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George McGovern: The Machine That Won in Wisconsin

How the presidential hopeful’s campaign scored a huge primary victory

George McGovern

George McGovern during 28th Annual Dinner for the Liberal Party of New York State at Americana Hotel in New York City, on October 4th, 1972.

Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty

The George McGovern field organization has become a legend. Gene Pokorny has been hailed as the “best young political organizer in the history of this country,” and people have begun talking about the volunteers in tones usually reserved for the guys who were in the hills with Castro.

A bunch of beautiful, euphoric, slightly drunk, very young McGovern volunteers were having a completely informal victory party in a block-long two-story brick warehouse, formerly used to store toys. They had been living there for two weeks, sleeping on the linoleum floor of the cavernous rooms.

They had all worked in the Fourth District, the Polish South Side of Milwaukee, a section that even the McGovern staff crossed off as the inviolable turf of Muskie, Wallace and Humphrey. McGovern had not only won the district but beat Wallace by 8000 votes. It is a political miracle: the work the kids have done is nothing short of heroic. At the warehouse at 3:30 a.m., nine or 10 of them got up from a sleepy poker game and gathered around to talk. What they said should give you some idea of the nature of George McGovern’s grass roots organization:

“Tell everybody we really love George McGovern,” said a blonde girl.

“I was in charge of the Wauwatosa-West Allis office in the Fourth,” said a skinny young man wearing a T-shirt embroidered with a butterfly. “The Downtown office used to send volunteers out to us saying we couldn’t win the Fourth, which was a pretty shitty thing to do. They wouldn’t give us bumper stickers or buttons, we had to go down there and rip them off. Downtown was fucked. They sat around there and watched TV while we were putting out mailings until two in the morning.”

“The district coordinator we had was really great,” said a plump black girl. “He’d yell at us. Every time you came back he’d say, ‘I know you’ll go out one more time.’ But he worked later than anybody. And he had a great way of getting little 13-year-old kids to work so they wouldn’t just hang around the office.”

“I had to pay to come out from Utah,” said a girl who was resting her head on a boy’s chest. “I want to see Nixon get the hell beaten out of him.”

“We came from Springfield, Illinois,” said another girl, who was dressed in overalls. “They sent a school bus from Nebraska to bring us up here. The guy in charge was a teacher from Nebraska who just happened to have a bus driver’s license and was for McGovern. He kept singing and talking and he drove off the road twice in a snowstorm. But they’re sending us home in a Greyhound tomorrow.

“When we canvassed we thought a lot of people were against us. We got really discouraged, it was freezing cold. You’d get a whole bunch of uncommitteds and then you’d hit three favorables in a row and it was an amazing up. The people were good to us, they were impressed that we were out in the cold and they let us come in to get warm.”

“A Wallace lady followed me up one block. She picked up all the literature I had left and put hers there,” said a thin girl who was nursing a bottle of wine. “So I went back and picked hers up and put ours down.”

“Some of these people were weird,” said another girl. “I asked one guy, ‘What do you think of McGovern?’ and he said, ‘I’d vote for him if he’d turn Christian.’ A couple of them said, ‘McGovern? He’s for dope.'”

“I got a lady who liked George because she said he knew how to tie his tie right,” said the black girl. “Gloria Steinem showed him how to tie it. You should have seen how he tied it before that.”

“I told a lady that McGovern was a minister’s son and she said she’d vote for him because of that.”

“I drove a truck around the state for three days,” said the boy from Chicago. “I went to seven different districts and I distributed sample ballots, literature and posters. I got in two accidents, too.”

“I think you should know that in our office we had 20 states represented among the volunteers,” said the office manager. “All kinds of people haven’t slept in a bed and have gone hungry. We had 300 volunteers here in the warehouse some nights.”

“They promised us room and board but they didn’t feed us half the time,” said one of the girls. The rest of the group shouted her down.

