Iowa Caucus History: George McGovern's Early Momentum in 1972

In 1971, South Dakota Senator George McGovern started campaigning in Iowa before his rivals. Although he placed second, the news of this long-shot candidate having a strong finish in the Iowa caucuses provided enough early momentum to propel McGovern to eventually claim the 1972 Democratic nomination. His campaign manager, Gary Hart, learned valuable lessons that he would use in the future.


In early 1971, the presidential campaign for a little-known U.S. Senator from South Dakota was in search of a path to the nomination. The traditional route passed through New Hampshire and that year's early favorite to hoist the Democratic Party banner...

Hart: "We were up against a front-runner named Ed Muskie from the adjoining state of Maine and Senator Muskie was leading in the polls and was very well-known in New Hampshire. And so we had a conversation, there were just about six of us at that time."

During that fateful planning session, advisor Richard Stearns began ticking off key primaries favorable to McGovern. Campaign manager Gary Hart was searching for a game changer.

Hart: "And so I said to him, Rick, is there any state that begins the nomination process before New Hampshire? He said, well there are caucuses in Iowa but no one has paid much attention to them. I said, we're going to pay attention to them."

McGovern: "Well, Gary Hart was terrific as a campaign manager. I'm not at all sure I would have won that nomination without that great grassroots organization that Gary built."

McGovern's time on Iowa soil was meager by the standard set by dozens of politicians only years later.

McGovern: "When you're out there it's kind of lonely. You're walking around looking for somebody to shake hands with. In Iowa, even a junior Senator from South Dakota with very little money, had a chance."

News Announcer: "Stock broker Lonnie Beerma and his wife Faye, both supporters of George McGovern, trying hard to understand the mechanics of the reform rules, which some had thought would require a Ph.D. in math."

Hart: "But I don't think any other campaign really understood how doing well in Iowa before New Hampshire could reposition candidates and George McGovern was very low in the polls."

News Reporter: "8:00, 4515 Wakonda Parkway, Des Moines, Iowa. Democratic voters in this middle income 87th precinct are coming to the home of Mrs. Ellen Sisio, here to begin the four-month long procedure of selecting delegates to the National Democratic Convention."

On caucus night 1972, McGovern, considered a long shot to even contend for his party's nomination, placed second behind national front-runner Muskie.

McGovern: "We didn't fully realize it until we saw the news coverage on the results."

A dozen reporters were alongside Iowa Democratic Party staff Richard Bender, ready to file for the night.

Bender: "One of those dozen reporters or so was Johnny Apple of the New York Times who wrote a big story in the New York Times, which was picked up by the national TV folks, and it was a big deal. But we didn't, you know, before that we had no idea this would happen."

McGovern: "It was the first time that a headline from an election appeared with me in the sub-head saying, George McGovern came in a strong second."

McGovern would use the Iowa momentum, and Muskie's own mistakes, to claim the 1972 democratic nomination. He would ultimately lose to President Richard Nixon in an epic landslide. But the seeds of an Iowa caucus moment had been sewn for the next man in.

Excerpt from "Caucus Iowa: Journey to the Presidency," Iowa Public Television, 2016