In the latest issue of Democracy, Rick Perlstein makes the case that most accounts of George McGovern's landslide loss in 1972 miss the mark:
McGovern lost because he was an isolationist? If you had said that in 1972, people might have looked at you funny. Whatever his preference for deep cuts in the defense budget, Republican surrogates who hauled out the isolationist charge were labeled "silly" by no less an honest broker than the New York Times' Scotty Reston. Over the following six years–according to my ProQuest search–the words "McGovern" and some variant of "isolation" were mentioned in the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune a mere six times.
And, of course, McGovern lost to a candidate who was also campaigning on a pledge to end the war. But what about the whole "acid, amnesty, and abortion" thing?
Well, like I said, his position on abortion was the same as Nixon's. His position on pot followed the President’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. And amnesty was enacted, in limited form, by Gerald Ford. And the person who cast the false aspersion, Novak has recently revealed in his memoirs, was ... Thomas Eagleton.
Perlstein argues that McGovern's substantive positions hurt him far less than his breathtakingly incompetent campaign: The disastrous flip-flop on whether to keep Eagleton on the ticket, for instance, or the 21-year-old novices crunching polling data. Plus, Nixon's dirty tricks were effective, and many prominent Democrats had a visceral loathing for McGovern. (Evidently, Hubert Humphrey—in an anecdote that's in dire need of follow-up—phoned Nixon on Election Night to congratulate the victor and intone, darkly, that "I did what I had to do" to keep McGovern from winning.) I can't say this is the final word on the matter, but since the specter of McGovern seems to get summoned anytime a less-than-maximally-hawkish Democrat opens his or her mouth, the counter-CW take is worth reading.