U.S. presidential election, 1968

From Academic Kids

Presidential electoral votes by state.
Presidential electoral votes by state.

The U.S. presidential election of 1968 was a wrenching national experience, and included the assassination of liberal Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy, the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, as well as widespread demonstrations against the Vietnam War across American university and college campuses. In the end, and ironically given the Watergate break-in four years later, Richard M. Nixon would win the election on a campaign of "law and order". It is sometimes considered to be a realigning election.



Democratic Party nomination

Most Democratic candidates were hesitant to officially enter the Presidential race in 1968, given that Democrat Lyndon Johnson was the incumbent president, and had won the 1964 election in a landslide. The 22nd amendment did not disqualify Johnson from running for a second full term because he had served less than two years of John F. Kennedy's term after Kennedy was assassinated. However, the Vietnam War had become an enormous burden for the Johnson administration, both as a political liability and on the energies of Johnson himself. Senator Eugene McCarthy saw this as an opening, and ran for the Democratic nomination as an anti-war candidate, and achieved early success with a surprisingly strong second place finish in the New Hampshire Primary. Likely due to McCarthy's success, Robert F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for the democratic nomination in mid-March. On March 31, 1968, Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. Had Johnson remained in the race and won the election, he could have served more than nine years, second only to Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Johnson's announcement, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey announced his candidacy.

While Kennedy was successful in the primaries (in which Humphrey, for the most part, did not compete), thanks to the large role still played in the nominating process by delegate votes controlled by party bosses, the nominee still remained unclear, even after Kennedy defeated McCarthy in the crucial California primary on June 5. That night, Kennedy was shot shortly after midnight by Sirhan Sirhan. He died the next day.

Robert Kennedy's death altered the dynamics of the race, and threw the Democratic party into disarray. Although Humphrey appeared the prohibitive favorite for the nomination, thanks to his support from the institutional structures of the party, he was an unpopular choice with many of the more anti-war elements within the party, who identified him with Johnson's position on the Vietnam War. The media were shocked by television footage of Chicago police brutally beating anti-war protesters in the streets of Chicago while the convention went on inside (itself marred by the strong-arm tactics of Chicago's mayor Richard J. Daley, who was seen on television angrily mouthing anti-Semitic epithets at Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who made a speech at the convention denouncing the excesses of the Chicago police). In the end, the nomination itself was anticlimactic, with Vice President Humphrey easily winning the nomination over McCarthy and Senator George McGovern (who acted as a stand-in for many of the Kennedy delegates), even though he had not run in a single primary election during the campaign.

Other candidates in the Democratic primary race included Senator George A. Smathers from Florida, Senator Stephen M. Young from Ohio, and Governor Roger D. Branigin of Indiana.

Republican Party nomination

Missing image
Richard Nixon campaign rally

The Republican Primary was relatively uneventful. Richard M. Nixon had made a comeback, and handily won the Republican nomination, easily beating back tentative challenges from liberal New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and rising conservative star and Governor of California Ronald Reagan.

Other nominations

The American Independent Party was formed by George Wallace, whose pro-segregation policies had been rejected by the mainstream of the Democratic party. The impact of the Wallace campaign was substantial, winning the electoral votes of several states in the Deep South. Wallace also accomplished a strong showing in several northern states. Although Wallace did not expect to win the election, his strategy was that he might be able to prevent either major party candidate from winning a preliminary majority in the Electoral College, which would then give him bargaining power to determine the outcome.

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.

General election


The New York Times front page from two days after the election: November 7, 1968.
The New York Times front page from two days after the election: November 7, 1968.

Nixon campaigned on a "law and order" theme, which appealed to many voters afraid of the far left and concerned about the riots and demonstrations that had accompanied the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement. He had devised a "southern strategy," which was designed to appeal to the southern voters, who traditionally voted Democratic.

Humphrey campaigned on continuing the Great Society programs initiated by President Johnson.

In the end, the war became the central issue of the campaign, with the Democrats divided and Humphrey hounded by antiwar protesters whenever he made public appearances. Late in the campaign Humphrey, who seemed destined to lose by a large margin, began to distance himself from the Johnson administration on the Vietnam War, calling for a bombing halt. He began to gain traction, especially when President Johnson actually announced a bombing halt, and even a possible peace deal, shortly before the election. During the campaign, Nixon claimed to have a "secret plan" to end the war. In the final days of the election, much was riding on the success or failure of the Paris Peace Talks with the North Vietnamese.

Ultimately, the election held on November 5, 1968, was considerably closer than anyone had expected, particularly in the popular vote, but Nixon won the electoral vote by a comfortable margin.


Template:Start U.S. presidential ticket box Template:U.S. presidential ticket box row Template:U.S. presidential ticket box row Template:U.S. presidential ticket box row Template:U.S. presidential ticket box other Template:End U.S. presidential ticket box

Source: U.S. Office of the Federal Register (http://www.archives.gov/federal_register/electoral_college/scores.html#1968)

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