Hello and welcome back to another edition of the presidential election series as will be discussing perhaps the most unpredictable and chaotic elections in all of the late 20th century… That’s right I’m talking about the election of 1968.
Conflicts continue to rage both at home and abroad, a political realignment has taken place, influential figures are getting gunned down and on top of all of that we have a presidential election on the horizon… So with that all said, let’s get into it.
After defeating Barry Goldwater in a landslide back in the 1964 election, President Lyndon Johnson decided to push forward many domestic policies which saw the passing of Medicare and Medicaid, creating programs that helped to provide food and aid to many lower-class Americans and signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prevents any racial discrimination when it comes to voting.
These pieces of legislation and so much more were part of President Johnson’s “War of Poverty” which looked to reduce large amounts of poverty that had been going on in many urban areas while also providing better chances for education, health and work for many middle and lower class citizens.
However, while Johnson was setting in place policies that looked to help the impoverished, several issues that had been quickly pushed to the background for years were quickly beginning to take centre stage with many of them revolving around race relations.
Despite Johnson’s best efforts, his signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act was the last straw for many southern and conservative Democrats who were already uneasy with the federal government increasing under presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and now LBJ. This led to many Southern Democrats shifting their political loyalties to the Republican Party and the GOP was capitalizing on this division as evidenced by the results of the 1966 mid-term election which further showed a party switch was beginning to take place.
Tensions got even worse following the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th 1968 when he was shot and killed on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis Tennessee leading to the Civil Rights Movement suffering a major blow in momentum and an almost endless amount of race riots breaking out in places like Harlem New York, Detroit Michigan, Washington DC and the Watts District of Los Angeles California.
While things started to become turbulent for the Johnson administration on the domestic front, things were getting worse internationally and in particular when it came to escalating issues that as the Vietnam War…
The Vietnam War
During his bid for re-election in 1964, LBJ promised not to escalate the growing conflict that was started under his predecessor, but even before Johnson’s landmark win it became clear to most that this promise wasn’t going to be kept as the early months of 1968 showed with the ‘Tet Offensive’.
For those who don’t know this was a surprise attack by the North Vietnamese during a cease-fight period in which the Vietnamese people were to celebrate a very important holiday in their history known as ‘Tet’; This attack completely caught U.S. forces off guard and began to show the cracks that was the perception of American dominance in the war.
As more American troops continued to be deployed in the war and many of them returned in caskets or body bags, a growing anti-war movement was surging in the U.S. with many young people burning their draft cards or actively protesting the war in the streets evening chanting things like “Hey, Hey LBJ…How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?” just outside of the White House, that’s how bad things were getting.
With conflicts like Vietnam, the race riots, and his health not being in the best of shape due to his smoking habit, President Johnson announced in the Oval Office on March 31st 1968 that he would not seek or accept re-nomination for a second term which would create a whirlwind of chaos leading to the Democratic Party getting split amongst different factions resulting in what would be a disastrous convention for the party.
But before we get into the hot mess that was that year’s Democratic Convention, let’s take a look at the names who all ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
Who Will Be the Nominee (Part 1)
Despite the numerous calamities surrounding his presidency going into 1968, LBJ still felt he had the political power to get his party’s nomination at the very least or that was until he was challenged by a junior Senator from Minnesota by the name of Eugene McCarthy, who emerged as the anti-war candidate who shocked everyone with his impressive performance in the New Hampshire primary against the incumbent Democratic President.
Although McCarthy didn’t win, his surprisingly close second-place run in the primary showed the nation that Lyndon Johnson’s political hold on his party was slipping and after New Hampshire, many intellectuals and minorities saw McCarthy as the type of candidate who they could rally around.
Not long after the close race in New Hampshire, Robert F. Kennedy who was now the Senator from New York decided to throw his hat into the race and announce his bid for the presidency which ultimately led to Johnson seeing that he had no chance of winning the nomination and forced him to announce his refusal to run for re-election.
Following Johnson’s announcement, former Minnesota Senator turned Vice President Hubert Humprhey decided to run for the nomination Humprhey being supported by the establishment wing much of the VPs were for the continuation of the war while both Kennedy and McCarthy were running on the idea of pulling out of the war.
Even though McCarthy opened the floodgates for other Democrats to run for the nomination, most people tended to support Kennedy mainly due to him being the more well-known and popular candidate and as the Democratic primaries continued both Kennedy and McCarthy were running to see who could win the most states going into the convention meanwhile Humphrey decided to not participate but instead focused his efforts on getting as many delegates to his side.
By the time of the California primary, it was going to be a close race for the most delegates in the state which went to Senator Kennedy by a 46% victory compared to McCarthy winning 42%, unfortunately not long after giving a speech following his win in the primaries Kennedy was shot and killed by a twenty-something-year-old Palestinian man by the name of Sirhan Sirhan who disagreed with Kennedy’s support for the nation of Israel, adding more tragedy to an election that was already filled with it.
