The Presidential Election of 1968

Picking a President Amid Violence and Turmoil

Richard Nixon campaigning in 1968
Richard Nixon campaigning in 1968. Getty Images

The election of 1968 was bound to be significant. The United States was bitterly divided over the seemingly unending war in Vietnam. A youth rebellion was dominating society, sparked, in large measure, by the draft that was pulling young men into the military and sending them off to the violent quagmire in Vietnam.

Despite progress made by the Civil Rights Movement, race was still a significant pain point. Incidents of urban unrest flared into full-fledged riots in American cities during the mid-1960s. In Newark, New Jersey, during five days of rioting in July 1967, 26 people were killed. Politicians routinely spoke of having to solve the problems of "the ghetto."

As the election year approached, many Americans felt that things were spiraling out of control. Yet the political landscape seemed to show some stability. Most assumed President Lyndon B. Johnson would run for another term in office. On the first day of 1968, a front-page article in the New York Times indicated the conventional wisdom as the election year began. The headline read, "GOP Leaders Say Only Rockefeller Can Beat Johnson."

The expected Republican nominee, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, was expected to beat former vice president Richard M. Nixon and California governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination.

The election year would be packed with surprises and shocking tragedies. The candidates dictated by conventional wisdom were not on the ballot in the fall. The voting public, many of them disturbed and dissatisfied by events, gravitated to a familiar face who nonetheless promised changes which included an "honorable" end to the Vietnam War and "law and order" at home.

The "Dump Johnson" Movement

Photograph of protesters at the Pentagon in 1967
October 1967 Protest Outside the Pentagon. Getty Images

With the war in Vietnam splitting the nation, the anti-war movement grew steadily into a potent political force. In late 1967, as massive protests literally reached the steps of the Pentagon, liberal activists began searching for an anti-war Democrat to run against President Lyndon Johnson.

Allard Lowenstein, an activist prominent in liberal student groups, traveled the country intent on launching a "Dump Johnson" movement. In meetings with prominent Democrats, including Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Lowenstein made a compelling case against Johnson. He argued a second presidential term for Johnson would only prolong a pointless and very costly war.

The campaign by Lowenstein eventually located a willing candidate. In November 1967 Senator Eugene "Gene" McCarthy of Minnesota agreed to run against Johnson for the Democratic nomination in 1968.

Familiar Faces On the Right

As the Democrats struggled with dissent in their own party, the potential Republican candidates for 1968 tended to be familiar faces. Early favorite Nelson Rockefeller was the grandson of legendary oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller. The term "Rockefeller Republican" was typically applied to generally moderate to liberal Republicans from the northeast who represented big business interests.

Richard M. Nixon, former vice president and losing candidate in the election of 1960, seemed poised for a major comeback. He had campaigned for Republican congressional candidates in 1966, and the reputation he had earned as a bitter loser in the early 1960s seemed to have faded.

Michigan governor and former automobile executive George Romney also intended to run in 1968. Conservative Republicans encouraged California's governor, former actor Ronald Reagan, to run.

Senator Eugene McCarthy Rallied the Youth

Eugene McCarthy in 1968
Eugene McCarthy celebrating a primary win. Getty Images

Eugene McCarthy was scholarly and had spent months in a monastery in his youth while seriously considering becoming a Catholic priest. After spending a decade teaching at high schools and colleges in Minnesota he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1948.

In Congress, McCarthy was a pro-labor liberal. In 1958 he ran for the Senate, and was elected. While serving on the Senator Foreign Relations committee during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations he often expressed skepticism of America's foreign interventions.

The first step in his run for president was to campaign in the March 1968 New Hampshire primary, the traditional first race of the year. College students traveled to New Hampshire to quickly organize a McCarthy campaign. While McCarthy's campaign speeches were often very serious, his youthful supporters gave his effort a sense of exuberance.

In the New Hampshire primary, on March 12, 1968, President Johnson won with about 49 percent of the vote. Yet McCarthy did shockingly well, winning about 40 percent. In the newspaper headlines the following day the Johnson win was portrayed as a startling sign of weakness for the incumbent president.

Robert F. Kennedy Took on the Challenge

photograph of Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in 1968
Robert F. Kennedy campaigning in Detroit, May 1968. Getty Images

The surprising results in New Hampshire had perhaps the greatest effect on someone not in the race, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. On the Friday following the New Hampshire primary Kennedy held a press conference on Capitol Hill to announce he was entering the race.

