For many people with an inkling for American political history, the prospect of an election between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump harkens back to 1972 — George McGovern vs. Richard Nixon.
As far as modern presidential candidates go — “modern” meaning post-World War II — McGovern is most likely the closest politician America has seen to Sanders.
Nixon, on the other hand, is a mirror image of Trump in many ways. If that holds true, things look bleak for Sanders. Nixon won with the 4th largest margin of victory in the history of presidential elections, but those two cases are not identical.
The premier documentation of the 1972 election is Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. The series is revered as an important piece of journalism history and had incredible foresight about what was to come in American politics. In regard to the 2020 election, it also highlights several key differences between 2020 and 1972. The book revolves around McGovern’s meteoric rise to the Democratic National Convention nomination, and his cataclysmic fall that followed. If the 2020 election cycle has taught us anything, Sanders is not going away.
Without an established moderate frontrunner like Hillary Clinton, Sanders is actually more popular. That wasn’t the case for McGovern in 1972, in what was a vastly different Democratic Party. For perspective, McGovern was an anti-war candidate who wanted to implement a universal basic income. He was running against segregationist George Wallace, an Alabama governor who is infamous for blocking the doorway to the University of Alabama when it attempted to integrate.
Considering that, the complexities of mid-century politics do not reflect the current polarization in U.S. politics. There’s a sector of Democratic voters and independents who would never vote for Sanders, but if he wins the nomination, it’s unlikely many centrists will vote for Trump instead. That was not the case for McGovern.
Nixon was also a fairly popular president, prior to Watergate. He began his second term with an approval rate of 68%, while Trump’s highest approval rate is a mere 49%. That statistic alone makes these two incredibly different elections.
If the fumbled impeachment trial proves to be Trump’s greatest scandal, he’s taking that baggage into the election. Although it didn’t have the devastating impact of Watergate, Nixon’s approval fell to 31% at a point. No candidate would want to bear the mark of impeachment during a campaign, even if he successfully denies all allegations.
McGovern also suffered a series of missteps once he received the nomination. His running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, was not only a last minute choice, but he wasn’t announced until 3 a.m. the night of McGovern’s nomination. Much like Sanders, McGovern’s ultra-liberalism and grassroots tactics had alienated him from the old guard of the DNC.
After failing to get anti-war champion Ted Kennedy to join his ticket, he undertook two more futile attempts at bigger name senators and was forced to settle with Eagleton.
Eagleton was embroiled in what was seen as a scandal at the time; it came out that he had been hospitalized for depression, and America saw him as unfit to be Vice President. He eventually withdrew from the ticket, despite McGovern’s public claims he backed him “one-thousand percent.” It’s unlikely Sanders, whose early vice president predictions seem strong, will make a mistake like that.
The Vietnam War, in the ‘72 election, was an issue so intense it’s hard to see any issue in 2020 holding the same weight. Granted, in 1971 61% of Ameicans viewed the decision to enter Vietnam as a mistake, but beating an incumbent president during a war is a momentous task. No incumbent has lost a reelection during wartime.
Fortunately for Sanders, healthcare, education and immigration are all divisive topics, but they are not the Vietnam War.
Truthfully, Sanders is more of an oddball Franklin D. Roosevelt than a McGovern. He and McGovern share a desire for a reform of the DNC and are beloved by young voters, but they aren’t one in the same. Trump may be Nixon, but he’s a less popular president through his first term. History always matters, but in this case, those who use that as a criticism of Sanders are misguided.
Noah Wright is a junior studying strategic communication at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk to Noah? Tweet him @NoahCampaign.