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An Interpretation of the 1972 Presidential Election Landslide
In any election, the quintessence for a candidate is not to win, but to receive overwhelming support in the form of a landslide.1 Richard Nixon attained that political zenith in the 1972 Presidential Election.

I extend in this paper that voter fear2 and anxiety3 were contributing factors in the landslide given Nixon. As with any analysis of behavior and especially voter behavior, I have weighed the inherent dangers of explaining behavior in terms of a limited number of factors. However, I feel I can sustain my hypothesis that McGovern elicited a sense of anxiety and fear in voters which did not necessarily result in his defeat, but which certainly weighed heavily in his being defeated by a landslide.

Nixon's landslide in the 1972 Presidential Election was undoubtedly an historic achievement. He received 60.7 percent4 of a popular vote, which represented 55.7 of those resident voters eligible to vote in federal elections.5 His 18 million-vote margin over McGovern was the biggest popular vote margin ever attained by a candidate in a Presidential Election.6

Noteworthy, and related to my hypothesis, was the fact that Republicans did not receive corollary victories in the Congressional Elections. Democrats had retained power of the Congress. This fact reflects massive split ticket voting and implies disenchantment with McGovern.

The final results in popular votes and the number of eligible resident voters
in the 1972 Presidential Election are (votes to the nearest thousand):
NIXON 47,170,000
MCGOVERN 29,170,0007
NUMBER WHO VOTED 77,719,0008

Coupled with the above statistics is the fact that voters since 1960 have decreasingly participated in the Presidential Elections.9 Moderate fear and anxiety reactions may be manifested in flight or attack responses. I see the incremental participatory decrease in voting since 1960 as a flight from government because of multidimensional determinants some of which may be: 1. alienation with government; 2. apathy; 3. distrust of government, and; 4. ambivalence with candidates. However, the overwhelming popular rejection of McGovern may be seen as an attack response by those who voted to cope with perceptions10 they had of McGovern's ability to function as President.

The concept of phenomenology11 is extended by a group of Psychologists who view behavior as an outgrowth of how the individual sees the world or a particular part of that world. This idea contrasts with the Behaviorists12 who must be able to objectively observe behavior before any credence is placed on that particular act.

Any definition of behavior must not be rigidly enunciated, but rather, must examine and embrace a blend of all interpretations of the various Schools of Psychology. I can therefore utilize the rigid, linear concepts of behavior in the traditional behaviorists model, (stimulus-organism-response), to establish reasons why organisms react as they do, and I can use the more abstract humanists13 ideas of immeasurable attributes such as perception.

Behaviorists might account for the 1972 Presidential Election Landslide in terms of quantifiable reactions to fear in that they believe organisms tend to avoid negative stimuli, (McGovern), and tend to search out vigorously positive stimuli, (Nixon). By selectively avoiding negative stimuli the behaviorists assert the organism can be searching for a way to alleviate fear or anxiety. Therefore, if the individual had experienced an aversive stimulus in the past he would avoid situations in the future, which might reinforce that fear or aversive experience.

On the other hand, humanists might extend that behavior can be explained in terms of how situations are perceived. This idea does not presuppose those perceptions will be based on accurate assumptions, but it does assert they will seem accurate to the individual. Thus, the individual tends to perceive and react to those assumptions reinforcing his existing ideas about a particular situation. If the individual perceives a part of his world as threatening or disagreeable, and if an alternative is available which will sustain his assumptions, he will tend to react in a way which will negate or reduce the anxiety producing situation. "In general, an individual will not try to ferret our and assess every conceivable alternative, but rather will accept the first one that seems to balance out with respect to probability, desirability, and cost."14 The concept of perceptual defense indicates that unpleasant stimuli receive less perceptual attention than do neutral stimuli15 tends to support the idea that people and groups avoid or refuse to accept those situations which are not in agreement with their existing assumptions.

