A major factor in the precipitous decline of President Johnson's popularity was the Vietnam War, which he greatly escalated during his time in office. By late 1967 over 500,000 American soldiers were fighting in Vietnam and suffering thousands of casualties every month. Johnson was especially hurt when, despite his repeated assurances that the war was being "won", the American news media began to show just the opposite. The Tet Offensive of February 1968, in which Communist Vietcong forces launched major attacks on several large cities in South Vietnam, led to increased criticism from antiwar activists that the war was unwinnable. The Johnson Administration was particularly damaged during the Tet Offensive when Vietcong forces managed to infiltrate the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, before being killed by U.S. troops in a fierce struggle captured on national television. In response to the Tet Offensive, the U.S. military claimed that the war could only be won by adding several hundred thousand more soldiers to the American forces already in South Vietnam. In the months following Tet, Johnson's approval ratings fell below 35%, and the Secret Service refused to let the President make public appearances on the campuses of American colleges and universities, due to his extreme unpopularity among college students. The Secret Service also prevented Johnson from appearing at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, because of their fear that his appearance might cause riots.
Despite the growing opposition to Johnson's policies in Vietnam, no prominent Democratic candidate was prepared to run against a sitting President of his own party. Even Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, an outspoken critic of Johnson's policies with a large base of support, initially refused to run against Johnson in the primaries. Only Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota proved willing to challenge Johnson openly. Running as an antiwar candidate in the New Hampshire primary, McCarthy hoped to pressure the Democrats into publicly opposing the Vietnam War. Normally, an incumbent president faces little formidable opposition within his own party. However, McCarthy, although he was trailing badly in the national polls, decided to pour most of his resources into New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary election. He was boosted by thousands of young college students led by youth coordinator Sam Brown , who shaved their beards and cut their hair to be "Clean for Gene." These students organized get-out-the-vote drives, rang doorbells and distributed McCarthy buttons and leaflets, and worked hard in New Hampshire for McCarthy. On March 12, McCarthy won 42% of the primary vote to Johnson's 49%, an amazingly strong showing for such a challenger, and one which gave McCarthy's campaign legitimacy and momentum. The momentum ended, however, when Senator Kennedy announced his candidacy four days later, on March 16, as McCarthy supporters cried betrayal and vowed to defeat Kennedy. Thereafter McCarthy and Kennedy would engage in an increasingly bitter series of state primaries; although Kennedy won most of the primaries, he could never shake McCarthy and his devoted following of antiwar activists, which included many Hollywood celebrities such as Paul Newman, Gene Wilder, Barbra Streisand, and Burt Lancaster.
Since the Vietnam War had become the major issue that was dividing the Democratic Party, and Johnson had come to symbolize the war for many liberal Democrats, Johnson believed that he could not win the nomination without a major struggle, and that he would probably lose the election in November to the Republicans. However, by withdrawing from the race he could avoid the stigma of defeat, and he could keep control of the party machinery by giving the nomination to Humphrey, who had been a loyal Vice President. As the year developed, it also became clear that Johnson believed he could secure his place in the history books by ending the war before the election in November, thus giving Humphrey the boost he would need to win.
After Kennedy's defeat in Oregon, the California primary was seen as crucial to both Kennedy and McCarthy. McCarthy stumped the state's many colleges and universities, where he was treated as a hero for being the first presidential candidate to oppose the war. Kennedy campaigned in the ghettos and barrios of the state's larger cities, where he was mobbed by enthusiastic supporters. Kennedy and McCarthy engaged in a television debate a few days before the election; it was generally considered a draw. On June 4 Kennedy narrowly defeated McCarthy in California, 46%–42%. However, McCarthy refused to withdraw from the race and made it clear that he would contest Kennedy in the upcoming New York primary, where McCarthy had much support from antiwar activists in New York City. The New York primary quickly became a moot point, however, for in the early morning of June 5, Kennedy was shot shortly after midnight; he died twenty-six hours later. Kennedy had just given his victory speech in a crowded ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; he and his aides squeezed into a kitchen on their way to another ballroom to celebrate their victory. In the kitchen Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a young Palestinian militant who disliked Kennedy for his support of the state of Israel.
