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1968 Presidential Elections - History

1968 Presidential Elections - History

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1968 Elections Humphrey vs Nixon

Richard Nixon entered the Republican convention as the front runner. He won the nomination on the first ballot. In his acceptance speech he stated:" When the strongest nation in the world can be tied down for four years in a war in Vietnam with no end in sight, when the wealthiest nation in the world cannot manage its economy, when the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented racial violence, when the President of the United States cannot travel abroad, or to any major city at home, then itäs time for new leadership for the United States."

The Democrats went through a grueling primary campaign. Eugene McCarthy, an early opponent of the war in Vietnam, almost upset President Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. This convinced Johnson not to run for re-election. At that point, Vice President Humphrey announced his candidacy for the nomination. A primary battle followed, with Robert Kennedy pulling in the lead until his assassination. With Kennedy gone, Humphrey was able to sew up the nomination. He was nominated on the first ballot at a tumultuous convention in Chicago. The rioting and the police actions outside the convention hall dominated the news coverage and did not get the Humphrey campaign off to a good start.

Nixon began the campaign as the front runner, with a clear lead. He campaigned against rising crime and claimed he would restore "law and order." Nixon also instituted what he dubbed a Southern policy. He took advantage of Southern voters resentments at civil rights legislation passed by the Johnson administration, and as a result, he successfully received support from what had been solidly Democratic south. Toward the end of the campaign, as Humphrey became more critical of Johnson's handling of the war, the lead narrowed. It did not narrow enough to stop a Nixon victory, however.s

1968 United States presidential election (Dewey 1948)

The 1968 United States presidential election was the 46th quadrennial presidential election. It was held on Tuesday, November 5, 1968. The Republican nominee, former Vice President Richard Nixon, defeated the Democratic nominee, incumbent Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Incumbent Democratic United States Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson had been the early front-runner for his party's nomination, and won the nomination at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Nixon entered the 1968 Republican primaries as the front-runner, and he defeated Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, and other candidates at the 1968 Republican National Convention to win his party's nomination. Governor George Wallace of Alabama ran on the American Independent Party ticket, campaigning in favour of racial segregation, and finding success in southern states.

The election year was tumultuous it was marked by the assassination of Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, subsequent King assassination riots across the nation, and widespread opposition to the Vietnam War across university campuses. Nixon ran on a campaign that promised to restore law and order to the nation's cities and provide new leadership in the Vietnam War. A year later, he would popularise the term "silent majority" to describe those he viewed as being his target voters. He also pursued a "Southern strategy" designed to win conservative Southern white voters who had traditionally supported the Democratic Party. Johnson promised to continue the War on Poverty and to support the Civil Rights Movement.

Nixon won a plurality of the popular vote by a narrow margin, with 43.4% of the vote (6% less than he got in the 1960 election which he lost), but won by a large margin in the Electoral College, carrying most states outside of the Northeast. Wallace won five states in the Deep South and ran well in some ethnic enclave industrial districts in the North he is the most recent third party candidate to win a state. Nixon's victory marked the start of a still-occurring period of consecutive Republican victories in presidential elections.

The 1968 Presidential Election

This academic year I have taken control of teaching the AQA module ‘The American Dream: Reality & Illusion’ to the second year A-level class in college, and since coming back from the Christmas break we’ve moved on to a brand new president: Richard Nixon. Recently, we covered the 1968 presidential election, which saw the removal of the Democrats and the return of the Republicans under Nixon. The election itself is an interesting and odd one, especially when we consider that the difference in the popular vote between Republican Nixon and Democrat Humphrey was incredibly small. So, I concluded that there was enough intrigue and interest to spend a time reflecting on it in a post.

At the start of 1968 the sitting president was Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), who had been in the White House since the assassination of Kennedy in November 1963. Initially, Johnson proved very popular and was able to ride on the wave of good-feeling with the so-called “Kennedy Legacy” to win a landslide election victory in 1964. Furthermore, LBJ had big plans for the future wrapped up within his vision of the “Great Society”: healthcare and housing reform, environmental protections, as well as an emphasis on attempting to solve the Civil Rights issues. There was an element of success with these policies, especially with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. However, the “Great Society” became derailed due to the heavy attention devoted to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Although this increasing involvement in south-east Asia was not a chief aim of LBJ, year on year saw thousands upon thousands of American troops pile into South Vietnam with no real hope of succeeding. However, America could not be seen to withdraw, such was the fear of Communism profiting from their withdrawal this was the time of the “Domino Theory” and one country falling to Communism could lead to others also dropping.