Groups have basically the same needs that individuals do. They require some mechanism for insuring a semblance of order is present in their society, which in turn requires the establishment of various stabilizing forces, such as customs and laws.16 If those customs, for example, embrace the ideas that their particular way of life is superior, in various ways to other cultures, then that group will reflect on past experiences which tend to support those assumptions. The group will commonly react in ways, which reinforce those positive experiences and will avoid those experiences, which were aversive. When confronted with new ideas which are radically opposed to those existing assumptions and which create an atmosphere of uncertainty, then groups and individuals usually adhere to those situations which have proven the most reassuring and stabilizing, not wanting to drastically disrupt their existing structure unless that structure has proved dramatically unsuccessful. "Human being (and groups) do not like ambiguity, lack of structuring, or events that seem beyond their control."17

Reactions to fear and anxiety can thus be possibly seen as behavior directed at avoiding stimuli, which can be learned through direct experience or through perceptions of the situation in terms of the relation between past, present and future. If perceptions of the present tend to harmonize with those perceptions and learned experiences of the past, then a relatively accurate prediction may be made about future behavior.

If the group, for example, evaluates an anxiety provoking situation as a threat to their security based on their past experiences, they will opt for an alternative force which will uphold their perceptions of what has been lucrative to them to that particular point in life, and not the force which presents itself as disruptive of those perceptions.

An example of this idea might be that if a strong national defense was workable during World War II, and if the group perceives that a strong national defense has prevented World War III or nuclear annihilation, then the group will not embrace a force, which contradicts its assumptions about insuring its survival.

In the 1972 Presidential Election voters were offered a clear choice between the political philosophies of Nixon and McGovern. Nixon devoted much of his energy to performing the duties of the Presidency, keeping himself rather aloof from the rigors of the campaign details. McGovern was the hard working underdog trying to unseat an incumbent. McGovern's task was infinitely more difficult. He proposed programs which were diametrical to those, which Nixon embraced, and programs which were perceived by voters as being disruptive to the course the country was to take.

Nixon's actions during the 1972 Campaign were historic. He had been to China and Russia and had been viewed by millions of people around the world opening communication gates with America's traditional foes.

Nixon had promised in 1968 that he would phase down and end our involvement in Vietnam. By 1972 he had removed all United States ground troops from Vietnam. He had, as of September 4, 1972, reduced the number of troops in Vietnam from 632,000 to 39,200,18 only keeping a contingency force present to impress the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong or his sincerity to secure peace with honor and to insure the safe return of our prisoners of war. His plan included turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, something, which was amenable to those who felt our presence in South Vietnam, had run its course, but who felt we should provide some guarantee South Vietnam would have a chance to make it on her own.

Nixon realized he would have to make himself attractive to Democratic Party stalwarts in order to shape his dream of a Republican majority into a reality.

To woo labor, Nixon involved himself in various approaches. He had established his affection for the hard hats during their confrontations with the anti-war demonstrators. He paroled James Hoffa, thus receiving the support of the powerful Teamsters Union. By Election Day, Nixon had neutralized, through private conversations with George Meany, the top leadership of the AFL/CIO.19 Nixon was tough on Vietnam, a policy embraced by Meany and the rank and file member of unions who supply enormous reserves of manpower during American wars.20 Nixon opposed forced school bussing which was attractive to the big northern cities and those union members who lived in the sprawling suburbs.21 Additionally, the Nixon Administration had seen the end of the riots that had marred the sixties and had established itself as tough on crime and lawlessness. This aspect also appealed to the police and firemen unions, which eventually supported Nixon.22

Nixon's move to gain the support of the minorities was also part of his campaign strategy. He was opposed to abortion and he opposed the closing of non-public schools if those schools lacked the funds to operate.23 This made him especially attractive to Catholics. Further, his foreign policy towards Israel increased the Jewish vote in his favor.

Nixon pledged to restore the United States to a position of military superiority over the Soviet Union.24 This position added immeasurably to alleviating the anxiety citizens of the United State had about Russian designs for world domination. Despite détente Nixon would still retain an armed force capable of coping with the Soviet Union.

During the preceding four years, the Nixon Administration had decreased personal income taxes, reduced the number of blacks attending all black schools, dumped millions into states for combating crime, increased federal spending for education by two thirds, launched an environmental protection program, slowed inflation, increased employment and opposed congressional programs that created deficit spending.25

Nixon was well established as the symbol of stability and the man who had gotten some things done without disrupting the basic standard of living Americans had become accustomed to.

