For Americans, the world seemed to turn upside down in 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April. In response, race riots broke out in some 125 cities across the nation; the riot in Baltimore lasted five days. Robert Kennedy’s life was taken in June. Two months later, the Democratic National Convention was punctuated by violent encounters between Chicago police and anti-war demonstrators.
A large minority of Americans outside the South, even those who considered themselves moderate on race issues, began to wonder if perhaps the country needed a "law and order" leader like George Wallace. In contrast to Republican Richard Nixon’s slick, carefully-orchestrated campaign, George Wallace’s blunt outspokenness on the stump was appealing to many.
Wallace needed a substantial war chest to sustain his campaign against Nixon. (After the debacle of the Democratic Convention, Hubert Humphrey was not considered a serious threat, and he and Wallace were appealing to opposite constituencies.) The Wallace campaign succeeded in raising nine million dollars, mostly from contributions of under fifty dollars, although Wallace also accepted large donations from people like Bunker Hunt, a wealthy Texas oilman, and John Wayne, who reportedly inscribed one of his checks to Wallace "Sock it to ‘em, George." Kickbacks from the awarding of Alabama state contracts also swelled campaign coffers.
Wallace presented himself as though he believed he were a viable candidate for president, all the while having another goal in mind. If he were to take enough electoral votes away from Nixon and Humphrey, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives. There, Wallace could demand that the other candidates support him on his issues before he would deliver the presidency.
First, Wallace’s American Independent party had to get on the ballot, state by state. The drive began in California, where the campaign needed to register 66,000 Californians as party members. On the deadline, amid dire predictions, workers unveiled 100,000 American Independents -- 34,000 more than required.
Throughout much of the early campaign in 1968, Wallace’s wife and governor of Alabama, Lurleen Wallace, was gravely ill with cancer. She died on May 7. Immobilized with grief after the funeral, Wallace remained at home in Montgomery. But the passion for politics had not left him, and he returned to campaigning five weeks later.
Wallace’s tirades against hippies, the Supreme Court, and big government, and his ennobling of the white working class -- "this man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, this beautician, the policeman on the beat," as the candidate said in one speech -- traveled better than the pundits had predicted. About a month before the election, polls showed that as much as 23 percent of the electorate supported George Wallace for president.
But Wallace’s choice of vice-presidential running mate eroded those numbers. General Curtis LeMay, a former Air Force Chief of Staff, was known for both his blunt manner and his belief in the necessity of the atom bomb. This association with nuclear weapons, along with a growing public perception of Wallace as "dangerous" -- due to confrontations between dedicated Wallace followers and anti-Wallace demonstrators at rallies -- hurt Wallace’s campaign. (At an October rally at Madison Square Garden, police had to rescue several black protesters who were surrounded by Wallace supporters chanting "Kill ‘em, kill ‘em, kill ‘em.") In addition, white Southerners began to wonder if Wallace’s candidacy was going to split the conservative vote with Nixon and put Hubert Humphrey in the White House.
In November Wallace carried five states in the Deep South, but was not able to challenge Nixon in the southern border states as strongly as he had hoped. Nixon and Humphrey ran closely in the popular vote: 43.4 percent for Nixon to 42.7 percent for Humphrey. However, Wallace had come close to Nixon in North Carolina and Tennessee; if he had succeeded in carrying either of those two states, a small shift towards Humphrey in New Jersey or Ohio could have thrown the election into the House of Representatives. Even more intimidating for Nixon was pollsters’ discovery that four out of five Wallace votes would have gone to Nixon if Wallace had not run.