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Why Nixon Won

The New York Times/

Yankelovich Election Survey

It was not what happened during the Presidential campaign itself that won the election for Richard Nixon. Throughout the campaign the press and television concentrated on Eagleton, Watergate, Mr. McGovern’s “radical” image, his campaign style, and the “he-can’t-win” psychology purportedly generated by the opinion polls. These events affected Mr. McGovern’s standings in the polls during the campaign but had little bearing on why Mr. Nixon won the election. As the polls taken by my own organization, as well as others, showed, Nixon had a majority of three to two from the very start—a majority that never wavered throughout that long campaign. In a sense, the campaign proved to be irrelevant.

The news media failed to identify the truly decisive event of the election because it occurred months before the campaign even began, in the spring, after the mining of Haiphong harbor. Here is what happened as well as I can reconstruct it from our pre-election interviews prior to and during the campaign.

Though Nixon’s statements about how the war should be ended were generally approved throughout the campaign, in early April, before the Haiphong blockade, the opinion polls showed that his Vietnam policy was in serious trouble with the voters. At that time when the Harris poll asked, “Does Nixon inspire confidence?” the people interviewed answered no, by a margin of five to four. The Vietnam issue was generally conceded to be McGovern’s main source of strength.

Then the mining of Haiphong happened. We must remember that the decision to mine Haiphong harbor was made at a time when the military situation in Vietnam was deteriorating badly. Our interviews shortly afterward showed that people expected the worst. In the past, most decisions on Vietnam made in times of crisis—such as the Cambodian “incursion”—had proved disastrous. This time Mr. Nixon confronted the communists with a challenge that even Lyndon Johnson at his most combative had not dared to make.

The days that followed reminded voters of the Cuban Missile Crisis. People were anxious: “How would the Russians react?” “Would they cancel the Summit?” “Would they try to break the blockade by force?” even “Would there be a nuclear confrontation?” When the Russians announced that the Summit would go on as planned, the public, as our surveys later showed, was vastly relieved. With mounting confidence, they watched the drama unfold on television: Mr. Nixon being greeted coolly but correctly at the Moscow airport; meeting in a somewhat more cordial atmosphere with Brezhnev; being toasted at Soviet banquets; addressing the Russian people; laying a wreath at the grave of a little Russian girl orphaned by the war; signing documents and treaties of historic importance with the head of the Soviet state.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the message got through to the American public: Nixon had faced the Russians down, and the danger to the US from the war—the danger of a big power confrontation—had been defused. The war in Vietnam would now soon be over. Or, even if it did not end right away, it would no longer be seen as a military threat to Americans. Soviet/ Chinese acquiescence in the Haiphong mining had handed Mr. Nixon an overwhelming diplomatic victory, containing the seeds of his subsequent political victory at home. Vietnam, we found, is the issue of greatest concern to the American public, and in the public mind it was almost as if the war had ended at the Moscow Summit.

The results of the Soviet trip were dramatically reflected in the opinion polls. By early July, Mr. Nixon had rebuilt public confidence in his handling of the Vietnam war by an almost two to one margin. Simultaneously, he had undermined McGovern’s major source of public support by converting what had been McGovern’s issue into his own principal source of strength among the voters. During the campaign, an unwavering 62 percent of the voters said, “Mr. Nixon is doing everything he can to end the war.” They voted for him largely, if not exclusively, for this reason. (Domestic issues also played a part but we found they were not nearly so important.)

When, in mid-October, it appeared that the North Vietnamese had reached an accommodation with Mr. Kissinger, few were surprised. Even when the Administration failed, on October 31, to sign the treaty agreed upon by Kissinger and the North Vietnamese, few of Nixon’s supporters were disillusioned. When George McGovern accused Kissinger and Nixon of “the big lie,” few of Nixon’s supporters believed him. In fact, the accusation boomeranged against McGovern. For the climate of opinion had crystallized around the agreements reached between Nixon and the Soviet Union and China months before. For a majority of Americans the preconditions for ending the war had been laid, and the precise time schedule no longer mattered as much as it had before.

To McGovern’s supporters—a minority—the human costs of the bombings dwarf all considerations of power-politics and make even a day’s delay in ending the war unforgivable. To Nixon’s majority, who also want the war to end, an immediate cessation is less important than working out a compromise that does not suggest “defeat” for the US. Both sides, our surveys suggest, agree that the war is an abomination. But their views of how American morality and honor are involved in ending it are irreconcilable.

Ironically, then, Mr. Nixon can thank the Soviet Union for handing him his most important political victory. The Russians virtually pushed Mr. Nixon back into the White House when they agreed to go ahead with the Summit meeting after the mining at Haiphong.