Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > In Memoriam: George McGovern and Liberal Politics

Oct 21, 2012

In Memoriam: George McGovern and Liberal Politics


McGovern vs. Nixon campaign pamphlet, 1972. Credit: Pennsylvania AFL-CIO.

George McGovern was the first presidential candidate I actively campaigned for. Like many baby boomers, I stood on the street corner handing out “Vote for McGovern” handbills. The fifty-year-old Democrat was so unique among politicians, we gave him a special exception to our first commandment: Never trust anyone over thirty.

Under thirty? Sure. We knew we could trust each other. Or so we thought.

But the day before George McGovern died, I stumbled across a little known fact that took me back those forty years and made me wonder whether my trust was misplaced.

Assuming that we can trust the data compiled by American National Election Studies, it seems that on Election Day 1972, of my fellow under-thirty, baby-boomer voters, only 47 percent marked their ballots for McGovern. 53 percent voted for Richard Nixon.

There are at least two good lessons here:  First, our knowledge of the body politic depends largely on who we hang out with. We tend to assume too easily that the people we know in our own demographic groups (age, gender, race, whatever) represent the entirety of those demographics. I suppose we ought to get around more, talk to more people who are like us demographically but not politically.

The other lesson is that the common wisdom handed down as history is often not borne out by the facts. I suppose we ought to do more empirical research and less parroting of the common wisdom (of which, in this case, I was guilty all these years).

By coincidence, on the day George McGovern died I learned another fact about that 1972 election: women voted overwhelmingly for Nixon, in virtually the same numbers as men. And there was no gender gap at all in 1976. Since 1980, though, Republican presidential candidates have done far better among men and Democrats far better among women. It looks like the same pattern will repeat again this Election Day.

When I mentioned this to my wife, she asked an obvious question that I’ve rarely if ever seen discussed in all the fevered analysis of the polls: In presidential elections, do more women vote, or more men, or is it roughly equal?

Since I had the American National Election Studies website up on my computer, it was easy to get an answer: In ’72 and ’76, women voters far outnumbered men. It didn’t matter much then, since there was virtually no gender gap.

But since 1980, women have continued to outnumber men by nearly as much. On average, roughly 54 percent of voters have been women. To repeat: In all those elections, women have voted Democratic in significantly higher numbers than men. So if the vote had been evenly split between the two genders, the Republicans would have done significantly better.

In 2000, for example, Al Gore won the women’s vote by 11 percent. George W. Bush got the men by 9 percent. But 56 percent of the voters were women. Had it been 50-50, Bush would have won easily and the Supreme Court would have been spared its worst embarrassment in living memory.

As far as I can tell, since 1972 (when the stats I have on the gender gap begin), there’s no case where the preponderance of women was the decisive factor; i.e., where a 50-50 gender turnout would have swung the election to the other candidate.

But 2012 could be a first. As close as this election is, and with the gender gap as large as ever, if the pattern of women outnumbering men by about 8 points continues, Barack Obama might well gain re-election solely due to the women’s vote.

The larger point here is that, since 1980, the presidential vote has not accurately reflected the political views of the population at large (assuming that the gender split in the overall population is roughly 50-50, which is roughly the case in the U.S.). With so many more women voting, the electorate has trended a bit more Democratic than the whole body politic. In other words, the presidential election results have led us to think that the American people were a bit more liberal than they really were.

In the same way, the mythic tale of George McGovern and the “youth vote” led us to think that the baby-boomers of “the ‘60s” were a bit more liberal than they really were.

Considering what hard times it’s often been for liberals since 1972, it’s a bitter pill for those of us on the left to learn that the reality has been even worse than we thought.

It’s sad that we no longer have George McGovern with us. He was such a fine model of the committed liberal who keeps on speaking up for what he (or, more likely, she) believes in, regardless of how chilly the political climate may be.

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