“One lady fed this whole warehouse for two and a half weeks,” said an older woman who seemed to be in charge of the warehouse. “She said she and her husband didn’t pay their bills for the month so that they could feed us. She would come home from her job as a teacher and start to cook and then bring the food over. That kind of thing makes you feel good.”

“When you write your article,” said one of the boys, “tell them that we’re all young kids and that they need a band at the next victory party. There was no band at the Pfister tonight. And tell them that we want to see George more.”

“I have to crash,” the girl from Utah said with a long yawn. “But I have to tell you something first. I’ve been here less than a week and yet I know so many people here well, ’cause they’re beautiful people. Even if we’d lost, we’d have won so much.”

* * *

A year and a half ago, George McGovern set out to be President of the United States of America with little money, no media, chronic five percent showing in the polls and a face that was recognizable to nobody but a handful of liberals and South Dakota farmers. His only prayer was to build a crack political organization. Last week, that organization made him the front-runner in the Democratic primary race. It was indisputably the best organization in the state of Wisconsin, and it moved one McGovern volunteer, a New York Teamsters boss, to marvel: “I’m not kidding. This is better than Tammany Hall.”

“This is the old politics,” says Joel Swerdlow, the 26-year-old who ran McGovern’s operation in the north half of Milwaukee. “We have precinct captains, ward leaders, car captains, the whole bit. That’s the only way you win. But instead of patronage bosses and sewer commissioners, we’ve got young people who work because they’re interested in the issues.”

Political organization is basically a matter of list-keeping. You canvass a state by foot and by phone to find out who is for you, who is against you and who is uncommitted. Once you have the list, you cross off the ones against you, barrage the uncommitted with pleas and information, and make sure your supporters get to the poll.

Not so long ago, the Party Organization, which kept the best list and had the patronage clout to keep the listees in line, could deliver an election. Today even Mayor Daley’s fabled machine is showing signs of terminal breakdown, and if a candidate wants an organization he can count on he has to build it himself.

Muskie has made countless bungles; one of the earliest was his decision to depend entirely on the Party Organization to come through with the vote in the key Democratic city of Manchester, New Hampshire. The local organization turned out to be a group of incompetent hacks led by a mayor who had won by only 400 votes. “I wouldn’t run for ward committee with the organization they have up there,” said Providence Mayor Joseph A. Doorley, who was called in at the last moment to rescue votes for Muskie. Meanwhile, McGovern’s organization ran a classic operation in Manchester, canvassing almost every precinct two times, and winning ethnic sections that no one believed they could capture. The McGovern organization was superior on both numbers and fervor.

“In some places,” said a McGovern staffer, “people called us up and said, ‘Look, I got two letters, I’ve had three people at my door and I’ve had eight phone calls. I’m for ya, leave me alone!'” The McGovern people canvassed the city so thoroughly that by election night they were able to predict the vote in most Manchester wards with deadly accuracy.

After the excellent showing in low-income districts in Manchester, the McGovern organization generals made a crucial decision; they decided that the main strategic aim of the campaign would be to prove that the bulk of their candidate’s support actually came from working men, not from students and suburbanites. The McGovern forces decided that if they could win Wisconsin’s working-class districts, such convention brokers as George Meany and Richard Daley would think twice about indulging their preference for Hubert Humphrey.

“I’ve always thought that the blue-collar vote had to be a source of his strength,” said Frank Mankiewicz, McGovern’s main strategist and formerly press secretary for Robert Kennedy. “It always seemed to me that McGovern — not as the anti-war candidate but as the ‘change’ candidate — would appeal more to Middle America than he would to any other group. They’re the ones with the most to gain from change and they’re the ones who get screwed by the way we do business in this country.”

Wisconsin was the perfect state for McGovern’s first big bid for blue-collar votes. The major issue was property tax, and McGovern could hammer relentlessly away for tax reform, which is one of his favorite themes. He could be taken as a populist anti-establishment candidate ready to clamp down on big business, not as a dangerous anti-war lefty. All he needed was a spectacular organization that could tell the working-class district who he was.