Weeks before the Democratic convention, South Dakota Senator George McGovern announced his bid for the presidency and ran as a candidate to all of the Kennedy supporters who couldn’t get behind McCarthy or Humphrey…In reality, McGovern’s attempt to run only further divided the anti-war voters whom McCarthy already had and this will go on to help Vice President Humphrey going into the convention.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention
Chicago Illinois became the location for the 1968 Democratic Convention with Mayor Richard J. Daley doing everything in his power to prevent any chaos from ensuing on his watch, but this is easier said than done as much of the anti-war/hippie movement descended to Chicago to protest over the Democratic Party’s continuation of the Vietnam War.
As the DNC gets underway, it becomes clear that neither the McCarthy nor McGovern supporters will be able to get their candidate to win the nomination as the party bosses within the Democratic Party have already set things in place for the vice president to emerge as the victor despite Humphrey not competing at all in the primaries which further leads to disorder within the convention, but while a political fight takes place at the convention hall, there’s a fight taking place just outside.
With the anti-war protesters picketing just outside of the Conrad Hilton Hotel near Grand Park, a combination of Chicago policemen and military soldiers begin pummeling and beating up protestors with fists, night clubs, tear gas and mace as TV News cameras capture everything graphic and bloody detail with chants of “The Whole World is Watching” echoing throughout the night.
When word of these assaults by the police on the nonviolent protesters reach the delegates of the DNC, all hell breaks loose with a large amount of shoving, heckling and booing taking place.
Regardless of everything happening outside and inside the convention halls, Hubert Humphrey walks in on the last day of the convention on August 29th to accept the nomination for president with Edmund Muskie, the Senator from Maine as his running mate.
While winning the nomination for president should have been seen as a triumphant moment for Humphrey, it was the exact opposite as the events in Chicago and his association with the now disliked Johnson administration left him wounded politically and he now has to find a way to unite a badly divided party and it’s supporters going into election day.
So that’s been the Democratic Party’s road to nomination and it’s been quite a chaotic ride all things considered and it’s going to look worse compared to how the GOP convention.
Who Will Be the Nominee (Part 2)
Following his loss to John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election and a failed attempt to win the Governorship in his home state of California in 1962, former Vice President Richard Nixon appeared to be persona non grata in the world of politics but with the Democrats fractured and the Vietnam War raging on, allowed the former VP to make a comeback and so he decided to run once again for the presidency.
Even though Nixon looked poise to win the nomination, he still had to go through several candidates:
- George Romney: Governor of Michigan and father of future GOP politician, Mitt Romney
- Nelson Rockefeller: Governor of New York and leader of the liberal wing of the GOP trying to win the nomination a third time
and finally, there was…
- Ronald Reagan: A former Hollywood actor turned politician who defeated Pat Brown in the 1966 midterms to win the Governorship of California
While the Republican convention wasn’t as chaotic as the Democrats, there were still issues like a riot that took place a few days before the RNC which was done by jaded African American groups who felt that the two many parties were completely disregarding the problems they were still facing as it relates to discrimination and poor economic efforts.
Determined to win the nomination (and by extension the presidency), Richard Nixon had to rely on the support of many Conservative Republicans as well as the Southern politicians who recently joined the GOP following LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
With the help of many former Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond, Nixon once again became the Republican Party’s nominee for president this time with Spiro Agnew, the Governor of Maryland as his running mate.
Now that the conventions for both major parties have come to an end, you’d think that would be it but alas there’s still one more character in this election that needs to be discussed
George Wallace Enters The Race
As if the assassinations, police violence against protesters and the 1968 Democratic Convention weren’t enough drama going into the election, former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace decided to leave the Democratic Party and run as a third-party candidate for the newly established, American Independence Party.
Due to his segregationist policies during his time as governor, many looked at Wallace’s bid for office as nothing more than a repeat of Strom Thurmond’s presidential run back in 1948 which ended up dividing Southern support for the Democrats and much like Thurmond, the plan for Wallace was to win enough states to prevent Nixon and Humphrey from getting 270 electoral votes (which is the amount that was now the amount needed to win) to send the election into the House of Representatives where Wallace would become the power broker and help decide the winner so long as Nixon or Humphrey’s policies reached his liking.
Wallace’s pick for running mate was an interesting one as he first considered Happy Chandler who was the Commissioner of Baseball at the time but also a former Senator and Governor of Kentucky in the 1930’s and 40’s but neither man could agree on race-related issues.
