So here's a scenario for you: America is at war. The economy is tanking. The Republican president
is facing mounting criticism and sinking approval ratings, while the Democratic Party
is fielding a diverse group of candidates that nobody can really agree on.
Does this sound like 2003 to you? Well, it could be, but I'm actually talking about 1971. The president was Richard Nixon, the war was Vietnam, and the Democrats were George McGovern, Edmund Muskie, and George Wallace.
Wallace, who was best known for being a champion of segregation (remember his cameo in Forrest Gump?), was more or less a no-go from the beginning, and after a rather dismal primary election cycle, he was shot in Laurel, Maryland and paralyzed for life.
Muskie won the early New Hampshire primary, but only by a small margin. McGovern quickly overtook him, and received the Democratic nomination on the first vote. He selected senator Thomas Eagleton as his running mate.
The media quickly found out, though, that Eagleton had been undergoing shock therapy for depression. McGovern's first reaction was to proclaim his "one thousand percent" support for his running mate. Eventually, the scrutiny became so intense that McGovern dropped Eagleton and brought in Sargent Shriver, which made many people think he was flaky.
McGovern's campaign against Nixon was mostly a grassroots movement, sparked by anti-war sentiment. Many prominent liberals of the time (most memorably, Hunter S. Thompson) were big fans of McGovern. Nixon, however, was unfazed by this, and his campaign centered on painting McGovern as an inept left-wing rabblerouser. The president's position was boosted by the bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong, as well as by the end of the draft and the visits to China and the Soviet Union.
That November, McGovern was only able to carry Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Nixon won all of the other electoral votes, except for one: a disgruntled Virginia elector cast his vote for the Libertarian Party candidate, John Hospers.
Of course, the Watergate scandal, which began with the 1972 election, ended up taking Nixon down, so you could say that he ultimately lost.
Nixon/Agnew 520 46.7m (61%)
McGovern/Shriver 17 28.9m (38%)
Hospers/Nathan 1 3,676
Nixon for '72: why change dicks in the middle of a screw?