By the 1968 election year LBJ’s legacy had proved to be toxic: he was hailed as a “baby-killer” and the Democrats were beginning to fracture. Initially, Johnson had intended to fight the 1968 election, but his unpopularity was exposed in an early primary. On stepping down the field was opened up to others, but each had their own specific idea on the direction of the party and America. Popular candidate – Bobby Kennedy – was assassinated after winning the California primary, and the other options could not hope to live up to Kennedy’s initial promise. The party eventually nominated LBJ’s vice-president – Hubert Humphrey – which seemed to promise more of the same as the old administration (for example, Humphrey retained support of continuing the Vietnam War). However, not all of the party came behind this nomination, with the southern “Dixiecrats” still feeling betrayed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These southern Democrats wanted to re-assert their identity in the south, with segregation still seen as an achievable aim. Therefore they rejected the notion of supporting Humphrey and instead rallied behind George Wallace, who stood as a third candidate. This suggested that the Democrat vote would be split.

Democrat nominee: Hubert Humphrey

Furthermore, there were other problems within the Democrat party, as exposed in the 1968 convention held in Chicago. Youth protesters – under the direction of the Yippie movement – put out a call to attend the convention in order to highlight the wrongs committed by the LBJ administration. The Yippies and an intriguing group: not as united as the Students for a Democratic Society, they were a loose bunch of anarchists, artists and societal dropouts. Their manifesto called for an open invitation to occupy Chicago during the convention for an ‘international festival of youth music and theatre’. It also stated:

‘Come all you rebels, youth spirits, rock minstrels, truth seekers, peacock freaks, poets, barricade jumpers, dancers, lovers and artists,” read the manifesto. “It is the last week in August and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY meets to bless Johnson. We are there! There are 500,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony… celebrating the birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.’

Yippies in action – suggesting a pig would be a better candidate

Chicago mayor – the Democrat Richard Daley – was determined to stop the protests from taking place. However, his dramatic response of calling in thousands of police and national guardsmen led to heavy-handed tactics some Democrat members went as far to compare their actions to that of the Gestapo (such as the Senator Abraham Ribicoff). The protests and the brutal responses were captured by the TV cameras, with the protesters shouting that ‘the whole world is watching.’

All of this clearly shows that the Democrat party itself was in a mess during 1968: they were divided and arguing amongst themselves, which provided a stronger platform for Nixon and the Republicans. Nixon portrayed himself as a safe pair of experienced hands, and in the end he won the election. The graphic below highlights that although the popular vote was close, Nixon carried the states. Furthermore, the involvement of George Wallace split the Democrat vote, meaning that the Republicans won their first presidential election since 1956.

1968 Presidential Election

The 1968 election is sometimes used to provide a debate as to what was the biggest factor: did Nixon win it, or rather did the Democrats lose it. It is an interesting debate, and one that finds parallels with other elections in the 20th Century most notably the British general election of 1945 when Prime Minister Churchill – the war hero – lost in landslide win for the Labour Party. Churchill had used negative campaigning tactics, trying to strike fear into the British populace by suggesting that the Labour party were affiliated with the Communists whilst Attlee’s Labour went with a positive message by offering the British public with a national health service. Similarly in 1968, the Humphrey campaign cast doubt on Nixon’s ability to govern, whilst Nixon used campaign money to cosy up with the media and show that he cared for the youth and wanted progress. The positive approach won the day this is a line of argument used by Hugh Brogan in his study of American history. He argues that the American public do not want to know how they can be contained or about limits to their capability, but rather they want to be told that the future is strong and filled with promise. Perhaps a closer study of American elections from history could reveal evidence to confirm this theory. Certainly in 1968 election provides evidence to help support it. Either way, the events of this year are fruitful for the study of history, both for its entertainment and education values.

Senator Eugene McCarthy Rallied the Youth

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.


The run-up to the 1968 election was transformed in 1967 when Minnesota’s Democratic senator, Eugene J. McCarthy, challenged Democratic Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson on his Vietnam War policies. Johnson had succeeded to the presidency in 1963, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and had been overwhelmingly reelected in 1964. Early in his term he was immensely popular, but U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which had escalated invisibly during the presidential administrations of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Kennedy, became highly visible with rapidly increasing U.S. death tolls, and, as the war’s unpopularity mounted, so did Johnson’s.

