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Presidential Primaries and Caucuses Democrats 1972

In the effort to unseat Nixon, the early front-runner was Muskie, who won several early contests before he blew his reptutation by sobbing after a scandalous story published by the media about his family. These days this would make him more 'human' or something; maybe Dukakis or Gore should have tried it.  But in 1972 this drained his momentum and allowed the McGovern ground game to beat expectations, if not beat Muskie in New Hampshire.  McGovern was running against the Vietnam war, which Nixon had let drag on and was a defining issue for the youth and the liberal wing of the Democratic party inherited from McCarthy's campaign in 1968.
New Hampshire Primary
1972 Democrats
Candidate Percentage
Muskie 46.4
McGovern 37.1
Yorty 6.1
Mills 4
Hartke 2.7
Kennedy (E) 1.1
Humphrey 0.4
Jackson 0.2
Wallace 0.2
Others 1.8
Muskie won several primaries and caucuses outright; he was also reportedly favored by large portions of the officially "uncommitted" delegations selected in South Carolina and Wyoming. In Georgia and Hawaii there was some movement towards McGovern but it is unclear whether he would have a plurality. Mississippi had a convoluted delegate selection process which included two rival sets of delegates, only one of which could be recognized by the convention. Many of the added details on the non-primary states are taken from research done by the "Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball" website, CQ, or Wikipedia and old news articles; note there is a degree of interpretation needed for simplifying the results of some of these contests into a map.

Jan 24: Iowa [Muskie win, McGovern does well in first race where Iowa got the spotlight]
March 7: New Hampshire [Muskie still ahead]
March 14: Florida [Wallace win]
March 21: Illinois [Muskie win]

Muskie had been running a 'national' race spread across all the primaries and could not easily switch to a pick-and-choose strategy; he had a lot of endorsements lined up, and his biggest win was in Illinois (but not heavily contested, he won against McCarthy), but several disappointing finishes had him on the ropes after a distant loss in Wisconsin.

Henry "Scoop" Jackson was a more conservative Democrat who supported military interventionism, unpopular in the closing years of the Vietnam war. He performed poorly (only winning Washington in the early contests) and withdrew (temporarily) after a weak 4th place in Ohio; but he would make a comeback of sorts right before the convention.

Southern conservative/racist Wallace had returned to the party after his 1968 run as an independent, and ran strong in several contests, including a major win in Florida, a state where the issue of busing (mandatory moving of kids into different, sometimes more dangerous or inferior quality, school districts in order to maintain a racial mixture) had generated controversy.  Wallace also advocated school prayer, showing that he was focusing on social issues where he (or the so-called mainstream) thought the liberals and/or unelected judges had pushed too far. Wallace's easy win in Florida humbled Humphrey (2nd place) and Jackson (third), with Muskie an also-ran.  McGovern put some resources into the state not with a goal of winning but to split the left-wing vote with Lindsay, who had campaigned hard there but only got a fifth place finish.  When McGovern then went all-out to win Wisconsin, boosting his own candidacy, Wallace claimed a surprise second place in a Northern progressive state, beating out Humphrey, Muskie and Lindsay. Lindsay (a liberal Republican turned Democrat) was second in Arizona but fifth in Florida and withdrew after sixth place in Wisconsin. McGovern's campaign had focused on taking Massachusetts after a good showing in Wisconsin, and did, while Humphrey had focused on winning Pennsylvania, where he was also successful against strong competition.  Humphrey won Pennsylvania with a close grouping for second, third and fourth between Wallace, McGovern, and Muskie all at around 20%. In states like Missouri and Kentucky, although McGovern forces picked up delegates, the unpledged delegate slates were not just neutral but anti-McGovern, led by hostile governors looking for an establishment frontrunner to back.

April 4: Wisconsin [McGovern wins tight race over Humphrey and Wallace]
April 25: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania [Humphrey wins latter]
May 2: DC (Democrats), Indiana, Ohio

After Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, McGovern had 238 delegates, to 127 for Muskie, 77 for Wallace and 77 for Humphrey. Ohio and Indiana then strengthened Humphrey's position.  