Nixon courted the youth vote by announcing the draft would end. His revenue sharing plan was welcomed by states and cities that were feeling the bankruptcy pinch of inflation. Nixon had correctly perceived what the majority of those who voted wanted; McGovern's perceptions added fuel to the Nixon victory.

While Nixon was broadening his base of attractiveness as the candidate of stability, McGovern was creating insurmountable problems. Prior to the California primary campaign, a Nixon-McGovern test election showed McGovern was trailing Nixon by a 10 percent spread, 49 percent-39 percent.26

During the primary campaign in California, McGovern and Humphrey participated in television debates. It was during these debates that Humphrey attacked McGovern's proposals to reduce defense spending and to give every man, woman and child $1000. Even though McGovern was the victor in the California primary, Gallup recorded the percentage spread in a test election between McGovern and Nixon had widened to 19 percent, 53 percent-34 percent.27 During the California primary, McGovern had been unable to effectively relate the effects of his defense cut proposals and he also was unable to give a concrete dollar value on how much his $1,000 per person would cost. McGovern had begun to stir pangs of anxiety among those who had previously been opposed to Nixon.

Possibly the single most important factor which gave Nixon a landslide was the fear and anxiety McGovern created by the vacillation he showed concerning his first Vice-Presidential Candidate, Thomas Eagleton.

McGovern's wavering between his initial statement of 1000 percent support of Eagleton and his later statement announcing Eagleton would be replaced, was reflected by Gallup as Nixon increased his margin in a test election survey to 26 percent, 57 percent-31 percent.28 Gary Hart, McGovern's Campaign Director, summed up the results of that drama: "the tragic Eagleton affair shattered any chance McGovern hay have had to emerge as a competent leader."29 After Eagleton, voters consistently reflected their anxiety about McGovern on every salient issue measured by Gallup.

Nixon was the candidate best seen to deal with Vietnam: 58 percent to 26 percent for McGovern.30 Nixon was the candidate best seen to handle crime and lawlessness: 50 percent to 26 percent.31 In a question posed by Gallup on "would you vote more or less for a candidate who proposed to bus children to achieve racial balance," 22 percent indicated they would vote more, and 66 percent indicated they would vote less, for a candidate who supported bussing.32 To me, the most representative poll indicating anxiety by voters about McGovern was taken by Gallup after Nixon's speech at the GOP Convention. In a test of sincerity and believability, Nixon surpassed McGovern by 59 percent-20 percent.33

As if McGovern had not created enough doubt in the minds of the voters after Eagleton, he continued to change his mind on issues that had been primary in his early campaign days and instrumental to his nomination. He threw out the $1,000 grant to every person and replace in with a three-phase program. McGovern explained this in an interview with U.S. News and World Report: "So, what I see is a three-phase process of full-employment, tax reform and then a guaranteed adequate income for those people who are unable to work. I think we did a poor job in presenting our initial proposal."34 Hart again relates the dilemma that the Senator and his staff had created by changing positions. "Once the impression was dimly created in the public mind that the Senator had vacillated, had wavered under pressure, then (succeeding) incidents…merely reinforced that impression.35 Hart continues:

"You could trust McGovern to hold your wallet and everything else you owned. But, when the hard bargaining started, when the missiles appeared in Cuba, how would he react, what would he do? All that was required to lose the election was for that shadow of a doubt to be created."36

Other policy changes emerged when McGovern initially announced he would withdraw all troops from Southeast Asia, but in the waning days of the campaign he indicated he would leave troops in Thailand. After his nomination, he had encouraged Pierre Salinger to talk to the North Vietnamese in Paris. On Salinger's return, the Senator disavowed that Salinger had been representing McGovern. Incidents such as that merely added to the Senators credibility problem and caused voters to search out the stabilizing Nixon. In the magazine The Economist, in an article entitled, "Vote Against Change", this problem was explored:"…the candidate (McGovern) was never able to expand in any complete, lucid or consistent way (his programs, which in turn) filled the voters with apprehension."37

The landslide could not have occurred if there had not been mass defections from the ranks of the Democrats to Nixon. At eh national Governor's Conference in Houston, Democratic Governors cited the following as most objectionable about McGovern. "1. 40 percent reduction in defense: 2. Unconditional amnesty for all draft dodgers; 3. $1,000 guaranteed annual income program; and 4. Easing rules against possession and use of marijuana."38 Issues that create apprehension and anxiety may outweigh the single most important determinant of voting behavior, party identification.39