Kennedy, at his announcement, launched a sharp attack on President Johnson, calling his policies "disastrous and divisive." He said he would enter three primaries to begin his campaign, and would also support Eugene McCarthy against Johnson in three primaries in which Kennedy had missed the deadline to run.

Kennedy was also asked if he would support Lyndon Johnson's campaign if he secured the Democratic nomination that summer. He said he was unsure and would wait until that time to make a decision.

Johnson Withdrew From the Race

Photograph of Lyndon Johnson in 1968
President Johnson seemed exhausted in 1968. Getty Images

Following the startling results of the New Hampshire primary and the entrance of Robert Kennedy in the race, Lyndon Johnson agonized over his own plans. On a Sunday night, March 31, 1968, Johnson addressed the nation on television, ostensibly to talk about the situation in Vietnam.

After first announcing a halt in American bombing in Vietnam, Johnson shocked America and the world by announcing that he would not seek the Democratic nomination that year.

A number of factors went into Johnson's decision. Respected journalist Walter Cronkite, who had covered the recent Tet Offensive in Vietnam returned to report, in a noteworthy broadcast, and he believed the war was unwinnable. Johnson, according to some accounts, believed Cronkite represented mainstream American opinion.

Johnson also had a long-standing animosity for Robert Kennedy, and did not relish running against him for the nomination. Kennedy's campaign had gotten off to a lively start, with exuberant crowds surging to see him at appearances in California and Oregon. Days before Johnson's speech, Kennedy had been cheered by an all-black crowd as he spoke on a street corner in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts.

Running against the younger and more dynamic Kennedy obviously did not appeal to Johnson.

Another factor in Johnson's startling decision seemed to be his health. In photographs he looked weary from the stress of the presidency. It's likely his wife and family encouraged him to begin his exit from political life.

A Season of Violence

Crowds watching funeral train of Robert F. Kennedy
Crowds lined railroad tracks as Robert Kennedy's body returned to Washington. Getty Images

Less than a week after Johnson's surprising announcement, the country was rocked by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In Memphis, Tennessee, King had stepped out onto a hotel balcony on the evening of April 4, 1968, and was shot dead by a sniper.

In the days following King's murder, riots erupted in Washington, D.C., and other American cities.

In the turmoil following King's murder the Democratic contest continued. Kennedy and McCarthy squared off in a handful of primaries as the biggest prize, the California primary, approached.

On June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the Democratic primary in California. He celebrated with supporters that night. After leaving the hotel ballroom, an assassin approached him in the hotel's kitchen and shot him in the back of the head. Kennedy was mortally wounded, and died 25 hours later.

His body was returned to New York City, for a funeral mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. As his body was taken by train to Washington for burial near his brother's grave at Arlington National Cemetery, thousands of mourners lined the tracks.

The Democratic race seemed to be over. As primaries were not as important as they would become in later years, the nominee of the party would be selected by party insiders. And it appeared that Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who had not been considered a candidate when the year began, would have a lock on the Democratic nomination.

Mayhem at the Democratic National Convention

Police and protesters in Chicago in 1968
Protesters and police clashed in Chicago. Getty Images

Following the fading of the McCarthy campaign and Robert Kennedy's murder, those opposed to American involvement in Vietnam were frustrated and angry.

In early August, the Republican Party held its nominating convention in Miami Beach, Florida. The convention hall was fenced off and generally inaccessible to protesters. Richard Nixon easily won the nomination on the first ballot and chose Maryland's governor, Spiro Agnew, who was unknown nationally, as his running mate.

The Democratic National Convention was to be held in Chicago, in the middle of the city, and massive protests were planned. Thousands of young people arrived in Chicago determined to make their opposition to the war known. The provocateurs of the "Youth International Party," known as The Yippies, egged on the crowd.

Chicago's mayor and political boss, Richard Daley, vowed that his city would not allow any disruptions. He ordered his police forced to attack demonstrators and a national television audience saw images of policemen clubbing protesters in the streets.

Inside the convention, things were nearly as raucous. At one point news reporter Dan Rather was roughed up on the convention floor as Walter Cronkite denounced the "thugs" who seemed to be working for Mayor Daley.

Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination and chose Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as his running mate.

Heading into the general election, Humphrey found himself in a peculiar political bind. He was arguably the most liberal Democrat who had entered the race that year, yet, as Johnson's vice president, he was tied to the administration's Vietnam policy. That would prove to be a vexing situation as he faced off against Nixon as well as third-party challenger.

