"Wallace was getting 50 percent in the first scattered returns; the lead shrank in the first half–hour to 47 percent, then to the low 40s, and then stabilized at 42 percent. But the 42 percent had a profile — it was not simply the north and the piney woods rednecks that were voting for George Wallace."
Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"
The history books tell us that George McGovern was nominated by the Democrats to run against Richard Nixon in 1972.
And, in fact, that is what happened.
Things tend to look a lot more cut and dried in history books than they did at the time, though. We have the advantage of hindsight. We know what the outcomes were — in the primaries that were held that spring, in the conventions that were held that summer and in the general election that November.
But 1972 was a funny kind of year. It was a year when a win wasn't really a win — and a loss wasn't really a loss.
Sometimes they were, though — and, in the traditional ways, a win was still a win and a loss was still a loss. But, in the Democrats' primaries (and there were far fewer of them in 1972 than there are in 2012), there didn't seem to be anything resembling momentum.
McGovern was, as I say, the eventual nominee, but he didn't win any of the first four caucus/primary contests. He performed better than expected in New Hampshire when front–runner Ed Muskie appeared to implode, but he hardly made a ripple in Florida a week later.
Nothing was clear as Florida prepared to hold its primary. People often forget that the charismatic George Wallace was a formidable foe in the primaries in the spring of 1972, and he looked quite imposing in Florida, receiving more than twice as many votes as anyone else.
I wasn't yet a teenager when Wallace sought the 1972 presidential nomination — but, while I suppose I was seen as a bit precocious at the time with my knowledge of history and the presidency, one thing about the Alabama governor was clear to me in spite of my youth.
In fact, I remember thinking that, if it was clear to me, it had to be obvious to everyone else — but I am far from certain that it was.
It probably goes without saying that Wallace had a reputation for being a racist and perhaps he was — but there is a difference of opinion as to whether he really was a racist or a racial opportunist (after all, Wallace apologized to the black citizens of Alabama in his later years and wouldn't have won his final term in office if it hadn't been for the support of black voters).
Not that there is — necessarily — much of a difference between the two. But Wallace's 1972 campaign showed that he was really more about the politics of rage than he was about the politics of race.
At times, yes, it was a racist rage. But most of the time it was a populist rage.
And that is the thing that was clear to me at the time. I think it must have played a significant role in the thought processes of those who worked for Richard Nixon.
The Nixon White House feared George Wallace. He had carried five Southern states as an independent in Nixon's narrow win in a three–way race four years earlier, and Republicans were concerned that he could do considerable damage to Nixon's campaign for re–election if he won the Democrats' nomination.
At the very least, they were worried about a possible rerun of 1968, with Wallace being the spoiler again. The last time, it had been to the benefit of the out–of–power Republicans.
But, in 1972, the Republicans had held the White House for four years. They had inherited Vietnam, but it had ceased to be Lyndon Johnson's war and was now Richard Nixon's war.
In the rear–view mirror of history, it's hard to imagine anyone defeating Nixon in 1972. His approval ratings were consistently in the 50s and were on an upward trajectory after his trip to China in February; in November, he received more than 60% of the popular vote and carried 49 states.
Just a year earlier, though, he had been struggling in the polls, and the possibility that he might be denied a second term seemed very real. A Harris Poll in August 1971 suggested that Muskie would beat Nixon if the election had been held at that time.
I remember that a political board game was developed in 1971 called "Who Can Beat Nixon?" It was designed much like "Monopoly," and several people could play — but no one could be Nixon.
It was mostly meant as a novelty, I think, but the parents of one of my friends had it, and I do remember my friend and I tried to play it a few times. My memory is that the cards were stacked heavily against Nixon — and it probably should have been called "Can Nixon Win?"
Anyway, that was the political atmosphere in 1971 and, to an extent, early 1972 when George Wallace was campaigning for president — and he found a receptive audience in Florida. His victory there didn't really surprise people, but the margin did.
And it scared some people, too. Wallace got 42% of the Florida vote, more than twice what the runnerup, Hubert Humphrey, received. Humphrey, it should be noted, specifically targeted the labor vote, the black vote and the Jewish vote. Wallace focused on the broader theme of alienation.
For some voters, that was expressed in anger over busing. That may well have been based in racism, but the arguments against it sounded reasonable. Many parents protested that they weren't against integration, but they were against busing their children long distances from their homes to achieve it.
Wallace told the voters that he was on the side of the little guy. It was the "feel your pain" message of its day, I suppose.
"The average man was being gutted by government. Taxes were important in George Wallace's message. ...
"But, above all, busing. Busing was what really got to the average man. ... This was 'social scheming' imposed by 'anthropologists, zoologists and sociologists' (Wallace loved to draw out the word 'sociologist') ...
"It was clear for the last three weeks before primary day that George Wallace would lead in the spread–eagle Florida primary. ... But it might be close."
Theodore H. White
"The Making of the President 1972"
In the end, though, it was far from close.
And, for awhile, there was some real anxiety in Democratic circles about the possibility that Wallace would develop some momentum that could carry him to the nomination.
But that didn't happen — at least, not outside the South.
Wallace chose not to compete against Muskie and Henry Jackson in the Illinois primary the following week, and he edged out Humphrey for second place against McGovern in Wisconsin three weeks after the Florida primary.
The air was escaping from the balloon he grabbed in Florida.
Wallace finished a distant fourth in Massachusetts in late April, and he ran second to Humphrey in Pennsylvania but still lost by a mile (if you consider 14 percentage points a mile in politics).
In the two–month interval between Wallace's victory in Florida and the attempt on his life, Wallace won only two primaries — Tennessee and North Carolina.
No one realized it in March 1972, but Wallace's apparent ascendance in national politics would end well before the convention.
Outwardly, it ended on that day in May when Arthur Bremer tried to kill Wallace in a shopping center parking lot in Maryland.
Realistically, it reached its peak 40 years ago today.