The United States presidential election of 1968 was the 46th quadrennial United States presidential election. It was a wrenching national experience, conducted against a backdrop that included the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and subsequent race riots across the nation, the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, widespread demonstrations against the Vietnam War across American university and college campuses, and violent confrontations between police and anti-war protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
On November 5, 1968, the Republican nominee, former Vice President Richard Nixon won the election over the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon ran on a campaign that promised to restore “law and order”. Some consider the election of 1968 a realigning election that permanently disrupted the New Deal Coalition that had dominated presidential politics for 36 years. It was also the last election in which two opposing candidates were vice-presidents.
The election also featured a strong third party effort by former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Because Wallace’s campaign promoted segregation, he proved to be a formidable candidate in the South; no third-party candidate has won an entire state’s electoral votes since.
By 1968, one of the most turbulent years in American history, the number of American troops in Vietnam had risen from 16,000 (in 1963) to more than 500,000. Nightly TV coverage of the “living-room war” ignited an antiwar movement. After a weak showing in the New Hampshire primary, President Johnson shocked the country on March 31 by announcing that he would not seek reelection. Just four days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, sparking riots in more than 100 cities. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who entered the race late and had not won any primaries, became the Democratic nominee at a tumultuous convention in Chicago marred by disorder inside the convention hall and by the televised spectacle of violent confrontations between police and antiwar protesters.
The Republicans nominated Richard M. Nixon, who was attempting a political comeback after losing the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California gubernatorial race. Nixon claimed to speak for the “silent majority” of law-abiding citizens whose voices were presumably drowned out amidst the social upheaval, and he promised a return to the stability of the Eisenhower years.
Discontent with major-party candidates led to an independent run by Alabama Governor George Wallace, who waged the most successful third-party candidacy since 1924.
As vice president, Nixon continued to please his supporters and anger his critics. He acted as the chief political spokesman in Eisenhower’s administration. Among Nixon’s assignments was foreign travel. In office less than a year, Nixon made an extended trip through Asia, visiting, among other places, Hanoi, North Vietnam, then under French control. He established many useful relationships on these trips and impressed critics at home with his knowledge of foreign affairs.
On a trip to Latin America in 1958, he was set upon by mobs but handled himself coolly. In 1959 he visited Poland and the Soviet Union, a former Communist nation made up of Russia and other states. While in Moscow, his meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) prepared the way for Khrushchev’s later visit to the United States to meet with Eisenhower.
In 1960 Nixon won the Republican presidential nomination and chose Henry Cabot Lodge (1902-1985) as his running mate. The campaign against the Democratic team of Senators John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) was close from the beginning. In the first of four televised debates with Kennedy, Nixon did not sharply challenge his opponent and appeared cold and distant, a far cry from the charming Kennedy. But the election was still close, and he lost by some one hundred thousand votes out of the sixty-eight million cast.
After the defeat, Nixon returned to Los Angeles to practice law. In 1964, after the Republican defeat by President Lyndon Johnson, it became clear that Nixon again considered himself a serious presidential contender. In 1968, winning his party’s presidential nomination, he picked Governor Spiro T. Agnew (1918-1996) of Maryland as his running mate. Nixon and Agnew ran against the Democratic team of Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978) and Edmund Muskie (1914-). Third-party candidate George Wallace (1919-1998) of Alabama, a threat to both sides, eventually drew support away from Humphrey and cleared a path for Nixon’s successful election to the White House.
After the American Civil War, southern states gained additional seats in the House of Representatives and representation in the Electoral College because freed slaves were granted full citizenship and suffrage. Southern white resentment stemming from the Civil War and the Republican Party’s policy of Reconstruction kept most southern whites in the Democratic Party, but the Republicans could compete in the South with a coalition of freedmen, Unionists and highland whites.
Rising intimidation and violence by white paramilitary groups such as the White League and Red Shirts supporting the Democratic Party during the mid to late-1870s contributed to turning out Republican officeholders and suppressing the black vote. After the North agreed to withdraw federal troops under the Compromise of 1877, white Democrats used a variety of tactics to reduce voting by African Americans and poor whites. In the 1880s they began to pass legislation making election processes more complicated.