Gallup, in a post mortem analysis, reported that democrats flocked to Nixon in record numbers. Blue-collar workers, traditionally the backbone of the Democratic Party, defected to Nixon by the ratio of 57 percent to 43 percent.40 Gallup also reports that 33 percent of those democrats who voted in the 1972 Presidential Election voted for Nixon.41

Gallup discovered that blue collar workers "feared that McGovern would encourage a permissive society that would fail to provide safe streets and cities."42 Confidence in Nixon to deal with crime and lawlessness was probably the primary reason for the high rate of blue-collar defection.43 By Election Day, Nixon had won the respect and confidence of more than 56 percent of the voters for his decisiveness and his ability to deal with the hard decisions of the Presidency.44 "In the minds of those millions who think seriously about the Presidency for a few hours every four years, the whole thing tot down to trust and confidence."45 George McGovern had not been able to instill trust and confidence in his candidacy in voters. Rather, he instilled fear and anxiety.

People of the United States demand unwavering competence in those public figures that are identified as potential Presidents. Positive reaction to anxiety and fear is a prerequisite for self-sustaining adjustment and if suppressed can create numerous personal problems ancillary to the suppressed emotion. By identifying those situations that will alleviate anxieties and apprehensions, groups can then react constructively to insure that perceptions are validated.

George McGovern created feelings in voters that could only be resolved by rejection. McGovern found himself the underdog on all issues from Vietnam, to crime, to bussing, and eventually he even saw the loss of the youth vote that had been part of his strategy to upset Nixon. After the GOP Convention, voters under thirty had switched from approving McGovern by a 48 percent to 31 percent margin, to approving of Nixon by a 61 percent to 36 percent margin.46 Without the youth vote McGovern's chances of winning had been markedly reduced and Nixon's chances of a landslide had received another boost.

In summarizing my hypothesis, I found that McGovern's popularity declined drastically as he became more known to the voters. McGovern's biggest loss to Nixon was experienced after Nixon addressed the GOP Convention which, when tied with the vacillations of July and August over Eagleton, Salinger, and the $1,000 Program, raised Nixon's pre-election lead to a 64 percent to 30 percent ratio.47

McGovern's actions after that were simply ignored by voters who sought validation of their perceptions through the programs of Nixon. This validation also included the screening out of positive things about McGovern. The impression had been implanted that McGovern did not represent the assumptions that voters embraced and nothing would change the perception that McGovern would not be a competent President, not even pre-election Watergate.

Based on my research, I offer the following conclusions about the 1972 Presidential Election Landslide:

1. Nixon would not have received a landslide if voters had perceived McGovern as competent and credible.

2. If McGovern's programs had validated the perceptions of a majority of those who designate themselves politically as Democrats, a landslide would not have occurred.

