1968 would unfold as one of the most turbulent years of the 20th century. America was painfully divided - over the Vietnam War, big government programs aimed at correcting social inequalities, and civil rights. The nation was torn apart by assassinations, riots and protests.
Amid this social upheaval, five candidates made consequential bids for the White House. The Democrats included Senator Eugene McCarthy, the first to enter the race and challenge his party's incumbent president; Senator Robert F. Kennedy, whose brief and compelling campaign ended with his assassination; and Hubert H. Humphrey, the vice president who had to break free from President Johnson's confining shadow. The Republican nominee was former Vice President Richard Nixon, who had lost to JFK in 1960. Finally, there was former Alabama Governor George Wallace, a notorious segregationist who ran a surprisingly strong campaign as a third-party candidate.
In early 1968, the Democratic Party, led by incumbent President Lyndon Johnson, was already in shambles. Johnson had been reelected in 1964 vowing to carry forward the progressive agenda of slain President John F. Kennedy. LBJ won by a landslide. Four years later, when the final votes were tallied in the 1968 contest, the Democratic Party had lost 12 million members. Tired of civil strife, urban violence and the financial burdens of progressive politics, white voters turned against liberalism en masse.
For many Americans, Vietnam was the central issue. Lyndon Johnson's authority was deeply damaged by a war most Americans called a mistake. But voters also blamed Johnson for their worries about the nation's economy. Middle-class living standards were losing ground to inflation - good times seemed to be ending. Finally, race relations were deeply strained. Blacks protested for greater political and economic power; resentful whites thought Johnson's administration had done more than enough for blacks already.
Vietnam: At the beginning of 1968, nearly 500,000 American servicemen were deployed in Vietnam. With massive bombing campaigns and a steady build-up of troops, President Lyndon Johnson had greatly expanded U.S. involvement in the war. Most people expected Johnson to run for reelection, leaving anti-war Democrats without a candidate to represent their concerns. So they searched for a candidate who would challenge their party's president. First, Senator Eugene McCarthy and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the nomination race.
Events in Vietnam underlined the case against Johnson's war policy. Americans were shocked by the ferocity of a North Vietnamese military strike in late January that came to be known as the Tet Offensive. Johnson had been promising that victory against the North Vietnamese was around the corner. For many voters, Tet showed just how dire the situation in Vietnam really was. Johnson's promises of triumph grew harder to believe.
Johnson saw that his presidency was in crisis. He stunned the nation on March 31 by announcing he would not run for reelection. Instead, he promised to cut back the bombing in Vietnam and devote his remaining months in office to seeking peace.
Race Relations: Summer had become a time of violence in America's inner cities since the Watts riot of 1965. Blacks were fed up with poverty and isolation, and some of them took their anger to the streets. In February 1968, a presidential commission on the racial unrest concluded that the U.S. was becoming "two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal."
Some historians say that race was a more decisive factor in the outcome of the 1968 campaign than the Vietnam War. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April provoked rioting in more than 100 cities. Robert F. Kennedy's assassination soon after was viewed by many in the civil rights movement as a devastating blow to their fight for equality.
Meanwhile, George Wallace inflamed white resentment towards blacks. Wallace insisted that the backlash was against "big government." But his campaign focused white anger on those government programs and court decisions designed to end racial inequality.
TV Politics: Television had been part of presidential campaigning for more than a decade, but 1968 marked a rapid evolution in how candidates would use the new medium and adapt to its demands. Richard Nixon led the way.
Men from television and advertising dominated Nixon's presidential campaign staff. They laid out a media strategy that would influence every election to follow.
Where Hubert Humphrey careered through a day packed with rallies and speeches, Nixon kept his appearances limited, and timed them for maximum effect on the evening news. Where Humphrey made himself available to people and the press on a retail level - he raced from one rally to the next and talked to reporters on the way - Nixon was far less reachable. Nixon campaigned wholesale, attending fewer rallies and gearing them to television coverage in strategic media markets. And he stayed more aloof from journalists, minimizing the risk of unflattering moments and inconvenient questions.
After the election, journalist Joe McGinniss wrote a best-selling expose of Nixon's image machine called The Selling of the President. At the time, it was controversial to suggest that the president could be marketed to voters "like so much toothpaste or detergent." Today, the machinery of marketing is vastly more sophisticated and omnipresent - television is just one of many "platforms" a digital-age candidate must conquer.
The 1968 election reshaped American politics for the rest of the 20th century. The Democratic Party had dominated the nation's political landscape since the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president. Roosevelt's New Deal coalition - liberals, labor unions and African-Americans - came apart in 1968. Liberalism entered a long decline as conservative Republicans gained ascendency. And the characteristics now taken for granted in American presidential campaigns - polarizing wedge issues, the power of single-interest groups and high-gloss media campaigns - sank roots in 1968. They've grown deeper ever since.
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