From 1890 to 1908, the white Democratic legislatures in every Southern state enacted new constitutions or amendments with provisions to disenfranchise most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites. Provisions required complicated processes for poll taxes, residency, literacy tests and other requirements which were subjectively applied against blacks. As blacks lost their vote, the Republican Party lost its ability to effectively compete. There was a dramatic drop in voter turnout as these measures took effect, a drop in participation that continued across the South.
The South became solidly white Democratic until past the middle of the 20th century. Effectively, Southern white Democrats controlled all the votes of the expanded population by which Congressional apportionment was figured. Many of their representatives achieved powerful positions of seniority in Congress, giving them control of chairmanships of Congressional committees. Because African Americans could not be voters, they were prevented from being jurors and serving in local offices. Services and institutions for them in the segregated South were chronically underfunded.
During this period, Republicans held only a few House seats from the South. Between 1880 and 1904, Republican presidential candidates in the South received between 35 and 40 percent of that section’s vote (except in 1892, when the 16 percent for the Populists knocked Republicans down to 25 percent). From 1904 to 1948, Republicans received more than 30 percent of the section’s votes only in the 1920 (35.2 percent, carrying Tennessee) and 1928 elections (47.7 percent, carrying five states). The only important political role of the South in presidential elections came in the 1912 election, when it provided the delegates to select Taft over Theodore Roosevelt in that year’s Republican convention.
During this period, Republicans regularly supported anti-lynching bills, which were filibustered by Southern Democrats in the Senate, and appointed a few black placeholders. In the 1928 election, the Republican candidate Herbert Hoover rode the issues of prohibition and anti-Catholicism to carry five former Confederate states, with 62 of the 126 electoral votes of the section. After his victory, Hoover attempted to build up the Republican Party of the South, transferring patronage away from blacks and toward the same kind of white Protestant businessmen who made up the core of the Northern Republican Party. With the onset of the Great Depression, which severely impacted the South, Hoover soon became extremely unpopular. The gains of the Republican Party in the South were lost. In the 1932 election, Hoover received only 18.1 percent of the Southern vote for re-election.
Although the phrase “Southern strategy” is often attributed to Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips, he did not originate it, but merely popularized it. In an interview included in a 1970 New York Times article, he touched on its essence:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.
While Phillips sought to polarize ethnic voting in general, and not just to win the white South, the South was by far the biggest prize yielded by his approach. Its success began at the presidential level, gradually trickling down to statewide offices, the Senate and House, as some legacy segregationist Democrats retired or switched to the GOP. In addition, the Republican Party worked for years to develop grassroots political organizations across the South, supporting candidates for local school boards and offices, for instance. Following the Watergate scandal, there was broad support for the Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election.
From 1948 to 1984 the Southern states, traditionally a stronghold for the Democrats, became key swing states, providing the popular vote margins in the 1960, 1968 and 1976 elections. During this era, several Republican candidates expressed support for states’ rights, which some critics claim was “codewords” of opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks and intervention on their behalf, including passage of legislation to protect the franchise.
Political scientists Richard Johnston (University of Pennsylvania) and Byron Shafer (University of Wisconsin) have argued that this phenomenon had more to do with the economics than it had to do with race. In The End of Southern Exceptionalism, Johnston and Shafer wrote that the Republicans’ gains in the South corresponded to the growth of the upper middle class in that region. They suggested that such individuals believed their economic interests were better served by the Republicans than the Democrats. According to Johnston and Shafer, working-class white voters in the South continued to vote for Democrats for national office until the 1990s. In summary, Shafer told The New York Times, “[whites] voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences”.
In 1980 Republican candidate Ronald Reagan’s proclaiming support for “states’ rights” at his first Southern campaign stop was cited as evidence that the Republican Party was building upon the Southern strategy again. The location was alleged to be significant – Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi, the county where the three civil rights workers were murdered during 1964’s Freedom Summer, although political speeches from local, state, and national politicians at the fair had been a long-standing tradition at the Fair dating back to 1896, with Jack Kemp, John Glenn, and Michael Dukakis among the politicians who have spoken there.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter won most of the Southern states without offending northern Democrats, explaining, “I have no trouble pitching for Wallace votes and black votes at the same time.”