The 1966 elections reinstated the Republicans as a large minority in Congress, and social legislation slowed, competing with the Vietnam War for the available money. Despite the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), many African Americans became disenchanted with progress on civil rights. Thus, a “ Black Power” movement arose, hitting into Johnson’s popularity even among African Americans. A general crime increase and sporadic violence in the cities raised apprehension in white communities. A call for “law and order” was the response, and it became not only an issue but, many believed, a code word for African American repression.

Early in 1968, Michigan Republican Gov. George Romney announced his candidacy for the presidency. Many believed New York’s governor, Nelson Rockefeller, might also be a challenger, and George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama and a segregationist during his tenure, began hinting of his interest in the office. Peace factions and black militants talked of nominating their own candidates, and a rerun of the four-way race of 1948 seemed possible.

1968: An Election to Remember

For most of April and early May in 1968, the eyes of the nation turned to the Hoosier State. Reporters and television correspondents from around the country flocked to Indiana to report on the state’s Democratic presidential primary. The primary campaign 53 years ago attracted such wide attention due to the entry into the race of Robert F. Kennedy, the junior U.S. senator from New York. In the primary, Kennedy faced off against two opponents — fellow senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota, and Indiana governor Roger D. Branigin, running as a favorite-son candidate.

In deciding to make the Indiana primary his first test before voters, Kennedy hoped the nineteenth state might provide the same validation to his presidential ambitions as West Virginia had done for his brother in his primary battle with Hubert Humphrey in 1960, removing the taint that no Roman Catholic could be elected president. “Indiana is the ballgame,” Kennedy told one of his aides. “This is my West Virginia.”

On May 4, 1968, A throng of people from the neighborhood at 21st and Harding streets in Indianapolis gather around Kennedy during a campaign stop shortly before Primary Election Day. Indiana Historical Society.

In his campaign literature and rallies before Hoosier voters, Kennedy emphasized that Indiana had the opportunity, with its decision in the Democratic primary, to once again, as it had in the past, play a vital role in the country’s presidential contest. “Indiana can help choose a president,” Kennedy repeated again and again in his speeches.

Kennedy hoped to gain enough of a mandate in Indiana to knock McCarthy out of the race for good. Because he could not pick up enough delegates from primary states to win the nomination, Kennedy also wanted to have enough strong showings to impress the heads of city and state Democratic organizations, such as Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who controlled the majority of delegates at the convention through caucuses and state conventions. Kennedy wanted to prove to party stalwarts that he could attract the support of not just African Americans and college students, but poorer, white voters worried about violence in their communities and fearful of the gains made by African Americans in civil rights and equal access.

As reporters crowd the room, Kennedy speaks on crime and violence in American society before a group of Marion County Democrats in Indianapolis. During the 1968 Indiana primary, Kennedy relied on a group of younger, more liberal Hoosier Democrats to help his campaign. He also leaned on the advice of former Indianapolis Times reporter and freelance writer John Bartlow Martin, who had grown up in Indianapolis. Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

In addition to showcasing such national political figures as Kennedy and McCarthy, the Indiana presidential primary shone a spotlight on some fascinating Hoosier politicians, especially Governor Branigin, a Harvard-educated lawyer from Franklin, Indiana. An engaging, witty speaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of the state’s history, Branigin had initially agreed to run as a stand-in for President Lyndon B. Johnson in the primary. Four years before, Indiana governor Matthew Welsh had played a similar role for Johnson, running, and winning, the Indiana primary against George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama.

With Johnson’s announcement on March 31 that he would not seek or accept his party’s nomination for president, a stunned Branigin nevertheless decided to remain in the race as a favorite-son candidate. He hoped to win some influence for Indiana’s 63 delegates at the Democratic convention in Chicago, slated to be held in August 1968. Time and time again during the campaign he repeated that national issues were not at stake in Indiana. “What is at stake here,” he told his supporters, “is who is going to represent the state of Indiana in Chicago.”