Political historians have debated to this day whether Kennedy could have won the Democratic nomination had he lived. Some historians, such as Theodore H. White and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., have argued that Kennedy's broad appeal and famed "charisma" would have convinced the party bosses at the Democratic Convention to give him the nomination. Jack Newfield, author of RFK: A Memoir, stated in a 1998 interview that on the night he was assassinated, "[Kennedy] had a phone conversation with Mayor Daley of Chicago, and Mayor Daley all but promised to throw the Illinois delegates to Bobby at the convention in August 1968. I think he said to me, and Pete Hamil, 'Daley is the ball game, and I think we have Daley.' However, other writers such as Tom Wicker, who covered the Kennedy campaign for The New York Times, believe that Humphrey's large lead in delegate votes from non-primary states, combined with Senator McCarthy's refusal to quit the race, would have prevented Kennedy from ever winning a majority at the Democratic Convention, and that Humphrey would have been the Democratic nominee even if Kennedy had lived. Journalist Richard Reeves has written that Humphrey was the likely nominee, and RFK's own campaign manager, future Democratic National Committee chairman Larry O'Brien, wrote in his memoirs that Kennedy's chances of winning the nomination had been slim, even after his win in California.
At the moment of RFK's death, the delegate totals were:
Results by winners:
Robert F. Kennedy
Lyndon B. Johnson
Stephen M. Young
Total popular vote:
When the 1968 Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago, thousands of young activists from around the nation gathered in the city to protest the Vietnam War. In a clash which was covered on live television, Americans were shocked to see Chicago police brutally beating antiwar protesters in the streets of Chicago. While the protesters chanted "The whole world's watching," the police used clubs and tear gas to beat back the protesters, leaving many of them bloody and dazed. The tear gas even wafted into numerous hotel suites; in one of them Vice President Humphrey was watching the proceedings on television. Meanwhile, the convention itself was marred by the strong-arm tactics of Chicago's mayor Richard J. Daley (who was seen on television angrily cursing Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who made a speech at the convention denouncing the excesses of the Chicago police in the riots). In the end, the nomination itself was anticlimactic, with Vice President Humphrey handily beating McCarthy and McGovern on the first ballot. The convention then chose Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as Humphrey's running mate. However, the tragedy of the antiwar riots crippled Humphrey's campaign from the start, and it never fully recovered. Before 1968 the city of Chicago had been a frequent host for the political conventions of both parties; since 1968 only once has a national convention been held in the city (in 1996, the Democrats held their convention for Bill Clinton there). Many believe that this is due in part to the violence and chaos of the Democratic Convention that year.
|Presidential tally||Vice Presidential tally:|
|Hubert Humphrey||1759.25||Edmund S. Muskie||1942.5|
|Eugene McCarthy||601||Not Voting||604.25|
|George S. McGovern||146.5||Julian Bond||48.5|
|Channing Phillips||67.5||David Hoeh||4|
|Daniel K. Moore||17.5||Edward M. Kennedy||3.5|
|Edward M. Kennedy||12.75||Eugene McCarthy||3.0|
|Paul E. "Bear" Bryant||1.5||Others||16.25|
|James H. Gray||0.5|
Robert F. Kennedy
George McGovern (during convention)
Nixon's first challenger was Michigan Governor George W. Romney. A Gallup poll in mid-1967 showed Nixon with 39%, followed by Romney with 25%. However, in a slip of the tongue, Romney told a news reporter that he had been "brainwashed" by the military and the diplomatic corps into supporting the Vietnam War; the remark led to weeks of ridicule in the national news media. As the year 1968 opened, Romney was opposed to further American intervention in Vietnam and had decided to run as the Republican version of Eugene McCarthy (New York Times 2/18/1968). Romney's support faded slowly, and he withdrew from the race on February 28, 1968. (New York Times 2/29/1968).
