1972 United States Senate election in Delaware
The 1972 United States Senate election in Delaware was held November 7, 1972. Incumbent Republican United States Senator J. Caleb Boggs ran for a third term in the United States Senate. Boggs faced off against Joe Biden, a New Castle County Councilman. Though Boggs was expected to easily win a third term over Biden, the election ended up being the closest Senate election of the year. Biden narrowly defeated Boggs by 3,162 votes, winning his first of seven U.S. Senate elections. This is the only time Biden lost Sussex County in his seven elections to the Senate. Biden would later be elected vice president in 2008 and president in 2020. Biden became the youngest senator since Rush Holt won in West Virginia in 1934.
Longtime Delaware political figure and incumbent Republican Senator J. Caleb Boggs was considering retirement, which would likely have left U.S. Representative Pete du Pont and Wilmington Mayor Harry G. Haskell Jr. in a divisive Senate primary fight. To avoid a potential primary, U.S. President Richard Nixon helped convince Boggs to run again with full party support.
Aside from Biden, a New Castle County Councilman, no Democrats wanted to challenge Boggs. Biden's campaign had virtually no money and was given no chance of winning. The campaign was managed by Biden's sister, Valerie Biden Owens (who would go on to manage his future campaigns), was staffed by other members of the Biden family, and relied upon handed-out newsprint position papers. Biden did receive some assistance from the AFL–CIO and from Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell. Biden's campaign focused on withdrawal from Vietnam, the environment, civil rights, mass transit, more equitable taxation, health care, the public's dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual, and "change". Biden would be against giving amnesty to draft dodgers. Despite not supporting the legalization of Marijuana, he would say in a campaign ad that: "the possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor—a minor offense. The police should treat it that way, and devote the greater part of their efforts to heroin.".
During the summer, Biden trailed Boggs by almost 30 percentage points; however, Biden's energy level, attractive young family, and ability to connect with voters' emotions gave him an advantage over the ready-to-retire Boggs. John Marttila would serve as one of his consultants and had previously worked for Robert Drinan's campaign for the US House of Representatives. Biden's campaign was described as having "no money to speak of." and relied on positions papers in newspapers and a few campaign advertisements on the radio. One notable advertisement used by the Biden campaign was a brochure printed in newspaper format that contrasted the world view of the two candidates, e.g., (full page) "To Cale Boggs an unfair tax was the 1948 poll tax"; (opposite page) "To Joe Biden an unfair tax is the 1972 income tax." On November 7, 1972, Biden upset Boggs by a margin of 3,162 votes.
Biden would vary his messaging during campaign events throughout the state as well. For example, in the southern parts of the state his pitch would be: “thirty years ago, caring for the environment meant picking up bottles and beer cans on Rehoboth Beach … and now it means saving the beach.” while in the northern parts of the state in the Wilmington area it would be “in 1950, Cale Boggs promised to keep highways growing; in 1970 Joe Biden promises to keep trees growing.”.
A few weeks later on December 18, 1972, Biden’s wife and daughter died in a car crash which injured his sons. Biden was contemplating resigning the Senate and told his brother to talk with governor-elect Sherman W. Tribbitt on his successor. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield persuaded Biden to stay in the Senate for at least six months. Biden was sworn in at the hospital where his sons were recovering. Biden would hold the seat up until his election as Vice President 36 years later.
At the time of the 1972 election, Biden was 29 years old. He turned 30—the minimum age for a U.S. senator—on November 20, 1972, in time for the Senate term beginning January 3, 1973. At the commencement of his Senate term, Biden was the sixth-youngest U.S. Senator in history.
A 2004 book contained a story, allegedly from Frank Sheeran, that in the week prior to Election Day an unidentified lawyer approached Sheeran about preventing the distribution of the local paper because Senator Boggs was running an advertisement unflattering to Biden. Sheeran claimed that he organized a work stoppage, and that Teamsters truck drivers refused to cross a picket line, so the papers were not delivered. The credibility of Sheeran's account has been called into serious question. It conflicts directly with articles in the Wilmington News Journal on the strike, published on November 6 and November 22, 1972. The paper was not printed on the days in question because the Printers Union briefly joined the strike. The paper's deliveries were not shut down for a week, but for two days. The picket line did not come down on the day after the election; rather, the Guild remained on strike until November 22.
Biden was elected President of the United States in November 2020 at age 77. Because of mail-in voting his victory was not official until November 7, 5 days after conventional voting began and the 48th anniversary of his Senate election over Boggs.
|Republican||J. Caleb Boggs (incumbent)||112,844||49.10%||−10.02%|
|Prohibition||Herbert B. Wood||175||0.07%||N/A|
|Democratic gain from Republican|
|County||Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
|James Caleb Boggs
|Herbert B. Wood
|Total votes cast|
Results by State representative districtEdit
|District||Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.
|James Caleb Boggs
|Herbert B. Wood
|Total votes cast|
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