McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds
The far-sighted responsibility for reform played a major role in McGovern's journey to the nomination. The Democratic Party, and particularly its left wing, was in a shambles after the Chicago convention. Kennedy was dead, Humphrey was a loser, the party was $9 million in debt after the election, and millions of voters felt disenfranchised. McCarthy, with his poetic metaphors and self-defeating ways, was an enigma to his followers, and the puzzlement turned into bitterness when he relinquished his seat on the Foreign Relations Committee (to a hawk) and eventually dropped out of the Senate.
McGovern took advantage of the vacuum by moving ahead on two levels. First, he accepted the appointment by the Democratic National Committee as chairman of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. He took the "dead end" task seriously and energetically—much to the astonishment of regular Democrats who learned too late that this was not another exercise in window dressing. McGovern opened the process of convention delegate selection to the disenfranchised. By coincidence, the folks he let in were those who were shut out at Chicago and who were most likely to support him. After nearly two years of tedious deliberation, the McGovern people not only rewrote the rules, they learned them—something his opponents neglected to do. And many of the McGovern commission "whiz kids"—who did the detailed footwork for the commission—were later to resurface as the McGovern campaign "whiz kids."
While McGovern's hands were gaining a firm hold on the party machinery, his legs carried him across the country, beginning in early 1969. He had graduated from the cake sale circuit, but he spoke to anyone else who would listen. He was out to beef up what they call in the pollster trade his "recognition factor," another point that the political heavies missed. While McGovern's position in the polls moved only from 3 to 6 per cent during 1971, his recognition factor jumped from 42 to 72 per cent.
By the time McGovern announced his candidacy on January 18, 1971, that cold winter afternoon in the studio of KELO-TV, Sioux Falls, S.D—an unprecedented twenty-two months before the general election—a careful strategy had been mapped out. He had by that time become the candidate of the anti-war activists and the young. In addition, most of the work of the McGovern commission had been completed. McGovern himself said in October of 1971: "I don't think I would have had the nerve to run for the Presidency if it were not for these reforms."