* * *

Muskie’s campaign manager, Jack English, spent the last year cruising the country for heavy political endorsements. In the meantime, McGovern’s campaign manager, a young Coloradan named Gary Hart, who looks like a ski instructor and worked for Bobby Kennedy, was setting up local organizations in key primary states. In November 1970, he recruited a former McCarthy worker named Gene Pokorny to oversee the Wisconsin operation. Pokorny, who grew up on a feed-grains farm in Nebraska, started at once to line up workers using the old McCarthy lists. “It’s tough starting a year and a half in advance,” he said. “But just as long as you can find something useful for volunteers to do, you’re OK. So we did lists, rummage sales, parties, petition drives, fund-raising. We had county leadership meetings and statewide workshops to show people how to canvass and how to set up storefronts.” The lists were all-important. The McGovern workers sent special interest mailings to every group they could pin down: ecologists, feminists, university faculties, high school teachers, lawyers and businessmen. To get at the farm vote they sent McGovern literature to every rural box holder in the western districts of Wisconsin.   

A shy man, Pokorny has adopted a protective official posture; sitting behind his immaculate metal desk, he comes on suspicious and tightlipped as a loan officer. The sight of the press begging for predictions drives him crazy. “I’m a perennial pessimist, gentlemen,” he says. “It’s a congenital disease of the spirit.” However, he has the directness, energy and conviction that make a good organizer. When the national McGovern staff — the advance men, schedulers, media men, pollsters and strategists — arrived in Milwaukee two weeks before the election, Pokorny presented them with 10,000 volunteers, 35 local offices and a clear appraisal of the situation. According to Pokorny, McGovern would probably lose the Third and Seventh Districts — solid farmland on the Minnesota border. In those districts Hubert, with his perfect agricultural record of 20 years running and his absolute fluency in farm talk, rates as a third senator; they would be his preserve. The Fourth District — the heavily Polish South Side of Milwaukee, was the property of Muskie and Wallace. McGovern could do well in the farm-labor Ninth, Sixth and Eighth Districts. The Second, which contains the university town of Madison, was his for the asking. The First and the Fifth, both heavy labor districts, were tossups. As it turned out, Pokorny’s estimates were characteristically pessimistic.

The consensus of the staff, national and local, was that McGovern should blitz the Fifth, Milwaukee especially. North Milwaukee looks like Archie Bunker’s street drawn out to infinity; it contains a large proportion of Wisconsin’s population. (It also encompasses the downtown area, with every big TV station, radio station and newspaper in the state.) A mixture of carefully segregated blacks and white labor, the district serves as a textbook example of the Roosevelt Democratic Coalition. By rights, it should go to that dog-eared textbook Democrat, Hubert Humphrey. “If Humphrey doesn’t win,” said Pokorny, “that means the union can’t deliver the rank and file to anybody anymore.”

In the McGovern hierarchy, the task of bringing in the Fifth District belonged to Joel Swerdlow. On the Friday morning before the election, he was standing over two high school girls in his tiny storefront headquarters, explaining how to send out a last-minute mailing. Having forfeited sleep for two nights, he had taken on a faint greenish tint and looked as if he might rise on Easter if not securely moored.

“I’m a political hack,” he says. “I’m here because this is where I got the highest bid. Guys like me, we like to think we only go with candidates who can win.” Despite his bluff, he is deeply committed to McGovern.

Swerdlow’s boxcar-sized storefront headquarters contained the usual depressing welter of folders, envelopes and brochures — all the standard paraphernalia for pestering apathetic citizens until they crack and agree to vote for your man. Fourteen-year-olds were running around on errands, out-of-state college kids were stuffing envelopes and a radio was blaring. Swerdlow started on a tour of inspection.

The walls of the office were papered with printout lists of all the voters in the district. “In most states, you’d find a little R or D by each name,” said Swerdlow. “Not here. ‘Cause there’s no prior registration in this state. So we have to phone or go see them all and about one-fifth are for Nixon, which means a tremendous waste of energy.”

