1964: Lyndon Johnson, the Great Society, and the Liberal/Conservative Showdown

Democratic Party: Lyndon Johnson (Texas) and Hubert Humphrey (Minnesota)
Republican Party: Barry Goldwater (Arizona) and William Miller (New York)

Election Results:
Johnson/Humphrey: 486 electoral votes, 43.12 million popular votes
Goldwater/Miller: 52 electoral votes, 27.17 million popular votes

The 1964 presidential election centered around the widening divide in America between liberal and conservative ideologies. President Lyndon B. Johnson came to power after the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963. Johnson was an integral part of Kennedy’s electoral campaign, sowing up Southern states that were leaning toward Nixon and using his campaigning skills to give the Democrats the slight edge they needed in such a close election. A former Texas senator and an expert power broker, Johnson used his year of incumbency to push an ambitious social agenda in order to create “The Great Society.” Johnson’s administration pushed legislation that would give greater voting rights, reform public education, and improve racial relations in the turbulent 1960s. On the domestic front, Johnson was a success; at this point in his administration, he was not faced with quite the struggle in Vietnam that would sink his later presidency.

The Republicans were left divided after Nixon’s loss in 1960. The more moderate, progressive wing of the party (led by Nelson Rockefeller) struggled with its identity in the shadow of a more successful, liberal Democratic Party that co-opted its issues. Rising to prominence in the 1964 nominating process was the strongly conservative Republican element that would be a factor in the 1980s. Led by Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, these conservatives were able to wrestle control over the nomination process and name Goldwater as the presidential candidate for the Grand Old Party. An interesting note on the Republicans in 1964 was that Ronald Reagan, who would become the governor of California in the late 1960s and 1970s, gave a rousing speech in support of Goldwater. But moderate and liberal Republicans were shocked by Goldwater’s assertion that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” and his unabashed stand on segregation.

The Democratic strategy involved not putting Johnson out on a limb on any one issue and allowing Goldwater to cast himself as a dangerous, radical conservative. The prevailing wisdom was that the more Goldwater spoke, especially on using nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, the more Johnson’s mandate would grow. One of the few times Johnson’s campaign staff went out of their way to cast Goldwater in a bad light was a now infamous commercial featuring a small child counting down from ten while picking pedals off of a flower. The commercial ended with a nuclear mushroom cloud and the words “Johnson for President.” While this commercial created controversy and disturbed many people, it did much to cement fears of what Goldwater would do with power if elected. Goldwater’s slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right,” admitted that many people in the public eye were afraid of the senator’s stances on pretty much everything. Barry Goldwater hoped to put some doubt in people’s minds about what Johnson would do with a full term, but he had done much in his one year to make the election a Johnson victory without doubt. The Democratic share of the vote, around 61% of the popular vote and nearly 10 to 1 electoral vote advantage, was the most at this point in history and sunk Goldwater as a politician. Lyndon Johnson’s victory was short lived, however, as he would face serious adversity in his second term.

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