Why Watergate didn’t affect the 1972 election
Watergate: there was a break-in, a failed cover-up, and a president who resigned. But President Richard Nixon did stayed in office for more than two years after the incident.
So why didn’t Watergate have a direct impact on his re-election?
The early part of the Watergate cover-up was actually successful and Nixon remained unaffected.
Shortly after the break-in, Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, denounced the event as “a third-rate burglary attempt.”
On August 29, 1972, Nixon claimed presidential counsel John Dean conducted an investigation of the incident, when in reality he hadn’t, and dismissed it as a “very bizarre incident.”
Even the famous “money trail” was not enough to derail the Nixon campaign.
In September 1972, the Washington Post linked John Mitchell, the head of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP), to a secret Republican campaign fund and the financing the Watergate burglary.
In the same month, a federal jury indicted the five Watergate burglars along with G. Gordon Liddy, general counsel to CRP, and former CIA agent E. Howard Hunt for conspiracy, burglary, and a violation of federal wiretapping laws.
The FBI determined Watergate to be a mission of political sabotage to help Nixon’s reelection campaign.
In spite of unraveling details of the break-in, Nixon cruised to victory in the November election. Nixon won by nearly 20 million votes and won every state but Massachusetts. (He also lost the District of Columbia.)
In some part, the media was largely responsible for Nixon’s victory.
Democratic nominee George McGovern was criticized at every turn. He was painted as a very left-wing liberal, running a highly inefficient and unorganized campaign.
Meanwhile, the Nixon campaign was praised for being very well-run.
Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s running mate, was brought down by reports that he had undergone therapy for depression. Eagleton was eventually replaced by Sargent Shriver.
Many newspapers neglected to dig deeper into the Watergate allegations out of fear that they would lose access to the White House.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post helped to break the case wide open shortly after the election.
The duo and their investigative reporting were famously encouraged by legendary publisher Katharine Graham, who oversaw the newspaper throughout the scandal.
Had Woodward and Bernstein managed to get their scoop earlier, Nixon might have lost the 1972 election.
Instead, the Watergate drama consumed the nation until the president’s resignation in August 1974.
Benjamin Brown is a student of history and American studies at Lafayette College and the assistant sports editor of the school newspaper. He is also in the Public Programs department of the National Constitution Center.