Nixon won a resounding victory in the important New Hampshire primary on March 12, winning 78% of the vote. Antiwar Republicans wrote in the name of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the leader of the GOP's liberal wing, who received 11% of the vote and became Nixon's new challenger. Nixon led Rockefeller in the polls throughout the primary campaign. Rockefeller defeated Nixon in the Massachusetts primary on April 30 but otherwise fared poorly in the state primaries and conventions.
By early spring, California Governor Ronald Reagan, the leader of the GOP's conservative wing, had become Nixon's chief rival. In the Nebraska primary on May 14, Nixon won with 70% of the vote to 21% for Reagan and 5% for Rockefeller. While this was a wide margin for Nixon, Reagan remained Nixon's leading challenger. Nixon won the next primary of importance, Oregon, on May 15 with 65% of the vote and won all the following primaries except for California (June 4), where only Reagan appeared on the ballot. Reagan's margin in California gave him a plurality of the nationwide primary vote, but when the Republican National Convention assembled, Nixon had 656 delegates according to a UPI poll (with 667 needed for the nomination).
Total popular vote:
At the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, Reagan and Rockefeller planned to unite their forces in a stop-Nixon movement, but the strategy fell apart when neither man agreed to support the other for the nomination. Nixon won the nomination on the first ballot. Nixon then chose Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew to be his Vice-Presidential candidate, despite complaints from within the GOP that Agnew was an unknown quantity, and that a better-known and more popular candidate, such as Romney, should have been the Vice-Presidential nominee. It was also reported that Nixon's first choice for running mate was his longtime friend and ally, Robert Finch, who was Lt. Governor of California since 1967 and later his HEW Secretary, but Finch declined the offer.
Candidates for the Vice-Presidential nomination:
|President||(before switches)||(after switches)||Vice President|
|Richard M. Nixon||692||1238||Spiro T. Agnew||1119|
|Nelson Rockefeller||277||93||George Romney||186|
|Ronald Reagan||182||2||John V. Lindsay||10|
|Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes||55||—||Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke||1|
|Michigan Governor George Romney||50||—||James A. Rhodes||1|
|New Jersey Senator Clifford Case||22||—||Not Voting||16|
|Kansas Senator Frank Carlson||20||—|
|Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller||18||—||—|
|Hawaii Senator Hiram Fong||14||—||—|
|New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay||1||—||—|
As of 2008, this was the last time two siblings (Nelson and Winthrop Rockefeller) ran against each other in a Presidential primary.
Also on the ballot in some states was black activist Eldridge Cleaver for the Peace and Freedom Party. Comedians Dick Gregory and Pat Paulsen were notable write-in candidates. Another presidential candidate for 1968 was a pig named Pigasus, as a political statement by the Yippies, in illustration of their premise that "one pig's as good as any other."
Nixon also developed a "southern strategy," which was designed to appeal to conservative white southerners, who traditionally voted Democratic but were deeply angered by Johnson and Humphrey's support for the civil rights movement. Wallace, however, won over many of the voters Nixon targeted, effectively splitting the conservative vote. Indeed, Wallace targeted many states he had little chance of carrying himself on purpose, in the hope that by boosting Humphrey's chances of winning those states he would by extension boost his own chances of denying both opponents an Electoral College majority. The "southern strategy" would prove more effective in subsequent elections, and would become a staple of Republican presidential campaigns.
