The Spirit of ’72

Posted September 9, 2003 at 6:06pm

An upstart, left-leaning politician from a small state with just three electoral votes is initially pooh-poohed by much of the Democratic Party and national media brass.

But thanks to the strength of his ground troops — many young and disillusioned with the Republican war-time commander-in-chief — he surges ahead of the more establishment candidates to win his party’s presidential nomination.

The year: 1972.

The candidate: George McGovern, then the junior Senator from South Dakota.

Fast-forward 30-some years; add in seismic changes in communications technology, fundraising requirements and the pace of the nominating process, and in some ways what you have is the Democratic presidential bid of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, say veterans of campaign trail ’72.

“There may be differences between Dean and me as individuals, but the format of his campaign reminds me a lot of what we did 30 years ago,” McGovern says. “He’s been conducting these little get togethers in living rooms and kitchens and farm yards across Iowa and New Hampshire for the best part of a year and a half … and that pays dividends. … It’s the same thing that enabled me to come out of nowhere and win the nomination 30 years ago.”

Deanites certainly do not desire the same result — McGovern wound up losing 49 states to President Richard Nixon (R) in the general election. But there are undeniable parallels.

“I think what’s happened is after that [McGovern] campaign, American politics became so enamored with consultants and money that they forgot about the ground war at a grassroots level,” says Terry Lierman, Dean’s national finance co-chairman and a former McGovern volunteer. “What Howard Dean has done is try to mobilize [so] that people can be active, can make a difference.”

Today, the Dean campaign uses e-mail lists and Web sites. Back in ’72, however, McGovern’s weapons of choice were 3-by-5 index cards of voters’ names and direct mail.

What the Internet has allowed Dean to do is take the old-fashioned, shoe-leather approach to the next level, says Gene Pokorny, the self-described “gun-slinger grassroots organizer,” who is credited with putting together McGovern’s successful get-out-the-vote efforts in key primary states such as Wisconsin and Nebraska. “He has the possibility through the Internet — which didn’t exist in ’72 — to just explode this thing. It’s geometric.”

In just a few short months, the former Green Mountain State governor and physician has gone from Democratic dark horse to presumptive frontrunner, leveraging his success on Internet sites like Meetup.com and MoveOn.org to draw out thousands of supporters across the country during his recent “Sleepless Summer” tour and to pull ahead in the money chase.

“[The Internet’s] become a vehicle to identify the first cohort of supporters, and it’s been absolutely central to getting the foundation of a financial operation in place that’s not beholden to a handful of sugar daddies,” says Pokorny, who now serves as chairman of Research International/Cambridge, a market research and consulting practice in Massachusetts.

Pokorny was 26 during the McGovern campaign but hasn’t lost the activist spirit. He remains involved in the arms-control movement, serving as president of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and on the board of directors of the Council for a Livable World, a group that supports Senate candidates who favor eliminating weapons of mass destruction.

“I tried to identify the most critical issues that I cared about as a citizen, and it was the issues of nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction,” Pokorny says of his current passion. “Everything else doesn’t matter if we blow up the world.”

Pokorny has also volunteered, in a limited way, for every Democratic presidential nominee since McGovern.

While confessing his own lack of familiarity with the Internet, the 81-year-old McGovern gives Dean high marks for the “originality and modernization” of his Web-based efforts.

Had the medium been available back in ’72, McGovern says, it may have been easier to counteract “some of the distortion that crept into that campaign.”

But Pokorny cautions that Internet-generated supporters, while providing bucks and high body counts at rallies, may ultimately prove as fickle as some McGovernites did.

“You look at how people kinda get off on computers … is that going to lead to voting action, or will it become a substitute for it?” Pokorny wonders. “I don’t know.”

“We made the mistake of assuming that people that participated in one level of direct action … just a priori would also vote, and I think there was a disconnect and some people didn’t,” he says.

It is a problem the Dean campaign may have already identified. According to various media reports, Dean aides are in the process of matching e-mail addresses with voter registration rolls and voting behavior.

A further challenge for Dean, Pokorny believes, is to continue the success he has had with “millions of white computer sophisticates,” while articulating an economic vision that resonates with politically alienated people such as lower-income and minority voters, who are less likely to have access to the new technologies.

Dean, Pokorny maintains, “is the most important thing that’s happening right now in the Democratic Party. … The interesting question will be — and we won’t know until the first elections and the votes start taking place — but can they actually convert all this enthusiasm … to getting people to actually take the time to participate?”