Recounting McGovern's Defeat While the Body Is Still Warm

IN OCTOBER, THE MONTH when campaigns are supposed to move into high gear, George McGovern's national political coordinator, Frank Mankiewicz, pulled aside a political adviser with Harvard connections. Was a confident Mankiewicz offering a cabinet position in the McGovern Administration? Not exactly.

"I wonder," Mankiewicz asked, "whether it might be possible to arrange a fellowship for me at the Institute of Politics for next term?" Down at McGovern headquarters, this has been a good season for gallow's humor.

The mark of an optimist in the waning days of the McGovern campaign was a hope that the election would be closely contested in the industrial states of the North. For even if these states could not carry McGovern to victory, they could save him from total, pulverizing defeat.

Although returns were incomplete at press time, it was clear that Frank Mankiewicz will indeed be looking for a new job this morning. For the Nixon landslide victory, which had been predicted since the Democratic Convention, slowly took shape last night as the election returns made their way toward the computers. Even the meager optimism of McGovern's supporters in the last days of the campaign proved to have been ill-founded.

Nixon didn't make any mistakes. For example, not only did he carry New York State, which he had lost in 1968, but he also carried New York City, where two weeks ago Nixon campaign aides had said they would be happy to hold McGovern to a 400,000-vote plurality.


There will be many autopsies of the McGovern campaign. But while the body is still warm, we can ask a few pertinent questions. Why did McGovern fall to defeat as on popular incumbent who was vulnerable on many issues? Why did he fail to carry such traditional Democratic Party strongholds as Illinois Michigan and Texas?

Was McGovern illegitimate as a national Democratic Party candidate because of his association with a left of center minority within the Party as Democrats for Nixon organizers claimed? Can McGovern poor showing be traced to his left-liberal politics which were not in step with the conservative mood of the electorate? Or can they be traced to specific mistakes which he and his associates made in the course of the Campaign?

In a series of recent interviews three advisers to the McGovern campaign--Doris H. Learn, associate professor of Government; Marc J. Roberts '64, associate professor of Economics; and Martin H. Peretz, assistant professor of Social Studies--described some of their experiences during the summer and fall. Though they were all hesitant to talk on the record about specific mistakes made by McGovern, a picture of a sloppy and at times diffident campaign organization emerges from their accounts. A fourth adviser who wished to remain anonymous summed up his view of the campaign by saying: "The voters decided that McGovern couldn't be trusted to handle a crisis with confidence and skill. And when you come down to it the voters usually right."

Criticisms of the conduct of the campaign hinged on several critical questions outlined below.

Did McGovern Campaign on the Issues

THE MYSTIQUE OF George McGovern, developed during his string of primary victories, was that he was an honest man who was willing to confront the issues head on. He was seen as being above politics," offering an alternative to frustrated voters who believe that in general, all politicians are crooks.

All three advisers believe that after McGovern's $1000 income redistribution proposal had been attacked during the California primary, he and his advisers were wary of making specific issue oriented proposals.

"After the $1000 flare-up in California, McGovern faced a choice." said Marc Roberts. "He had gotten burned on badly-researched but basically sound income redistribution proposal, and he had to decide either that his next serious statement on economic issues was going to be impeccably researched, or that he wasn't going to make anymore major policy statements. Far too much, McGovern chose the latter course."

Long before he became involved in the McGovern campaign, Roberts had been meeting with several of his junior faculty colleagues, including Doris Kearns, in a discussion group trying to put together a populist political strategy. The members of the seminar had decided that a populist campaign for the presidency would begin with a series of detailed position papers and policy statements early in the campaign. They believed that as the populist candidate spoke publicly on the practical implementation of his new proposals, he would develop a confidence which would be apparent to voters. He would know, for example, just what a $100 income supplement would cost.

Roberts, Kearns and other members of the seminar went to Washington in December 1970 at the expense of Senator Edmund S. Muskie (d-Maine). then front-runner for the Democratic nomination. They tried to sell Muskie on their issue-oriented approach. Roberts remembers that some of the younger Muskie staffers were sympathetic, but that older politicians in the room-confident that front-runners didn't need issues--weren't buying. So despite an invitation from Muskie's administrative assistant, Don Nicholls, to produce a serious draft of their campaign strategy, the Harvard group returned to Cambridge still looking for a candidate.

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