In 1968, Nixon lost a majority of southern electoral votes while capturing 36% of the black vote; his 1972 victory, both Reagan victories, and the victory of George H. W. Bush in 1988 could have been won without their carrying any Southern state. If Nixon’s Republican successor, Gerald Ford had won just one-half of the black votes of Nixon, Ford would have won the election. Bill Clinton, a Southern Democrat, was twice elected president, winning a handful of Southern states in 1992. In 1996, he won more votes outside the South and could have won without carrying any Southern state.
In recent years, the term “Southern strategy” has been used in a more general sense, referring to the way in which political parties use cultural themes in election campaigns – primarily but not exclusively in the American South. In the past, politicians’ highlighting of issues such as busing or states’ rights appealed to white angst about integration. More recently, Republican politicians made appeals to “conservative values”, and used cultural issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and religion to mobilize their base. This has also been viewed as the “Southernization” of American politics
Lyndon Johnson was concerned that his endorsement of Civil Rights legislation would endanger his party in the South. In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon saw the cracks in the Solid South as an opportunity to tap into a group of voters who had long been beyond the reach of the Republican Party.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Republican Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts joined King as the most prominent Republican black leadership. By this point, King had won the Nobel Peace Prize and founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His death was followed by rioting by African Americans in inner-city areas in major cities throughout the country. King’s policy of non-violence had already been challenged by other African-American leaders such as John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The notion of Black Power advocated by SNCC leaders was quite effective in altering the mood of African-Americans. This attitude did much to raise the expectations of African Americans and also raised racial tensions. Journalists reporting about the demonstrations against the Vietnam War often featured young people engaging in violence or burning draft cards and American flags. There were also many young adults engaged in the drug culture and “free love.” These actions scandalized many Americans and created a concern about law and order.
An unintended consequence of integration was severe economic effects. Under segregation, a separate black economy created a black middle class of shopkeepers and service professionals. When black shoppers were allowed to shop at Woolworths, the small black-owned mom and pop stores lost their customers.
With the aid of Harry Dent and South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who had switched parties in 1964, Richard Nixon ran his 1968 campaign on states’ rights and “law and order.” Many liberals accused Nixon of pandering to Southern whites, especially with regard to his “states’ rights” and “law and order” stands.
The independent candidacy of George Wallace, former Democratic governor of Alabama, partially negated the Southern strategy. With a much more explicit attack on integration and black civil rights, Wallace won all of Goldwater’s states (except South Carolina), as well as Arkansas and one of North Carolina’s electoral votes. Nixon picked up Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida, while Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey carried only Texas of the southern states.
In the 1972 election, by contrast, Nixon won every state in the Union except Massachusetts, winning more than 70 percent of the popular vote in most of the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina) and 61% of the national vote. He won over 65 percent of the votes in the other states of the former Confederacy. Nixon won 36% of the black vote nationwide. Despite his appeal to Southern whites, Nixon parlayed a wide perception as a moderate into wins in other states. He took a solid majority in the electoral college. He was able to appear moderate to most Americans because the Southern strategy referred to integration obliquely through references to states’ rights and busing. This tactic was later described by liberals in the media as “dog-whistle politics.”
It was back in the 1960s that the tectonic plates of today’s electoral landscape were forged when the two parties took their stands on the politics of the day. The Democratic party stood with the civil rights movements, with the rising force of feminism, and with a “counter-cultural” vision of a non-religious state.
On the other hand, The Republican Party followed what Nixon called a “southern strategy.” Republican strategists measured the demographics and concluded that they could stand with the white south against civil rights, with patriarchs denouncing feminism and with evangelicals defending the role of Christianity in schools and in public life-GOP leaders concluded back then that such a strategy would win elections.
One of the architects of the southern strategy, key Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips, described the GOP’s strategic choice to repudiate black voters and welcome southern whites back in a 1970 New York Times interview (James Boyd, May 17, 1970, “Nixon’s Southern strategy: ‘It’s All in the Charts,’” The New York Times).
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than thatâ€¦ but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Following a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater (another key Republican advisor, and Bush the First’s campaign manager), New York Times reporter Bob Herbert summarized the heart of the GOP’s continued reliance on the “Southern Strategy.”
“The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.’s relentless appeal to racist whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to white voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for blacks.”
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