Another name that was considered was none other than Harland Sanders aka Colonel Sanders of KFC but the Colonel turned it down as the association would alienate his business especially. In the end it was Curtis LeMay who was the former U.S. Chief of Staff for the Air Force and military general who agreed to be Wallace’s running mate…So now that we’ve mentioned all three of the candidate that’ll play a crucial role in the election, it’s time to talk about their campaigns.
The Campaigns & Polling Data
By August of 1968, Richard Nixon had a big lead over his Democratic and third-party opponents as he led in the polls by 45% to Humphrey’s 29% and Wallace’s 18%.
Nixon proclaimed on the campaign trail he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War and that he was looking to bring back ‘law and order’ to the United States after years of riots and protesters breaking out; He also tried to appeal to voters in the South with a method infamously known as ‘The Southern Strategy’ which was basicially a politician using coded language that appealed to many in the Deep South who were more prejudice and far right in their conservative beliefs.
With Nixon’s campaign looking like a well-oiled machine compared to the others as well as the use of Southern Strategy coupled with the previously mentioned issues within the Democratic Party and Wallace’s third-party bid sucking away even more Southern states from the Democrats…This gave Nixon the belief that he could do what he wasn’t able to do in 1960 and that’s win the election.
Hubert Humphrey meanwhile is running on the idea of continuing the “Great Society” programs even expanding them as a means to help African Americans and the poor who were still struggling while also promising to pass more liberal legislation regarding civil rights and civil liberties.
Unfortunately for Humphrey his constantly being heckled on streets and in rallies by anti-war protesters and hippies who are dissatisfied with him and Democrats as a whole for their refusal to speak out in ending the war in Vietnam out of fear of angering President Johnson who could undermine his own VP’s hopes of winning the election and this leads to chants of ‘Stop The War’ and ‘Dump the Hump’ being heard throughout.
Things began to take a seismic shift for the Humphrey campaign on September 30th when he gave a televised speech in Salt Lake City, Utah where he mentioned that if elected president he would end the bombing in Vietnam if it meant coming one step closer to peace and if it could help in negotiating an end to the conflict…By October Humphrey’s poll numbers begin to increase as more and more people even the anti-war movement are beginning to give him a chance.
George Wallace for his part has been doing better than most would have expected as by late September going into October the former Alabama governor was reaching around 21% in the polls and even managed to gain some support in Northern states thanks to his populist rhetoric that appealed to Union workers and White Americans.
His campaign begins to falter however the day he announces Curtis LeMay as his running mate as the former general’s history of using nuclear weapons gets brought up during a press conference and his answers regarding the use of such weapons in Vietnam were nonsensical at best and dangerous at worse resulting in many voters in the North shifting to the Humphrey campaign, especially following that speech in Utah.
Vietnam Peace Talks
With Humphrey making a last-minute comeback in the polls and President Johnson announcing that all aerial and naval bombings in Vietnam had been halted plus a peace treaty between the U.S. and the Vietnamese being discussed, Richard Nixon and his team realised that they needed to do something to prevent this election from getting too close as it was in 1960.
So Tricky Dick decides to disrupt the peace negotiations with the help of Henry Kissinger who was President Johnson’s Secretary of State and was also feeding the Nixon team details on how the peace talks were going.
Nixon then instructed a Vietnamese woman and conservative by the name of Anna Chennault to tell the Vietnamese President to refuse all of the peace deals the Johnson administration was making as they could get a much better deal with Nixon as president.
This action by Nixon violated the Logan Act which was to prevent private citizens or politicians from intervening in foreign policy matters regarding the U.S. and other foreign nations…So Nixon’s actions might have saved his chances in the election but it also meant that the war would go on with more and more lives dying as a result.
Speaking of results, it’s time to see which of the three candidates will come out on top on election day.
As election day came in 1968, Richard Nixon was declared the winner and became the 37th President in American History; From an electoral standpoint, Nixon soundily defeated both of his opponents with 301 electoral votes to Hubert Humphrey received 191 electoral votes.
In terms of the popular vote however, Nixon only received 43.4% to Humphrey’s 42.7% making this the first election since 1912 in which none of the major candidates won 50% of the popular vote.
George Wallace came in a distant third with 46 electoral votes and 13.5% of the popular vote; Wallace ended up winning Southern states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia and even got an electoral vote from someone in North Carolina, in fact since this election Wallace is the last third party candidate win electoral votes that weren’t considered faithless elector votes.
This election would be the last time a politician could announce their candidacy for president without competing in the primaries and it would also be the last time until the 21st century in which a non-Southern Democrat would win the Presidency.
And that was the election of 1968…What an unpredictable U.S. election this was as the Democrats had become a divided party and Richard Nixon made the biggest political comeback in years to become commander-in-chief which meant he got four years to turn things around, Can he do it? Be sure to check out the 1972 election article to find out.
Be sure to follow me on X @FullertonHakeem for more content like this and I will see you all in the next election article…Bye