The Election of 1964


Lyndon Johnson (486 Electoral Votes)
Barry Goldwater (52 Electoral Votes)

Occasionally a presidential election reorients American politics, although not always in ways that are apparent at the time. At the time, Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 over conservative Republican Barry Goldwater seemed to solidify a Democratic lock on the presidency. (From 1932 through 1964, Democrats won seven of the nine presidential elections.) Johnson used his victory, and the huge Democratic congressional majorities that came with it, to advance an ambitious liberal reform agenda that included civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, and much more. However, the civil rights initiatives split the old Democratic Party as white southerners deserted to the Republicans. Goldwater pointed to a new path for the Republican Party by winning five states of the old Confederacy (outside the South he carried only his native Arizona) after he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And actor Ronald Reagan’s stirring speech for Goldwater at the end of the campaign launched his political career as a conservative champion two years later. Of course, then there was Vietnam. Johnson slyly suggested that Goldwater would dangerously escalate the war. Johnson’s major, and ultimately futile, escalation of the war in 1965 and after split the Democrats even more, discredited them as a ruling party, and divided the country as a whole more deeply than anything since the Civil War. With a new southern strategy and rekindled conservative principles, Republicans were to win five of the next six presidential elections.

The Election of 1960


John Kennedy (303 Electoral Votes)
Richard Nixon (219 Electoral Votes)
Harry Byrd (15 Electoral Votes)

We view the election of 1960 so much through the double prisms of John Kennedy’s assassination and Richard Nixon’s later presidency that it’s hard, even for those of us who actually remember it, to see the campaign as it really was.  The issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism, for example, had a resonance among much of the electorate that is now hard to imagine.  Even mainstream Protestant leaders like Norman Vincent Peale expressed doubts about electing a Catholic.  (Ironically, of course, Kennedy’s Catholicism was actually more inherited and casual than personal and committed.)  Kennedy’s youth and inexperience were a concern for many.  As the incumbent Vice President, Nixon was the candidate with gravitas, although he was only four years older than Kennedy and they had entered politics the same year (1946).  It was an exciting campaign, highlighted by the famous debates.  These debates were not just the first televised presidential debates, but also the first direct presidential debates in any medium.  (Lincoln and Douglas, whose debates were often mentioned as a precedent, had actually debated as senatorial candidates in 1858 rather than when they were rival presidential candidates in 1860.)  There were, however, actually rather few issues in the campaign.  Nixon, in fact, played down his differences with Kennedy in the debates.  Kennedy’s allegations about a Soviet military lead, the famous “missile gap,” turned out to be false after the election.  The election was so close that one can’t help wondering how Nixon would have handled the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, and the civil rights movement.  Would Nixon’s obvious political skills have dominated his paranoia and vindictiveness, rather than the other way around, if he had won the presidency in 1960 rather than eight years (and two bitter defeats) later?

The Elections of 1952 and 1956


Dwight Eisenhower (442 Electoral Votes)
Adlai Stevenson (89 Electoral Votes)

Dwight Eisenhower (457 Electoral Votes)
Adlai Stevenson (73 Electoral Votes)

After twenty years out of power, and especially after the surprising loss in 1948, the Republican Party was hungry in 1952.  The Republican convention therefore turned to a venerable tactic in American presidential politics by nominating a successful and popular general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Eisenhower was able to win the nomination narrowly from conservative favorite Robert Taft because he was (unlike Taft) neither an outspoken opponent of the New Deal domestically nor an isolationist in foreign policy.  Eisenhower’s promise to end the unpopular Korean War (“I will go to Korea”), his World War II record, and his instant credibility as a potential president gave him an easy victory over the Democratic nominee, the eloquent governor of Illinois, Adlai Stevenson.  The only problem for the Republicans was the disclosure that the nominee for Vice President, a young Richard Nixon, had used a fund donated by California millionaires for personal expenses.  In one of the great “what-if’s” (we already wouldn’t have had Nixon to kick around any more) in American political history, Nixon had nearly lost his place on the ticket when he won over public sympathy with his notorious “Checkers” speech.  Despite a heart attack, Eisenhower easily won reelection four years later in a reprise of the 1952 campaign.  Otherwise, the only notable feature of the 1956 campaign was the emergence of John F. Kennedy as a national figure when he competed for the nomination as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate at the Democratic convention.