George McGovern and the Primary System

Former Democratic United States Senator George McGovern died early Sunday morning, October 21, 2012.  He was 90.  He leaves a legacy of being a champion of liberal causes in the United States.  McGovern is also remembered for losing to Richard Nixon in the 1972 Presidential election by a landslide.  He tried again in 1984, but was beaten in the primaries that year. What George McGovern should be remembered for, however, is his role in how we nominate our Presidential nomination process.

In 1968, the Democratic Party nomination for President was in disarray.  Senator Robert Kennedy, the likely nominee of the party, had been assassinated after the California primary.  The candidate with the most delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota.  Having the most delegates gave McCarthy the inside track to the nomination.  McCarthy was deemed to be too much of a “peace candidate” for President by the Democratic establishment.  So much so, that party leaders including President Lyndon Johnson and Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley took liberties with the delegate selection process and worked to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey for President.  Humphrey did not compete in any primaries.  After an arduous primary season, Democratic voters had been shut out essentially in the Presidential nomination process.

This is where George McGovern comes in.  He, and Minnesota Representative Donald Fraser, headed a commission that would streamline the nomination process so that voters would have a direct say on who their nominee for President would be.  The McGovern-Fraser Commission, as it was informally called, was charged in part with making sure that party leaders would not work behind closed doors to manipulate the nomination process.

National party convention delegates were to be chosen through direct primary elections.  Previously to the Commission, primary results were binding in some states and non-binding in others.  In those states with binding results, the number of delegates sent to the national convention was known by the public.  In those states with non-binding primaries, the primary looked more like a beauty contest.  In those cases, the delegate selection process was more likely to be determined by party leaders and not the voters.  In some states, delegates were chosen in state conventions.  Convention attendees tended to favor party leader-backed candidates.  Outsider or anti-establishment candidates for President (or any office) had little chance of gaining their party’s nomination.

McGovern-Fraser created uniformity in the delegate selection process.  Party leaders now had less of say in the selection of a Presidential nominee.  Primaries have been the deciding factor in the nominating process since McGovern-Fraser.  McGovern was the first to benefit from the change in the rules, as he became the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 1972.

Not since 1968 has either party had a contested nomination for President.  It is highly unlikely that the major parties will have another convention like the one in Chicago where party leaders ignored the will of people and selected a candidate for President who did not run in one single primary.  George McGovern made the process simpler and gave the public its rightful say in selecting its Presidential nominees.  For that, George McGovern should be remembered.

You can follow the link below for a 1972 campaign ad for George McGovern.

George McGovern Voting Booth Ad

What are your thoughts on the McGovern’s legacy? What are your thoughts on the McGovern ad?

6 responses to “George McGovern and the Primary System

  1. Margoth Rodriguez

    McGovern changed the election process for nominating a president from a popularity contest of a select few to the people based election that was fair. The people have a say on who they want to be their potential president. The commercial infers that people should vote on the person they believe will do the best job. He has this internal conversation where his conscience tells him to go with “you gut feeling” and not with what is popular.

  2. I knew that George McGovern was a U.S. Senator, however i was not familiar with one of his greatest contributions. The McGovern-Fraiser Commision gave voters more say in regards to elction processes, who is nominated and limits the power of party leaders. This is very significant because it lowers the possibility of policy leaders to control the nomination process and results of an eection. Unfortunately, most people such as myself, probably do not remember him as the person who gave the public equal say in selecting presidential candidates; however, that contrbution is something we must all be greatful for because it gives us a great deal more power in the presidential election process.

  3. Jeniffer Martinez

    Unfortunatly for the American society George McGovern has now moved on to a better life. Although he was never president, he is and will always be important. This goes to show that being president is not the only way to change something you believe in. Him not becoming president gave him the ability to change the way voting use to be. He gave the idea to let voting be fair and more effectively for the people and the candidates.

  4. With what McGovern formed with the legacy he left behind, it definitely has turned the way of voting around. It helped things for the better, leaving it to the people to decide who to vote for without manipulation from the parties. If things were never changed from the way it was before, who knows where we would be today. McGovern did make it more simple. The process won’t have to take as long as the one time where it took 103 ballots before choosing a nominee for the party.

  5. He was a very respectable, humility politician with independent and critical thinking. he says what he thinks is right not what is popular. He lost the 1972 presidential election, but he served for this country at important positions for a very long time, probably longer than any other president in the US history. I somehow think that his failure to Richard Nixon was a blessing in disguise from “god”, because outside of the Whitehouse he was more able to maintain his down-to-earth and live a long noble life with some true friends without being corrupted by some “powerful but invisible guys”.

  6. Both Thomas Frank and Chris Hedges mark the McGovern Commission as decision that led to the undermining of blue collar working class. Frank especially hammers that this commission led to what he calls ‘the Democratic Party’s love affair’ with identity politics. The undermining of the working class, the traditional base of the left party, thus creates a large constituency not feeling spoken for. (So this specific line of reasoning goes.) I am looking into the Democratic National Convention of 1968 for research. Have you found this line of reasoning in your work? Clearly, with time the effects of decisions can become nuanced. What other issues were addressed in the commission other than the Presidential election process? What resources would you recommend?

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