Shirley Chisholm ran as the first major African-American presidential candidate; Patsy Mink was the first Asian American presidential candidate. She was an antiwar candidate who had anticipated some support in the Hawaii caucus and tried for the Oregon primary. Obviously these two were also pioneers for female presidential contenders. 1968 peace candidate McCarthy was on the ballot in some states, but made no headway. Aside from enforcing diversity rules in the convention delegate selection, liberal activists did also manage to exclude Wallace from some of the Southern states' delegate selection processes, a sharp turnaround for the formerly all-white Segregationist Democratic party in the region. Wallace had of course also burned bridges with the party establishment for his 1968 defection. Wallace also had an ineptly organized campaign, doing poorly in caucuses and delegate accumulation. Despite the headwinds, he was still a major player in the primary states, and started expanding beyond his Southern base.

Although Muskie's once dominant campaign lingered, it was widely seen as collapsing; Muskie stopped campaigning after distant second in Massachusetts (also a poll in California showed him trailing Humphrey and McGovern; in Vermont Muskie was supported by the party establishment but lost to McGovern anyway) and the race seemed to narrow into a three-way contest between Wallace, Humphrey, and McGovern. Humphrey had learned to play the primary game better than his two previous runs; he competed in more primaries this time around than he could in 1968 (due to his late entry into that race). Henry Jackson's campaign was soon as marginalized as had been Muskie's effort.  Humphrey won in Indiana and West Virginia over efforts by Wallace, and won in Ohio although McGovern came very close to an upset.  McGovern won in Nebraska over Humphrey, slowing Humphrey's momentum.  Terry Sanford challenged Wallace in North Carolina and was defeated; Wallace also won Tennessee (but many delegates were gained by McGovern and Chisholm due to a separate selection process, and these threatened to not abide by the state law binding them to the primary winner). Wallace was poised to make a major impact on the direction of the Democratic party, even temporarily leading the primary vote, only to be shot (but of course he was only wounded; assassins always seem to aim better at people like Lincoln and Gandhi and MLK). He won Maryland and Michigan (getting a lot of Republican crossover votes) even after but was unable to continue the campaign. His injury also removed the threat of another third-party candidacy in the fall, which may have made the race more interesting for Nixon.  Humphrey had a disappointing showing in Michigan.

May 4: Tennessee
May 6: North Carolina
May 9: Nebraska, West Virginia
May 16: Maryland, Michigan [Wallace takes both]

In news reports from many non-primary states McGovern was the "winner" defined as the candidate who got more delegates than any other named candidate (a plurality of committed delegates)--while a majority of delegates were usually "uncommitted" (lined up behind party leaders who would, as in the old system, attempt to control the process, and specifically blocked McGovern in states like Kentucky, Missouri, and Hawaii). Making interpretation difficult, these delegate slates were not always truly unaligned: in some early states they were leaning towards Muskie, later there was reported support for Humphrey, finally after mid-June many remaining anti-McGovern delegates ended up going to Jackson (and a few of the liberals jumping to Chisholm). A possible aspect to McGovern's momentum despite not winning a majority of primary votes or a majority in the first round of many caucuses or local/state conventions may be that he often got proportionally more delegates than his primary votes, and by having his caucus/state convention delegates openly committed to him, his delegate total gave him the apparent lead over his establishment rivals. The establishment with their uncommitted slates were still playing a different game. His team's expertise in the delegate selection process ended up accumulating a decisive lead over his rivals, capped by the June victories in California and New York.
Before California, McGovern had 560 delegates, to Wallace's 324 and Humphrey's 311. Had Humphrey won in California, the endgame of the campaign might have been very different.  

May 23: Oregon, Rhode Island
June 6: California, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota [McGovern over Humphrey in California]

California's winner-take-all primary was contested by McGovern and Humphrey, who engaged in a debate where Humphrey scored points against the details of some of McGovern's liberal ideas.  However, McGovern won there, and also won New Mexico and South Dakota.  New Jersey went to Chisholm. California awarded all of its 271 delegates to McGovern who won 43% to 38% for Humphrey. Anti-McGovern forces then challenged the "winner take all" method as contrary to the new party rules which promoted proportional representation--and lost. 

Delegate totals June 15:
George McGovern – 1000
George Wallace – 367
Hubert Humphrey – 354
Edmund Muskie – 171
All others 110
Henry M. Jackson less than 50

Chisholm emerged as the first African-American candidate to win state contests; she won the vote in New Jersey, however this primary was not contested by the frontrunners and was not tied to the delegate selection process. Chisholm also picked up last-minute delegate pluralities in Louisiana and Mississippi at the convention. In Mississippi two rival delegate slates were assembled. The more liberal, mixed-race faction was recognized at the convention over a presumably pro-Wallace faction; those who were seated were thought to be mostly McGovern supporters but a plurality of delegates voted Chisholm at the convention. Arkansas was won by a favorite son, Mills. The multi-round Texas process at one stage awarded Wallace a delegate lead, but in the end McGovern got more of that state's delegates (therefore the state is marked with an asterisk on the map to show both colors). Wallace also did well in New Mexico, close behind McGovern and ahead of Humphrey.

