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Eugene McCarthy and the 1968 US presidential election

Michael A. Cohen, author of newly published American Maelstrom: The Election of 1968 and the Politics of Division, part of Oxford University Press’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, will be writing a series of blog posts for OUP that commemorate the seminal political moments from that year, of which there were many. The first came on 12 March 1968 when Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy won 42% of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, against the incumbent President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy’s performance catalyzed the growing frustration within the Democratic Party over the war in Vietnam and contributed to Johnson’s decision to abandon the race, 19 days later.

Eugene McCarthy made first stop in New Hampshire on 25 January 1968, only six weeks before the state’s 12 March primary. When he did arrive, his presence sparked little excitement.

He cancelled dawn appearances at factory gates to meet voters because, as he told staffers, he wasn’t really a “morning person.” A photographer hired to take pictures of the candidate quit after five days because the only people in the shots were out-of-state volunteers. One advisor recounted walking into the Sheraton Wayfarer Hotel in Manchester (“maybe the biggest dining room in the state of New Hampshire”) with McCarthy and “not a single head looked up.”

A February Gallup poll had him trailing Johnson by a 71–18 margin.

McCarthy, who in late November had announced his intention to challenge President Lyndon Johnson in Democratic primaries over his opposition to the war in Vietnam, looked very much like a man destined to be a footnote in the 1968 presidential campaign.

But in 1968, history had a strange way of moving in unexpected directions. McCarthy would ride a wave of popular anger over the war in Vietnam and disappointment with Johnson to win 42% of the vote in New Hampshire (to 49% for Johnson). Though he lost, McCarthy’s impressive performance would puncture LBJ’s aura of inevitably and lead New York Senator, Robert Kennedy to enter the race several days later. Nineteen days after New Hampshire, Johnson would be forced to remove his name from consideration for the Democratic nomination, as he stunned the nation with news he would not seek re-election.

McCarthy’s success was the result of a combination of luck and grit. While McCarthy laconically made his way across the state, his “Clean Gene” team of volunteers sprang into action.

They came from college campuses across the Northeast, intent on fulfilling McCarthy’s pledge to restore “a belief in the processes of American politics.” Yet some concessions would have to be made: no young men with long hair would lobby the state’s famously conservative voters. Shave, they were told, or head to the basement of McCarthy headquarters to prepare campaign materials.

Armed with rational, evidence-based arguments, young men in suits and young women in maxiskirts were set loose on New Hampshire Democratic voters. They were instructed to ask voters questions, listen politely to their answers, and under no circumstances argue with or berate them. They received a far more positive response than anyone might have imagined.

They received a major boost from what was happening 6,000 miles away. Six days after McCarthy came to New Hampshire, waves of Vietnamese and Vietcong insurgents unleashed the surprise Tet Offensive.

Within 24 hours of the initial surprise attack, 36 of 44 provincial capitals, 5 out of 6 major cities, and 64 district capitals in Vietnam were hit. In Saigon, enemy forces briefly overran the American embassy and attacked the presidential palace, the army general staff headquarters, and the national airport.

Though the attack was a military failure, the psychological impact was profound. For months, the Johnson Administration had been telling the American people that there was a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel on Vietnam. Tet burst that fantasy. Editorial boards, like the Wall Street Journal and St. Louis Post Dispatch came out against the war. Not long after, Walter Cronkite went on national television and declared that the war was lost. A new Gallup poll showed that 49% of Americans now believed that the United States was wrong to have ever chosen to fight in Vietnam; Johnson’s approval ratings tumbled accordingly.

Though McCarthy’s key issue was Vietnam, in New Hampshire he downplayed his opposition to the war. The message of campaign advertisements and press releases was focused on the larger question of whether America had lost its way. “What happened to this country since 1963?” asked one flyer, accompanied by a picture of a smiling McCarthy and President Kennedy. “The Bigger the War the Smaller Your Dollar,” said another, which contrasted the prosperity of the Kennedy years with the higher cost of living that had resulted from Vietnam.

McCarthy’s low-key demeanor, particularly in his television advertising, which would become his main source of contact with voters, gave his message even greater effectiveness. “Nobody could look at McCarthy and think that he was a radical,” said Richard Goodwin, the former Kennedy speechwriter who joined the campaign in early February. “They saw that Midwestern face and the manner of speaking… and it was absolutely clear that they were looking at a man that, whatever his position on the issues, that in his heart he was a conservative.” In a year of heightened political passion and social upheaval, there would be substantial electoral benefit in 1968 to toning things down, rather than ratcheting up the rhetoric.

Johnson didn’t hit the hustings in New Hampshire for fear that it would give McCarthy’s campaign legitimacy. But by election eve, he too could see the writing on the wall. “He’ll get 40%, at least 40%,” Johnson told one aide in reference to McCarthy. “Every son-of-a-bitch in New Hampshire who’s mad at his wife or the postman or anybody is going to vote for Gene McCarthy.”

McCarthy’s strong performance, however, did not mean that voters had embraced his antiwar stance. Many New Hampshire Democrats didn’t even know McCarthy’s position on the war (his staff suspected that at least some of those who voted for him thought they were casting a ballot for Joe McCarthy)—and 60% of his backers believed Johnson should be fighting the war more aggressively. Neither Vietnam nor crime, the cost of living nor the Great Society united McCarthy supporters (in fact, an estimated one in five McCarthy voters would cast a ballot for George Wallace in November). Frustration with Johnson was their only true consensus position.

McCarthy had given direct voice—and a political outlet—to the antiwar sentiment inside the Democratic Party. His success in New Hampshire inspired a crop of Democratic activists and future politicians to recognize the value and power of grass-roots organizing within the political system. This opening up of the political process would eventually lead to a host of party reforms that changed the way Democrats, and later Republicans, chose their presidential nominees. By energizing skeptics of the Cold War consensus, McCarthy’s performance also led to a dramatic shift in how the party approached foreign policy and national security in general. Challenging Johnson at a time when he seemed almost certain to be the party standard bearer in November fundamentally changed the direction of the Democratic Party – and American history.

It would be far more important than a mere historical footnote.

Headline Image: McCarthy Pin & WRL Broken Rifle, Farmer’s Market (Takoma Park, MD). Photo by takomabibelot. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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