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The Election of 1968


The presidential election of 1968 was one of the most chaotic in American history, reflecting a time that was in many ways equally chaotic.
At the beginning of the election season, President Lyndon Johnson was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and as a sitting president, he should have won his party's nomination without any trouble. But growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, unrest on college campuses, and urban rioting, made him vulnerable. In November 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced that he would seek the Democratic nomination, and that ending the Vietnam War was his central issue.

McCarthy mobilized hundreds of student volunteers, who went "clean for Gene," cutting their hair and going door-to-door for him in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary election. The effort paid off and in March 1968, McCarthy shocked the political world by winning 42 percent of the vote. He did not win the primary, but the size of his support was a defeat to Johnson. Sensing Johnson's vulnerability, Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York entered the race for the Democratic nomination. That, along with renewed opposition to the war in light of the North Vietnamese Tet offensive, prompted President Johnson to announce that he was not running for re-election.

In response, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race, but it was too late to run in the primaries. He would have to win delegate support at the nominating convention in Chicago that summer. In the meantime, Kennedy quickly gained immense popularity in the race, carrying primaries in Indiana and Nebraska. But McCarthy did not give up, winning contests in Wisconsin and Oregon. Then, Kennedy won the climatic primary in California and was within reach of securing the Democratic nomination. But as he walked off the stage after giving his victory speech in a Los Angles hotel, Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, an Arab nationalist angry about Kennedy's support of Israel. Coming on the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it contributed to a sense that things were spinning out of control.

Kennedy's assassination strengthened Humphrey's bid for the Democratic nomination, and by late August, Humphrey controlled the majority of delegates to the Democratic Convention. That was not surprising, even though Humphrey supported Johnson's Vietnam policy, as he was respected by Democratic leaders and had a solid liberal record on domestic issues.

Several thousand students and anti-war activists descended on the Democratic Convention in Chicago to pressure delegates into repudiating Johnson's Vietnam policy. In the tense atmosphere that resulted, protestors were beaten by the Chicago police, and the chaos entered the convention hall as the proceedings at times were out of control. In the end, Humphrey received the nomination from an embattled party.

The Republican nominating contest was orderly compared to the Democratic one. Richard M. Nixon staved off potential strong opponents such as Michigan Governor George Romney, and swept the Republican primaries, easily winning the nomination at the Republican Convention. Nixon ran as the champion of the "silent majority," those who rejected the radicalism and cultural liberalism of the time. He chose the conservative governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, as his running mate partly to appeal to Southern conservatives. Placating the South was necessary because Alabama Governor George Wallace entered the election as a third party candidate for the American Independent Party, running on a platform of extreme social conservatism.

Nixon led in the polls during most of the general election, but shortly before Election Day President Johnson suspended air attacks on North Vietnam, helping Humphrey close some ground. On Election Day the popular vote was close: Nixon had 31.8 percent, Humphrey had 31.3 percent, and Wallace won 13.5 percent. But Nixon's Electoral College margin was substantial, 301 to 191 to 46. Despite the closeness of Nixon's victory, it was a resounding mandate against Johnson and the Democratic Party.

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