House.
So, let’s talk about the 1972 election.
In the year leading up to it, the Democrats were giddy with anticipation. The country was still mired in a bloody war, the economy was a mess, and President Richard Nixon, while lacking Trump’s theatricality and instability, was regarded with fear and loathing by much of the country. In the 1970 midterms, Democrats won the popular vote in House races by 8.7 percent, while adding a dozen seats. In 1971, Nixon’s approval ratings dipped below 50 percent, and stayed there. Surely, they told themselves, they could beat this guy.
Nixon’s vulnerability attracted a host of potential challengers, with Senator Edmund Muskie, a previous vice-presidential candidate, as the front-runner. He had gravitas; The Times opined that “No national leader since Franklin Roosevelt has been better than Mr. Muskie in delivering a conventional ‘fireside chat.’”
But they noted that despite Muskie’s appeal, many Democrats “believe the times call for radical change.” For some Democrats, Muskie “appears a little too cautious. He evokes respect, but not enthusiasm.”
This “mild dissatisfaction” gave an opening to a far more liberal candidate, one who spoke to the activated left of the party, George McGovern. For Democrats who shared McGovern’s anti-war passions, his record “establishes his moral superiority,” the Times wrote. But it also noted that others feared that “his views have too sharp a cutting edge and would energize as many elements as he won over.”
That turned out to drastically underestimate McGovern’s weakness. As unpopular as he was, Nixon would go on to win 49 of 50 states, 520 electoral votes, and nearly 61 percent of the popular vote, beating McGovern by nearly 18 million votes.
It’s possible that Nixon would have beaten any Democrat, but what happened in 1972 was not inevitable. It was, however, a choice. Democrats chose to move sharply left – to indulge their ideological id. Nixon ran against the party of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.” The result was a massive landslide for a vulnerable incumbent.