Branigin maintained cordial relationships with many important political figures, including John and Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson. His relationship with President Johnson proved to be most fruitful, as he was chosen to stand in for Johnson in the 1968 presidential primary election. Many described Branigin as likeable and down-to-earth. Honorable Roger D. Branigin Archives, Franklin College

McCarthy and his campaign never seemed to hit their stride in Indiana. One key McCarthy staff member called his time in the state a “frustrating, painful experience.” Workers had to endure poor press coverage, ineffective cooperation with local supporters, and a pending strike by telephone installers that hampered the campaign’s communication efforts. Those who canvassed the state seeking votes on McCarthy’s behalf were usually met with blank stares and the question: “McCarthy who?” The senator wasted much of his time attempting to draw crowds in smaller rural communities and hampered his own efforts by making last-minute decisions to alter or cancel his planned schedule.

Focusing on appearances in small communities, McCarthy encountered small crowds and appeared uncomfortable connecting with Hoosiers. Erratic scheduling that made him late for some appearances and miss out on large crowds waiting for him in others did not help matters. Later, McCarthy summed up his unease while campaigning by noting that he kept hearing from people about a poet, and asked if they were referring to William Shakespeare or perhaps his friend Robert Lowell. “But it was James Whitcomb Riley,” he said. “You could hardly expect to win under those circumstances.”

Kennedy, too, had a difficult time during the early days of his campaign getting his message through to Indiana voters. The senator, however, threw himself into the campaign, barnstorming around the state in motorcades, making quiet stops at sites important to Indiana history in the southern portion of the state, and even resurrecting railroad whistle-stop campaigning on the Wabash Cannonball. “He always does better in person,” campaign aide Fred Dutton said of the candidate. “Because Bob is so misunderstood, he has to show himself.”

The night before Indiana voters went to the polls, Kennedy, exhausted from a full day of campaigning that started in Evansville and ended with a nine-hour motorcade through a series of communities in northwest Indiana, stopped for an early-morning dinner at an Indianapolis restaurant with campaign aides and members of the media. Kennedy, his hands red and swollen after shaking thousands of hands, reflected on his experiences and a decision that might end his fledgling effort at the White House once and for all. In a mellow mood, according to Village Voice reporter Jack Newfield, the candidate expressed a fondness for the state and its people. “I like Indiana. The people here were fair to me,” Kennedy said. “I gave it everything I had here, and if I lose, then, well, I’m just out of tune with the rest of the country.”

Kennedy would go on to win the May 7 Indiana primary. Kennedy captured 328,118 votes (42.3 percent) to 238,700 (30.7 percent) for Branigin and 209,695 (27 percent) for McCarthy. Winning the Indiana primary kept alive Kennedy presidential hopes. “He went yammering around Indiana,” John Bartlow Martin, Indiana historian and writer, noted of Kennedy, “about the poor whites of Appalachia and the starving Indians who committed suicide on the reservations and the jobless Negroes in the distant great cities, and half the Hoosiers didn’t have any idea what he was talking about but he plodded ahead stubbornly, making them listen, maybe even making some of them care, by the sheer power of his own caring.”

A month later in Los Angeles, Kennedy was assassinated moments after his victory in the California Democratic presidential primary.

Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor for the Indiana Historical Society Press, where he edits the popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History. He is the author of the Press’s newest volume in its long-running Youth Biography Series, Mr. President: A Life of Benjamin Harrison.

1968 Presidential Elections - History

The presidential election of 1968 was one of the most chaotic in American history, reflecting a time that was in many ways equally chaotic.
At the beginning of the election season, President Lyndon Johnson was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and as a sitting president, he should have won his party's nomination without any trouble. But growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, unrest on college campuses, and urban rioting, made him vulnerable. In November 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination, and that ending the Vietnam War was his central issue.

McCarthy mobilized hundreds of student volunteers, who went "clean for Gene," cutting their hair and going door-to-door for him in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary election. The effort paid off and in March 1968, McCarthy shocked the political world by winning 42 percent of the vote. He did not win the primary, but the size of his support was a defeat to Johnson. Sensing Johnson's vulnerability, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York entered the race for the Democratic nomination. That, along with renewed opposition to the war in light of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive, prompted President Johnson to announce that he was not running for re-election.

In response, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race, but it was too late to run in the primaries. He would have to win delegate support at the nominating convention in Chicago that summer. In the meantime, Kennedy quickly gained immense popularity in the race, carrying primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. But McCarthy did not give up, winning contests in Wisconsin and Oregon. Then, Kennedy won the climatic primary in California and was within reach of securing the Democratic nomination. But as he walked off the stage after giving his victory speech in a Los Angles hotel, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, an Arab nationalist angry about Kennedy's support of Israel. Coming on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it contributed to a sense that things were spinning out of control.

