The Presidential Election of 1964: Results & Impact

Instructor: Jason McCollom
'Trigger-happy' Republican Barry Goldwater promised small government but big nukes when he took on political master and Kennedy heir Lyndon B. Johnson. Learn about the presidential election of 1964, one of the most lopsided in history.

The Rise of Lyndon B. Johnson

Mudslinging is not confined to 21st-century American politics. Brutal attacks during presidential campaigns have a long and entertaining history. For instance, Republican Senator for Arizona Barry Goldwater challenged the sitting president in 1964. He demanded an end to Social Security and said the U.S. military should nuke communist North Vietnam. His supporters wore campaign buttons proclaiming, 'In your heart, you know he's right.' Democrats played on that and issued their own buttons that read, 'In your guts, you know he's nuts.'

Goldwater faced Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ). Johnson was John F. Kennedy's vice president, ascending to the office when Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Johnson didn't possess Kennedy's charm or affluent upbringing. In fact, Johnson liked to convene staff meetings while sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door open. LBJ grew up poor in Texas but rose through the political ranks to become Senate Majority Leader in 1955, a post he would hold for six years. In 1960, Kennedy put him on the ticket as his running mate.

While the Kennedy-Johnson team won the 1960 election, Kennedy would not live to contend in the 1964 election.

Fighting to Keep the White House

Beginning his role as president in the later half of the term, Johnson was determined to ride Kennedy's posthumous popularity into a second term in the White House. He pushed a gaggle of major bills through Congress so that, as he told legislators, Kennedy 'did not live or die in vain.'

President Lyndon B. Johnson voting in 1964
lbj voting

In the run-up to the 1964 presidential election, Johnson created a huge government program called the Great Society. It aimed to create a nation in which 'no child will go unfed and no youngster will go unschooled; where every child has a good teacher and every teacher has good pay, and both have good classrooms; where every human being has dignity and every worker has a job.'

Johnson also used the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for political momentum. This law barred discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. To bolster this measure, LBJ chose Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, known as a supporter of civil rights, as his running mate.

Regarding U.S. actions in Vietnam, where advisors were helping South Vietnam resist incursions by communists from North Vietnam, LBJ called for restraint and promised he was 'not about to send American boys nine to ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.' Though politicians don't have the best reputation for telling the truth, this revealed itself as a huge deceit in the years to come.

Challenger Barry Goldwater

If Johnson attempted to portray himself as a responsible moderate who would use the power of the federal government to protect civil rights and help the poor, his opponent was unabashed in his right-wing radicalism. Barry Goldwater was a wealthy heir to a department store chain and U.S. Senator from Arizona. With the publication of his 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, in which he demanded an end to the federal income tax and major cuts in federal programs, Goldwater became the leader of the growing conservative wing of the Republican Party.

Barry Goldwater
Barry Goldwater

When asked about his reason for running, Goldwater said his aim was 'enlarging freedom at home and safeguarding it from the forces of tyranny abroad.' Goldwater saw government programs like the Great Society as a waste of public money and an unacceptable intrusion into the lives of individuals. During his campaign, he told students their college education should not be subsidized by the federal government. And he was one of only six Republican Senators to vote against Johnson's Civil Rights Act, arguing it took power from the states. The Goldwater campaign sought to 'to reduce size of government. Not to pass laws, but repeal them.'

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