The Elections of 1968 and 1972

Candidates:

1968
Richard Nixon (301 Electoral Votes)
Hubert Humphrey (191 Electoral Votes)
George Wallace (46 Electoral Votes)

1972
Richard Nixon (520 Electoral Votes)
George McGovern (17 Electoral Votes)

The 1968 presidential election was a wild campaign in a tumultuous year.  Vietnam, violence, protest, populism, civil rights, and civil strife were all part of the mix.  In 1968:

–Richard Nixon made his comeback from the political wilderness all the way to the White House.

–The incumbent president, winner of a landslide victory just four years before, was forced into a humiliating withdrawal by two unconventional challengers from his own party.

–The assassinations of a civil rights leader and a presidential candidate shook the country and the political process.

–The third party candidacy of George Wallace demonstrated the power of conservative populism and a politics of resentment.

–The Democratic Party tore itself apart at its Chicago convention, but then nearly came back to win the election.

–The three-way general election was one of the closest in history, and the winner had the smallest share of the popular vote since Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

Remarkably, 1968 ended with the first images taken by astronauts in orbit around the moon, including a picture they took by pointing their camera back toward a tranquil blue globe a quarter of a million miles away.

Nixon’s domestic policies in office were surprisingly liberal: His initiatives included the Environmental Protection Agency, generous cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security, and the Philadelphia plan for affirmative action (requiring “goals and timetables”).  His opening to China surprised both anti-communists and anti-anti-Communists, and probably pleased the latter more than the former.  But his conduct of the Vietnam War prolonged and intensified the country’s divisions.  In 1972, the Nixon political machine obliterated the anti-war and ultra-liberal candidacy of George McGovern, but set the stage for Nixon’s own downfall by treating dissent and political opposition as suspicious, even criminal, activities.

The Election of 1960

Candidates:

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

Candidates:

1952
Dwight Eisenhower (442 Electoral Votes)
Adlai Stevenson (89 Electoral Votes)

1956
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.