After the Democratic Convention in late August Humphrey trailed Nixon by double-digits in most polls, and his chances seemed hopeless. According to Time magazine, "The old Democratic coalition was disintegrating, with untold numbers of blue-collar workers responding to Wallace's blandishments, Negroes threatening to sit out the election, liberals disaffected over the Viet Nam War, the South lost. The war chest was almost empty, and the party's machinery, neglected by Lyndon Johnson, creaked in disrepair. Calling for "the politics of joy", and using the still-powerful labor unions as his base, Humphrey fought back. He attacked Wallace as a racist bigot who appealed to the darker impulses of Americans. Labor unions also undertook a major effort to win back union members who were supporting Wallace, with substantial success. Polls which showed Wallace winning almost one-half of union members in the summer of 1968 showed a sharp decline in his union support as election day approached. Humphrey also pledged to continue the Great Society welfare programs initiated by President Johnson.
While Humphrey ran a fighting, slashing campaign, Nixon's campaign was carefully managed and controlled. Nixon often held "town hall" meetings in cities he visited, where he answered questions from voters who had been carefully screened in advance by his aides. Nixon also implied that he had a "solution" to the war in Vietnam, but was vague in providing the details of his plan. As election day approached and Wallace's support in the North and Midwest began to wane, Humphrey finally began to climb in the polls.
In the end, the Vietnam War became the one remaining problem Humphrey could not overcome. In October, Humphrey—who still trailed Nixon in the polls—began to publicly distance himself from the Johnson administration on the Vietnam War, calling for a bombing halt. The key turning point for Humphrey's campaign came when President Johnson officially announced a bombing halt, and even a possible peace deal, the weekend before the election. Tipped off in advance by Henry Kissinger, and fearing this 'October surprise' might cost him the election, Nixon used Anna Chennault as an intermediary to encourage South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to stay away from the peace talks in the belief that he could expect a better deal under a Nixon Presidency; Thieu obliged. However, the "Halloween Peace" gave Humphrey's campaign a badly needed boost. In addition, Senator Eugene McCarthy finally endorsed Humphrey in late October after previously refusing to do so, and by election day the polls were reporting a dead heat.
The election on November 5, 1968 proved to be extremely close, and it was not until the following morning that the television news networks were able to call Nixon the winner. The key states proved to be California, Ohio, and Illinois, all of which Nixon won by three percentage points or less. Had Humphrey carried all three of these states, he would have won the election. Had Humphrey carried any two of them, George Wallace would have succeeded in his aim of preventing an electoral college majority for any candidate, and the decision would have been given to the House of Representatives. Nixon won the popular vote with a plurality of 512,000 votes, or a victory margin of about one percentage point. In the electoral college Nixon's victory was larger, as he carried 32 states with 301 electoral votes, to Humphrey's 13 states and 191 electoral votes and Wallace's 5 states and 46 electoral votes.
Another important result of the 1968 election was that it led to several reforms in how the Democratic Party chose its presidential nominees. After the election, many of McCarthy and Kennedy's supporters gained control of the party machinery, and for the 1972 election they passed a number of initiatives designed to make the nomination process more democratic. A key initiative took the nominating process out of the hands of the party bosses by greatly enlarging the number of states which held binding presidential primaries. After 1968 the only way to win the party's presidential nomination was through the primary process; Humphrey turned out to be the last nominee of either major party to win his party's nomination without having directly competed in the primaries.
Source (Electoral Vote):
NOTES: In Alabama, Wallace was official Democratic Party nominee, while Humphrey ran on the ticket of short-lived National Democratic Party of Alabama, loyal to him as an official Democratic Party nominee
In North Carolina one Nixon Elector cast his ballot for George Wallace (President) and Curtis LeMay (Vice President).
|NBC sample precincts 1968 election|
|% Humphrey||% Nixon||% Wallace|
|High income urban||29||63||5|
|Middle income urban||43||44||13|
|Low income urban||69||19||12|
|Rural (all income)||33||46||21|
|NBC sample precincts 1968 election: South only|
|% Humphrey||% Nixon||% Wallace|
|Middle income urban neighborhoods||28||40||32|
|Low income urban neighborhoods||57||18||25|
|Rural (all income)||29||30||41|