Sanders, who received a fair share of this type of criticism in 2016, is once again under fire for being “too far left” or “too radical” and has been painted as nothing less than the Second Coming of George McGovern. But America is nothing like what is was in 1972, and anyone suggesting a Sanders candidacy is predestined to suffer the same fate as McGovern hasn’t learned from history as much as they are enslaved to it.
In 1972, McGovern lost every contest (including his home state) except for Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But that was before political polarization and party sorting remolded both major parties into more homogenous and ideologically cohesive units; gone are the days when Democrats and Republicans still provided a large enough tent to house multiple interest groups — despite genuine ideological, racial, ethnic, geographic and class differences around broad common interests. The ability of both parties to stay competitive in nearly every state led Nixon and McGovern to fight over most of the country.
But since then, an iron curtain of ideological polarization has divided red and blue America. And with barely a dozen states truly in play this time around, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which all or even most states are seriously contested, as in 1972. While this spells bad news for American democracy, it is good news for Sanders, because it would allow him to focus his campaign’s energy and resources in a more targeted manner, without having to worry about an all-out rout.
Democrats enjoy such a huge advantage in states like California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts that even if Sanders alienated some of the more moderate Democratic voters there, it is unlikely that they would turn red, which would furnish the type of electoral knockout McGovern received.
It is true Sanders could scare away some centrist voters. But he is poised to offset at least some of those losses by attracting new ones thanks to massive demographic shifts. Having co-chaired the McGovern-Fraser Commission in 1969 that reformed the primary process, McGovern recalled, “I opened up the doors of the Democratic Party, and 20 million people walked out.” Though he was jokingly referring to mainly blue-collar voters, Sanders enjoys a much larger base of voters of color, young voters and potentially at least a part of the white non-college-educated working class.
Although McGovern had the support of many African American voters, he couldn’t really benefit from the Hispanic vote, yet. The Hispanic population barely reached 10 million in the early 1970s. Today there are around 60 million Hispanics in the United States, and their share in the electorate is projected to reach a new high this year by making up over 13 percent of all eligible voters. Hispanic voters who reside in battleground states such as Florida, Arizona and Nevada can offer Sanders a strategic constituency McGovern never enjoyed. Sanders would need to overcome two barriers to reap this electoral harvest: Hispanics tend to vote in lower rates than other minority groups, and when they do — it’s not as overwhelmingly for Democrats. Hillary Clinton captured two-thirds of Hispanic votes in 2016.
Similarly, with the ink still dry on the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age to 18 just a year before the election, McGovern split the youth vote. Nixon had cultivated his own youth reserves among the “Children of the Silent Majority,” through grass-roots organizations such as Young Americans for Freedom and Young Voters for the President. The lack of time and resources prevented McGovern from accomplishing his ambitious plan to tap into this new pool of voters, leading one historian to conclude that “the central reef on which these hopes were wrecked was the fact that most of these new voters did not vote.”
These days, millennials, who have overtaken the boomers as the largest demographic bloc, have consistently increased their voting rates and now threaten to outvote older generations. Trump secured only about a third of the youth vote in 2016. Conversely, Sanders has energized young voters, which could give him a demographic advantage in the general election that McGovern could only dream about.
It is not only domestic transformations that would prevent Sanders from sharing McGovern’s fate: The end of the Cold War and the absence of any divisive national security issues like Vietnam means that foreign policy, barring any unforeseen international development or terrorist attack, will not weigh down on Sanders the same way it did McGovern. McGovern made the fact that he was “Right From the Start” in his opposition to the Vietnam War the raison d’etre of his entire campaign. But this very crusade for peace at all costs that catapulted him to the Democratic presidential nomination also sealed his fate in the general election. In the face of continued communist aggression around the world, McGovern’s isolationist pleas to “Come Home, America!” and his pledge to get down on his “Hands and Knees” to bring peace and return the POWs alienated one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal bases of support since the New Deal: working-class whites. Even the AFL-CIO lost faith: For the first time in its history, it refused to endorse the Democratic nominee for president; in the eyes of George Meany, its hawkish union boss, McGovern had become “an apologist for the communist world.”
Although the culture wars and racially divisive issues such as busing, welfare, and law and order hurt him (he was smeared as the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty and Abortion”), McGovern’s flaccid image as commander in chief and the perception that he was “weak on defense” ultimately did him in. When compared to Nixon, the great cold warrior, the architect of detente, who had just returned from historic visits to Beijing and Moscow and promised to bring “peace with honor” to Vietnam, McGovern never really stood a chance.
But the Cold War is over, and Trump is no Nixon. Trump recently called Sanders a communist, but the label seems to only embolden the self-declared democratic socialist. Without the Cold War overshadowing him — and in the wake of the crisis of capitalism unleashed by the 2008 financial meltdown — Sanders, who is already racking up endorsements from organized labor, might actually get the chance to finally make this case to blue-collar voters most likely to respond to it.
Technology also gives Sanders two important instruments that McGovern lacked: name recognition and online fundraising. As late as 1969, after he led a short-lived campaign for the presidential nomination a year earlier, the South Dakota senator remained, in the words of the New York Times, “as little known to the general public as a ‘prominent’ politician could be,” allowing him to “sit unnoticed at a table” at a popular Capitol Hill restaurant. Thanks in part to the advent of 24-hour news television, social media (as well as to Larry David’s caricature of him on “Saturday Night Live”) and to the “permanent campaign” mode that has seized American politics, Sanders is a household name in a way McGovern wasn’t.
This proves beneficial for fundraising. The McGovern campaign was under chronic financial pressures and almost always short on cash despite pioneering direct-mail solicitations to raise small contributions. It could not really match the resources available to Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President (mocked as CREEP) that was raking in millions of dollars in “suitcases full of cash,” some of which were later exposed as illegal. Nixon outspent McGovern 2 to 1.
The Sanders campaign has developed a remarkable online fundraising operation that has proved it can go toe-to-toe with Trump: Although the president still has an advantage — thanks mostly to large contributions from wealthy GOP donors — Sanders garnered around 1.8 million small donations in the last quarter of 2019, averaging $18.53, to haul a whopping $34 million. If Sanders gets the chance to go up against Trump, unlike McGovern, he will have the resources to do so.
Do all these changes suggest Sanders will win, if given the chance to face Trump? Obviously not. Trump is an incumbent president with a strong economy and massive sums of cash on hand, who will undoubtedly wage one of the most ruthless campaigns in history, regardless of the Democratic nominee. There are certainly lessons to draw from the 1972 election. From the asinine decision to give his acceptance speech at 3 a.m. to the disastrous handling of Tom Eagleton’s vice-presidential pick, McGovern’s presidential run was mired with amateurishness, indecision and incompetence. But America has changed dramatically in ways that have made it much more hospitable to the left-liberal ideas Sanders is championing. If nominated, he might very well lose, though it’s unlikely to be in catastrophic terms. Democrats can and should challenge Sanders on his fiscally unsound policies (like Medicare-for-all) or his isolationist foreign policy. But they should not do so by pointing to McGovern.