The Presidential Election of 1968: Candidates & Outcome

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Hippies, riots, protesters, Vietnam, another Kennedy assassination, and segregation all played interesting roles in the 1968 presidential election. Investigate the candidates and issues, and test yourself with a quiz.

The Democrats

When protestors threaten to release LSD into the water supply of a major American city, you know it's going to be an action-packed election year. These same protestors also threw bags filled with urine at police, and the whole situation outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago devolved into a violent melee. And it was all televised.

The Democratic electoral coalition that had endured since the 1930s broke down in 1968. The Vietnam War was a big reason for the fracturing of the party. The Tet Offensive demonstrated that President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) was lying - imagine that! - to the American people about progress in defeating communists in Vietnam. Newsman Walter Cronkite wondered, 'What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning the war?'

Advisors show President Lyndon B. Johnson the situation around Khe Sanh Combat Base in Vietnam, February 1968.
lbj vietnam

Discredited, LBJ announced in March 1968 he would not run for reelection. This led antiwar Democratic candidates to push ahead. The most popular was Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, the brother of slain president John F. Kennedy. Bobby was also an advocate of civil rights, which gave him much of the African-American vote. On the night of April 4, after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, Kennedy stood on a flatbed truck in Indianapolis and told a crowd of African-Americans, 'Those of you who are black can be filled with hatred, with bitterness and a desire for revenge. We can move toward further polarization. Or we can make an effort, as Dr. King did, to understand, to reconcile ourselves and to love.'

Bobby Kennedy
bobby

Bobby won primary after primary. He was on his way to the Democratic nomination. On June 6, he gave a speech after winning the California primary, promising 'we can end the divisions within the United States,... end the violence.' Unfortunately, Bobby met the same violent end as his brother five years before. That summer night in 1968 a Palestinian Arab assassinated Robert Kennedy for his support of Israel.

Kennedy's death gave the Democratic nod to LBJ's vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who ran on a platform of continuing Johnson's Vietnam policies. Compared to Bobby, Humphrey was about as exciting as a bowl of cold oatmeal.

The Republicans

Meanwhile, the Republicans sought to emerge from 30 years in the political wilderness. As hippies, antiwar protestors and race riots rocked the country, candidate Richard M. Nixon vowed law, order and traditional American values. This came from a man who took strolls on the beach in a suit and tie.

Richard Nixon
nixon campaign

He spoke to the 'silent majority': those Americans who supported the Vietnam War and weren't part of the counterculture - those who didn't protest and who worked and paid taxes. To accentuate this stance, Nixon chose as his running mate Maryland governor Spiro T. Agnew, who called war protesters traitors. This position built on many Americans' resentment toward protesters and the counterculture movement.

Chicago and Miami

The Democrats met in Chicago in August 1968 to nominate Humphrey and his running mate, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, on a platform of continuing the war in Vietnam. But it was far from unanimous. Antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy walked out of the convention and ran as an independent candidate.

And there were the protestors outside the convention center. It was a bloody mess, beamed to every American's living room. Police confronted over 10,000 protestors, fighting broke out, and hundreds were injured. This made the Democrats seem out of control. As they clashed with cops, protestors yelled into television cameras, 'The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!'

They were watching the Republicans, too. In sunny Miami, a cool, calm, and collected Republican National Convention nominated Nixon. Without protestors to shout him down, Nixon promised to listen to 'the voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.' The contrast with the chaos in Chicago could not have been more clear.

George Wallace

But wait, there's more! Former Alabama Governor George Wallace broke from the Democratic Party with the slogan 'Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!' With his American Independent Party, he promised to stop racial integration and maintain white supremacy.

George Wallace
wallace

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