Finally, McGovern took command in New York; this state had an unreformed delegate selection process, which ironically made it susceptible to the superior organizing of the McGovern supporters. The combination of over 500 delegates from California and New York put McGovern's delegate total near the threshold.  Although McGovern's campaign was credited later for being the master of the new primary-dominated nomination system, Humphrey and Wallace were neck-and-neck with McGovern for total votes in the primaries at the end (Humphrey actually got more primary votes). But the activist, fervently anti-war supporters of McGovern managed to add up enough delegates in a combination of primary and caucus states to give him the nomination. McGovern's campaign managed the primary delegate count better than his rivals; McGovern had helped set the reforms in motion after the 1968 convention so his campaign's skill at the game should have been somewhat less surprising. The tactics of primaries and caucuses were in a stage of transition; no longer could party leaders who won a few states (or even just their home state as a 'favorite son') use their blocks of delegates to influence the nomination in the 'smoke-filled rooms' of a convention. Here a candidate with a well-organized force of zealots had beaten the system in an example of what is now the normal strategy: before 1972, entering and winning a few select primaries was merely a demonstration of support, because victory in the primaries would not guarantee a win at the convention (see the Democratic contest of 1952) and many candidates avoided potentially embarassing head-to-head showdowns for votes; after 1972, no candidate would be able to win the nomination without winning enough votes nationwide to defeat all challengers (although in close races like 1984 and 2008 for the Democrats and 1976 and 2016 for the Republicans, the exacting details of translating votes into delegates did make a difference). Exciting, up-in-the-air conventions were a thing of the past. 

The 1972 convention did have some wrangling over delegate credentials as the party establishment tried desperately to derail McGovern, made more complicated by new diversity quotas (so delegations had enough women and blacks, instead of being mostly white men and party leaders). Besides California, where the anti-McGovern faction tried to distribute the delegates proportionally, the Illinois delegation was also the subject of controversy, this time as McGovern's camp replaced the earlier slate of delegates with a more 'inclusive' (and pro-McGovern) lineup. Henry Jackson, after a failed campaign (only winning Washington in early contests), re-emerged after Humphrey dropped out to accumulate a peak of 534 delegates as the main anti-McGovern choice, by picking up delegates in states with large numbers of uncommitted delegates (Hawaii, Missouri, Wyoming, SC, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Delaware; he also picked up a plurality of delegates in Pennsylvania, a state won initially by Humphrey, and tied for first in the delegate tally in Georgia). However, this effort was too little too late and could not prevent a first-round victory for McGovern.  Getting establishment support, funding, or someone to sign on as the vice-presidential pick would be more challenging, and the convention itself was disorganized.

Delegate totals at the convention:
George McGovern – 1,729
Henry M. Jackson – 525
George Wallace – 382
Shirley Chisholm – 152
Terry Sanford – 78
Hubert Humphrey – 67
Wilbur Mills – 34
Edmund Muskie – 25

The map below awards Jackson and Chisholm some last-minute state delegation pickups which were recorded at the convention (but keeps colors of the primary wins from before)

June 14 Texas [stage where Wallace had delegate lead in state]
June 20 New York [McGovern dominates]

Of course the same radical enthusiasm which propelled McGovern caused the Democrats to endorse guaranteed incomes and other socialist measures that alienated the 'silent' mainstream of the country, and McGovern would also have some shocking running-mate troubles; not supported by many of his own party leaders and viewed as less than presidential management material, he would be humiliated like no loser had been humiliated before--or at least not since 1936 when Republican candidate Landon won 8 electoral votes against FDR. Of course, the Watergate break-in on June 17 (when it should have been clear McGovern was the likely nominee without a brokered convention) showed that Nixon's paranoia was beyond realistic; his dirty tricks against various Democrats should have been given a break but Nixon didn't want to chance being voted out of office by dead people again and he destroyed his own presidency at the same time the McGovern campaign was about to unravel.