3. If George Wallace had been able to run as a third party candidate, Nixon would not have received a landslide.

4. If McGovern had not elicited a sense of fear and anxiety in voters, Nixon would not have received a landslide.


  1. For purposes of this paper, a landslide is defined as a popular vote, in a Presidential election, exceeding 56 percent of the votes cast for the office.
  2. For purposes of this paper, fear is defined as an emotion and a reaction to a clearly perceived danger, from James C. Coleman, Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life, 4th ed., (Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1972), p. 121.
  3. For purposes of this paper, anxiety is defined as an emotion and a reaction to a perceived danger not usually clearly perceived, but usually related to something in the future, from interview with Dr. Bruce Haslam, Ph.D., Psychology, Weber State College, Ogden, Utah, April 4, 1975, and from Ibid.
  4. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1973, 94th ed., (Washington, D.C., 1973), p. 364.
  5. Ibid. p. 379.
  6. “Final Count on ’72 Landslide,” U.S. News and World Report, April 23, 1973, p. 102.
  7. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1973, p. 364.
  8. Ibid., p. 379.
  9. Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1972, (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1973), p. 9.
  10. For purposes of this paper, perception is defined as the awareness of objects, qualities or relations which are influenced by set and prior experiences, from Ernest R. Hilgard, R.C. Atkinson, and R.L. Atkinon, Introduction to Psychology, 5th ed., (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1971), p. 593.
  11. Sidney M. Jourard, Healthy Personality: An Approach from the Viewpoint of Humanistic Psychology, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974), p. 56.
  12. For purposes of this paper, Behaviorists is defined as that School of Psychology which gathers data by objective observation.
  13. For purposes of this paper, Humanist is defined as that School of Psychology which places emphasis on a general development of personality and functioning. A part of the Humanist theme is that man reacts in terms of perceptions of himself and his world, from Coleman, pp. 65-66.
  14. Coleman, p. 123.
  15. Ibid., p. 112.
  16. Ibid., p. 111.
  17. Ibid., p. 107.
  18. “The Record Nixon Will Run On”, U.S. News and World Report, September 4, 1972, p. 18.
  19. White, p. 305.
  20. Ibid., p. 304.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p. 305.
  23. Ibid., p. 306.
  24. “The Record Nixon Will Run On”, p. 18.
  25. Ibid., p. 19.
  26. George Gallup, Gallup Opinion Index, November 1972, p. 3.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Gary W. Hart, Right from the Start: A Chronicle of the McGovern Campaign. (New York: New York Times Book, Co., 1973), p. 329.
  30. Gallup, October 1972, p. 12.
  31. Ibid., p 14.
  32. Gallup, September 1972, p. 5.
  33. Gallup, October 1972, p. 7.
  34. “How McGovern Sees the Issues”, U.S. News and World Report, August 7, 1972, p. 19.
  35. Hart, p. 329.
  36. Hart, p. 305.
  37. “Vote Against Change”, The Economist, November 11, 1972, p. 31.
  38. “Democratic Governors’ Price for Getting on McGovern Bandwagon”, U.S. News and World Report, June 19, 1972, p. 16.
  39. Richard W. Boyd, “Presidential Elections: An Explanation of Voting Defection”, American Political Science Review, June 1969, p. 510.
  40. Gallup, December 1972, p. 8.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Gallup, November 1972, p. 5.
  43. Ibid.
  44. Vermont Royster, “The Meaning of the Nixon Landslide”, Wall Street Journal, November 9, 1972, p. 26.
  45. Hart, p. 305.
  46. Gallup, September 1972, p. 2.
  47. Gallup, November 1972, p. 3.


Boyd, Richard W. “Presidential Election: An Explanation of Voting Defection”. American Political Science Review, June 1969, pp. 498-514.

Coleman, James C. Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life. 4th ed. Glenview, Ill., Scott Foresman and Co., 1972

“Democratic Governors’ Price for Getting on McGovern Bandwagon”. U.S. News and World Report, 19 June 1972, p. 16.

“Final Count on ’72 Landslide”. U.S. News and World Report, 23 April 1973, pp. 102-103.

Gallup, George. Gallup Opinion Index, Reports 81-90. Princeton: March-December 1972.

Hart, Gary W. Right from the Start: A Chronicle of the McGovern Campaign. New York: New York Times Book, Co., 1973.

Hilgard, Ernest R., R.C. Atkinson, and R.L. Atkinson. Introduction to Psychology. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.

“How McGovern Sees the Issues”, U.S. News and World Report, 7 August 1972, pp. 18-22.

Interview with Bruce Haslam, Ph.D., Psychology, Weber State College, Ogden, Utah, April 4, 1975.

Jourard, Sidney M. Healthy Personality: An Approach from the Viewpoint of Humanistic Psychology. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1974.

“The Record Nixon Will Run On”. U.S. News and World Report, 4 September 1972, pp. 18-19.

Royster, Vermont. “The Meaning of the Nixon Landslide”. Wall Street Journal. 9 November 1972, p. 26.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1973. 94th ed. Washington, D.C., 1973.

“Vote Against Change”. The Economist, 11 November 1972, pp. 31-32, 35-36, 38-40.

White, Theodore H. The Making of the President 1972. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1973.

Craig W. Cooper is a 25 year veteran of banking and financial services currently employed in Saint George, Utah as a manager of mortgage lending with a national bank leader. Craig is an avid reader and dedicated political science history buff. This article was originally written in 1975, while he attended Weber State College in Ogden UT.

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