George Wallace Stirred Racial Resentment

George Wallace campaigning in 1968
George Wallace campaigning in 1968. Getty Images

As the Democrats and Republicans were choosing candidates, George Wallace, a former Democratic governor of Alabama, had launched an upstart campaign as a third-party candidate. Wallace had become nationally known five years earlier, when he literally stood in a doorway, and vowed "segregation forever" while trying to to prevent black students from integrating the University of Alabama.

As Wallace prepared to run for president, on the ticket of the American Independent Party, he found a surprising number of voters outside the South who welcomed his extremely conservative message. He reveled in taunting the press and mocking liberals. The rising counterculture gave him endless targets at which to unleash verbal abuse.

For his running mate Wallace chose retired a retired Air Force general, Curtis LeMay. An aerial combat hero of World War II, LeMay had led bombing raids over Nazi Germany before devising the shockingly lethal incendiary bombing campaign against Japan. During the Cold War, LeMay had commanded the Strategic Air Command, and his strident anti-communist views were well known.

Humphrey's Struggles Against Nixon

As the campaign entered the fall, Humphrey found himself defending Johnson's policy of having escalated the war in Vietnam. Nixon was able to position himself as a candidate who would bring a distinct change in the direction of the war. He spoke of achieving an "honorable end" the the conflict in Vietnam.

Nixon's message was welcomed by many voters who did not agree with the anti-war movement's calls for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. Yet Nixon was purposely vague about what exactly he would do to bring the war to an end.

On domestic issues, Humphrey was tied to the "Great Society" programs of the Johnson administration. After years of urban unrest, and outright riots in many cities, Nixon's talk of "law and order" had an obvious appeal.

A popular belief is that Nixon devised a crafty "southern strategy" which helped him the 1968 election. It can appear that way in retrospect, but at the time both major candidates assumed Wallace had a lock on the South. But Nixon's talk of "law and order" did work as "dog whistle" politics to many voters. (Following the 1968 campaign, many southern Democrats began a migration to the Republican Party in a trend that changed the American electorate in profound ways.)

As for Wallace, his campaign was largely based on racial resentment and a vocal dislike of changes taking place in society. His position on the war was hawkish, and at one point his running mate, General LeMay, created a huge controversy by suggesting that nuclear weapons might be used in Vietnam.

Nixon Triumphant

Richard Nixon campaigning in 1968
Richard Nixon campaigning in 1968. Getty Images

On Election Day, November 5, 1968, Richard Nixon won, collecting 301 electoral votes to Humphrey's 191. George Wallace won 46 electoral votes by winning five states in the South: Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Despite the problems Humphrey faced throughout the year, he came very close to Nixon in the popular vote, with only a half-million votes, or less than one percentage point, separating them. A factor which may have boosted Humphrey near the finish was that President Johnson suspended the bombing campaign in Vietnam. That probably helped Humphrey with voters skeptical about the war, but it came so late, less than a week before Election Day, that it may not have helped much.

As Richard Nixon took office, he faced a country greatly divided over the Vietnam War. The protest movement against the war became more popular, and Nixon's strategy of gradual withdrawal took years.

Nixon easily won reelection in 1972, but his "law and order" administration eventually ended in the disgrace of the Watergate scandal.

Sources

  • O'Donnell, Lawrence. Playing With Fire: the 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics. Penguin Books, 2018.
  • Cornog, Evan, and Richard Whelan. Hats in the Ring: an Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns. Random House, 2000.
  • Roseboom, Eugene H. A History of Presidential Elections. 1972.
  • Tye, Larry. Bobby Kennedy: the Making of a Liberal Icon. Random House, 2017.
  • Herbers, John. "Kennedy Cheered By Watts Negroes." New York Times, 26 March, 1968: p. 24. TimesMachine.NYTimes.com.
  • Weaver, Warren, Jr. "G.O.P. Leaders Say Only Rockefeller Can Beat Johnson." New York Times, 1 January 1968: p. 1. TimesMachine.NYTimes.com.
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McNamara, Robert. "The Presidential Election of 1968." ThoughtCo, Apr. 3, 2018, thoughtco.com/election-of-1968-4160834. McNamara, Robert. (2018, April 3). The Presidential Election of 1968. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/election-of-1968-4160834 McNamara, Robert. "The Presidential Election of 1968." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/election-of-1968-4160834 (accessed April 22, 2018).