A question both 2016 presidential nominees might be pondering is: how do you spin a divided and messy convention? In 1972, George McGovern dealt with that challenge.
McGovern’s reforms of the delegate selection process made the party vastly more diverse in terms of race and gender for decades to come. But for the first convention under the new rules, it meant a convention filled with first-time delegates who did not know how to ensure a smoothly run event. Instead of a quick ratification of McGovern’s vice-presidential nominee, a protracted balloting process pushed McGovern’s acceptance speech to 3 a.m., depriving him of a prime-time audience.
McGovern’s Convention Was “Scaring Everybody”
One campaign staffer later recounted to Vanity Fair: “I was standing on the floor of the convention at three a.m., looking around and seeing guys in dashikis and flower children and thinking, ‘This is democracy.’ Then I go back to the Doral [hotel], and my sister, who’s been watching everything on television, calls and says, ‘Marcia, you can’t imagine how chaotic it looks. It’s scaring everybody.'”
Recognizing that almost nobody saw the speech, and what viewers did see of the convention was not comforting, the McGovern campaign created a 4-minute spot designed to portray the convention as democracy in action.
Over images of enthusiastic, and clean-cut, delegates, the narrator sets the stage: “It was almost dawn in Miami when the final moment came, but the lateness of the hour did not dim the emotion in that hall, for the victory they celebrated was not his alone.”
George McGovern Touted $25 Donations
We see McGovern praise the process from the podium: “My nomination is all the more precious in that it’s the gift of the most open political process in all of our political history.”
The narrator touts, “The reforms had worked” because delegates came “from the entire length and breadth of their party.” The ad proceeds to interview some of them. A housewife explains how they worked through the night instead of partying: “they were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and salami sandwiches, right there on the convention floor.” A man emphasized how delegates “had freedom of the floor to, to work in the way that we wanted to work,” an implicit swipe at the 1968 convention considered to be run by party bosses.
The ad ends in a fashion that may be familiar to Bernie Sanders supporters, with McGovern calling for a campaign funded by small donors: “Let the opposition collect their $10 million in secret money from the privileged few, and let us find one million ordinary Americans who will contribute $25 each to this campaign.” The narrator closes with the mailing address to send in donations.
The attempt to spin the convention fell far short. Not only did McGovern lose in a landslide, but Democrats ever since have gone to great lengths to stage manage their conventions.