Kennedy's assassination strengthened Humphrey's bid for the Democratic nomination, and by late August, Humphrey controlled the majority of delegates to the Democratic Convention. That was not surprising, even though Humphrey supported Johnson's Vietnam policy, as he was respected by Democratic leaders and had a solid liberal record on domestic issues.

Several thousand students and anti-war activists descended on the Democratic Convention in Chicago to pressure delegates into repudiating Johnson's Vietnam policy. In the tense atmosphere that resulted, protestors were beaten by the Chicago police, and the chaos entered the convention hall as the proceedings at times were out of control. In the end, Humphrey received the nomination from an embattled party.

The Republican nominating contest was orderly compared to the Democratic one. Richard M. Nixon staved off potential strong opponents such as Michigan Governor George Romney, and swept the Republican primaries, easily winning the nomination at the Republican Convention. Nixon ran as the champion of the "silent majority," those who rejected the radicalism and cultural liberalism of the time. He chose the conservative governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, as his running mate partly to appeal to Southern conservatives. Placating the South was necessary because Alabama Governor George Wallace entered the election as a third party candidate for the American Independent Party, running on a platform of extreme social conservatism.

Nixon led in the polls during most of the general election, but shortly before Election Day President Johnson suspended air attacks on North Vietnam, helping Humphrey close some ground. On Election Day the popular vote was close: Nixon had 31.8 percent, Humphrey had 31.3 percent, and Wallace won 13.5 percent. But Nixon's Electoral College margin was substantial, 301 to 191 to 46. Despite the closeness of Nixon's victory, it was a resounding mandate against Johnson and the Democratic Party.

Richard Nixon elected president

Winning one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Republican challenger Richard Nixon defeats Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Because of the strong showing of third-party candidate George Wallace, neither Nixon nor Humphrey received more than 50 percent of the popular vote Nixon beat Humphrey by less than 500,000 votes. 

Nixon campaigned on a platform designed to reach the “silent majority” of middle class and working class Americans. He promised to 𠇋ring us together again,” and many Americans, weary after years of antiwar and civil rights protests, were happy to hear of peace returning to their streets. Foreign policy was also a major factor in the election. Humphrey was saddled with a Democratic foreign policy that led to what appeared to be absolute futility and agony in Vietnam. Nixon promised to find a way to “peace with honor” in Vietnam, though he was never entirely clear about how this was to be accomplished. The American people, desperate to find a way out of the Vietnam quagmire, were apparently ready to give the Republican an opportunity to make good on his claim.

Robert F. Kennedy is fatally shot

Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California presidential primary. Immediately after he announced to his cheering supporters that the country was ready to end its fractious divisions, Kennedy was shot several times by 24-year-old Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan. He was pronounced dead a day later, on June 6, 1968.

The summer of 1968 was a tempestuous time in American history. Both the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement were peaking. Martin Luther King, Jr. had beenਊssassinated in the spring, igniting riots across the country. In the face of this unrest, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek a second term in the upcoming presidential election. Robert Kennedy, John’s younger brother and former U.S. Attorney General, stepped into this breach and experienced a groundswell of support.

Kennedy was perceived by many to be the only person in American politics capable of uniting the people. He was beloved by the minority community for his integrity and devotion to the civil rights cause. After winning California’s primary, Kennedy was in the position to receive the Democratic nomination and face off against Richard Nixon in the general election.

As star athletes Rafer Johnson and Roosevelt Grier accompanied Kennedy out a rear exit of the Ambassador Hotel, Sirhan Sirhan stepped forward with a rolled up campaign poster, hiding his .22 revolver. He was only a foot away when he fired several shots at Kennedy. Grier and Johnson wrestled Sirhan to the ground, but not before five bystanders were wounded. Grier was distraught afterward and blamed himself for allowing Kennedy to be shot.

Sirhan, who was born in Palestine, confessed to the crime at his trial and received a death sentence on March 3, 1969. However, since the California State Supreme Court invalidated all death penalty sentences in 1972, Sirhan has spent the rest of his life in prison. According to the New York Times, he has since said that he believed Kennedy was “instrumental” in the oppression of Palestinians. Hubert Humphrey ended up running for the Democrats in 1968, but lost to Nixon.

WATCH: RFK: The Kennedy Family Remembers on HISTORY Vault

Watch the video: United States presidential election, 1968 (July 2022).


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