Volunteers had reached 60 percent of the voters by phone and filled out an index card for each one — the back wall was stacked to the ceiling with shoe boxes full of index cards telling how each voter felt about McGovern (on a scale of one to five, hot to cold) and listing the issues that interested each voter. “The whole deal was done with no money, no hired staff, and one phone in this whole place — it was all done by citizens out of their own homes,” said Swerdlow. Other volunteers had canvassed a quarter of the district door-to-door, bringing back more cards with the same kind of information. Ideally a district should be phone-canvassed once and foot-canvassed twice, but in 1972 student volunteers are scarce. Swerdlow decided to settle for dropping a piece of literature at the households that hadn’t been canvassed.

“Besides the mailings,” he said. “We have a 19-man phone bank downtown that’s calling all the people we identified as uncommitted — and that’s about 60 percent of them.”

Swerdlow’s other operations included:

  • Plant-gate leaflets, handed out at factories by two groups leaving the office at 5:30 every morning.
  • Postcards, with a picture of McGovern and wife fondling a grandchild. Each local volunteer addresses postcards to 30 friends. Prominent members of parishes, Jewish congregations and bowling leagues send postcards to these groups. Thirty thousand had been mailed by the Friday before the election.
  • Palm cards — small sheets of paper which show exactly where McGovern’s name appears on the ballot. Two McGovern workers would hand out cards at polling places in each of the city’s 300 precincts. According to Swerdlow, a good palm card operation can make a 10 percent difference in the vote.
  • Signs, which have the same effect as palm cards. A totally befuddled voter may look at a Vote for McGovern sign and do just that. McGovern volunteers began putting up signs outside polling places at two in the morning of Election Day; rival pols had little time to pull them down.

Swerdlow’s two-week operation was sketchy and primitive, but McGovern’s three biggest rivals in the district — Humphrey, Jackson, and Wallace — could not even approach it.

8:10 p.m. of election night: Ten minutes after the polls have closed down, Pat Cadell, resident McGovern pollster, got the early results of a blue-collar, factory precinct in Sheboygan and predicted that McGovern would end up by taking the nearest opposition by at least seven points.  

9:40 p.m. of election night: Frank Manckiewicz announced to a cheering crowd at the Pfister ballroom that McGovern had taken seven out of Wisconsin’s nine congressional districts — lacking only the Fifth and the Seventh (farm country on the Minnesota border) for a clean sweep. He called McGovern a “candidate for all the people.” I ran into Joel Swerdlow, who said that this campaign marked the first time McGovern had run strong in a real urban center. He thought McGovern would take the Fifth. He had just lost one of his weak precincts to Humphrey by one vote.

2 a.m. of the morning after election night: I’d just come from the NBC Press Room on the seventh floor of the Pfister. Out of the 30-odd reporters who began the evening manning the banks of typewriters there, only one straggler was left and he, like almost all the rest, was using the phrase “stunning victory” to describe McGovern’s performance. Swerdlow and another McGovern worker were on their hands and knees sorting out adding machine slips on the floral carpet. McGovern was trailing behind Humphrey in the Fifth District, and Swerdlow was adding up the votes to see whether the race was close enough to demand a recount. He showed me a pencil-written analysis of the voting trends. In most black districts, Humphrey is beating McGovern two to one. In the white labor districts, McGovern was easily taking Humphrey. The blacks were clearly the only bloc in the state that had not gone all-out for McGovern.

Later, Swerdlow sat on a sofa in the lobby and went over the figures for each precinct with Paul Cobb, who looks like a small edition of Isaac Hayes. Cobb is codirecting McGovern’s operation in Northern California but he also serves as the resident expert of the black community. “I’m upset about the black vote,” said Swerdlow. “I’m upset and hypertense,” said Cobb.

