Documents from the National Archives detail how the Nixon administration approached the President’s re-election in 1972. The midterm elections of 1970 garnered minimal gains for the Republican Party and the prognosis of election year 1972 appeared pessimistic. Democrats still outnumbered Republicans 5 to 3. As one staffer for President Nixon claimed, “we have a ball which must be played from where it lies.”
In a November 11, 1970 memo, Bill Safire, one of the President’s senior speech writers, broke down recommendations for the President’s posture and political attitudes in the years leading up to re-election.
The likely appeals of President Nixon over the next two years would be peace without surrender, prosperity without war, and confidence in the President as President. To achieve success with these appeals, the President would have to punctuate the peace theme (the President as peacemaker and peacekeeper), would have to encourage the public that the country is moving steadily along towards economic improvement, and would have to counterattack the selection of the Democratic nominee.
In a political strategy document dated in early 1971, the outlook for re-election without far-reaching political efforts was poor.
“Unless we are in the process of a major party realignment, unless we are living at the beginning of a new political ‘era’—a ‘Nixon Era’—the historical odd in favor of the President’s re-election in 1972 are one in five.”
A memo from John Ehrilchman to the President dated November 18, 1970 submitted his ideas for the President’s political posturing for the two years ahead.
“For the entire two years (November 1970 – November 1972), you must always be the President,” he wrote, “never a politician, never a candidate, never anything else.”
In a November 19, 1970 memo, political strategist Harry S. Dent also explained the posture the President should maintain through 1971, in light of minimal Republican gains in Congressional seats that same year.
“1971 would be a good year to show more courageous leadership actions such as the Cambodia operation,” he said. “Let’s go against the safe or sure route on some domestic matters, even where there is a risk of defeat on an issue—just so we know where we can reasonably expect to wind up.”
In July of 1972, when the Democratic National Convention selected as its Presidential nominee George McGovern, it appeared the Nixon administration would have an easy time going into the general election campaign stretch. The DNC was a cacophony and after McGovern was nominated, he lost the support of his own party.
“The 1972 Democratic convention in Miami was a political shambles. After Humphrey’s defeat in 1968, the party machinery had been taken over by radical reformers who sought to cleanse it of the “old politics” of the traditional organizations and power blocs by replacing them with the ‘new politics’ of minority groups and radical activists.” RN, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon
However, despite the favorable polls indicating the surety of a Nixon victory, the President told Bob Haldeman that “we have implicitly operated as if we are care-takers hoping to be extended in residence for another term.” He believed that the most difficult part of the 1972 campaign for his staff would be a tendency to relax and become complacent over polls.
Bruce Herschensohn, another Nixon presidential speechwriter, voiced similar concerns over complacency in a staff memo dated September 21, 1972 that integrated his concern over President Nixon’s permanence.
“What it probably is, is that we want President Nixon to be permanent—to live beyond his mortality—which, of course, is what all great men do,” he said. “We all feel he is great, but temporary, and that doesn’t jibe.”
Thus, to develop a “sense of mission and not back into victory by default,” the President devised five basic components to a 1972 election strategy:
- Spend the following month and a half following the Republican convention in the White House doing the President’s job.
- Have Senator Bob Dole and various members of the Cabinet and the administration travel throughout the country as presidential “surrogates.”
- Develop the most efficient and effective campaign committee organization humanly possible.
- Use the last weeks of the campaign to broadcast thirteen radio speeches covering philosophy of government as well as positions on major campaign issues.
- At the very end, emerge from the White House and campaign personally during the last two weeks before the election in states where the presidential vote might be close, or where the President’s presence might pull in a Republican candidate in a tight local race.
On the campaign front, President Nixon believed that the best way to beat McGovern would be to do less campaigning and to do more in the oval office. This would ensure that on the domestic front Americans understood how well his administration was doing. Election day wasn’t about putting the Republican candidate in office, it was re-electing a proven leader.
“There was no major area of American life in which we had not made progress or proposed dramatic new alternatives.”
By election day 1972, inflation had been curbed, the GNP had increased, the real earnings of Americans were increasing at an annual rate of 4 percent, and increasing crime rates had been curtailed from 122 percent from 1960-1968 to 1 percent in 1972. Perhaps more importantly to the American citizen at that time, draft calls had been reduced from 299,000 to 50,000 from 1968 to 1972 and relations with China and the Soviet Union had been improving.
The landslide victory for President Nixon in 1972, in which he amassed 60.7% of the popular vote and swept all the electoral votes in all but one state and the District of Columbia, demonstrated that the American people most certainly agreed.