“I’m convinced that if we had had two or three black pros in Milwaukee for a month we could have ripped off 40 percent of the black vote,” he said. “You could have organized under the soft underbelly of the Baptist Church hierarchy and literally picked out votes one by one and identified them. At the moment it’s just a question of exposure. Blacks don’t know McGovern as well as they know Humphrey. McGovern is further left than most national black politicians; he’s supported Angela Davis and the Panther Breakfast Program, and so-called avant-garde community development projects. We just got to get the word out and we can do it; we’ve got an endorsement from Julian Bond and from Jesse Jackson and we’re expecting a major endorsement from the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. You know, a couple of Julian Bond trips to California — it’s gonna be difficult to penetrate that.”

10 a.m. the morning after the election: The press was assembled in the conference room of the Milwaukee Inn, McGovern’s motel. McGovern’s victory had apparently turned out to be everything his people ever predicted and more. Last fall, campaign manager Gary Hart predicted that the race would shape up in Wisconsin and that when the dust cleared McGovern would be facing Humphrey. It now looks as if he may have been right. Pat Cadell and Frank Mankiewicz have summoned the press for their analysis of the vote. This is a precautionary measure they planned weeks ago — to make sure that the press does not go on writing, out of sheer force of habit, that McGovern’s support comes only from students and suburbanites.

Using analyses of selected precincts, Mankiewicz proved with statistics what he had been saying for weeks — that McGovern has the support of blue-collar workers, farmers, old people, young people, students, housewives — in short he is a presidential candidate so statistically proven that no convention could refuse him.

“Do your notes show any weaknesses?” a reporter asked.

“Yes — Mankiewicz!” another reporter shouted.

Mankiewicz admitted that McGovern has not yet cultivated the black vote. Cadell then got up to analyze the blue-collar support. Both McGovern and Wallace, he said, draw on the same pool of extremely alienated blue-collar voters, a group that is constantly getting deeper into bitterness, cynicism and resentment about the current government.

Mankiewicz added that the “leading edge of labor support is now beginning to come to Senator McGovern. Some of the top labor officers who endorsed Muskie — like Leonard Woodcock — always said that they had great admiration for McGovern, that he was probably the most qualified candidate. But Muskie was the one who could beat Nixon or unite the party or was the clear leader — or any of those other phrases of antiquity.” Big laughs for the Mankiewicz wit, but a reporter piped up: “Senator Muskie has won two primaries, Governor Wallace has won one, and Senator McGovern has won one. Now why is McGovern ahead with only one victory?”

“He’s got a momentum going. We’re great believers in momentum — now,” said Mankiewicz, and grinned like a buccaneer.

Gary Hart now took over to explain why Wisconsin had been McGovern’s watershed. Their one resource up to now — “aside from a superior candidate” — had been their organization. “We had to lay our plans very carefully,” he said, “and we put the best people we could find in this country into these early key states. The tenor of the campaign is changing now. There is not enough time to develop state by state what we had in New Hampshire and in Wisconsin.” From now on George McGovern will be using polls, media endorsements and all the other resources available to a front-runner. His organization may never reach full flower again.  

3 p.m. the day after: Back at the Pfister lobby, I ran into Dave Aylward, a veteran of both the New Hampshire and Wisconsin campaigns although less than a year out of Dartmouth. The Sixth District, which had been under his direction, had voted strongly for McGovern. Dave was still high on victory. “Jesus,” he said, “we won the fucking city of Fond du Lac with 30 high school kids, three-fourths of whom are drug freaks. We only lost three wards and in one of those we lost to Wallace by two votes! And before last summer I had never done anything like this before.”

I asked Dave if he had decided to go into politics full time. “Not forever,” he said. “Can’t take it physically. My hands were shaking yesterday morning. I was straight out for two nights making lists of positives and writing letters to uncommitteds. But we goddam well touched people with those letters and leaflets.”

“There’s only one thing that worries me about being out front,” he said. “The hacks. When McCarthy took Wisconsin in ’68, the hacks were getting on board before anyone knew what had happened and they were saying, ‘OK, kids, the fun’s over, we’ll run it from here, get lost.’ And the kids had just racked up 56 percent for McCarthy in this state. If it happens again this time, they can have the campaign. I’ll just pack my bags and split.”

In This Article: Coverwall, George McGovern


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