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Distinctive elections: A look at the 1968, ’76 and 2016 presidential campaigns

REUTERS/Eric Thayer
What are the odds that the last three months of the 2016 campaign will enter a new phase where the presidential candidates concentrate their best thinking and earnest vision on America and beyond in a manner that honors the intelligence and good will of the voters?

In my life, three presidential elections have distinguished themselves in unique ways.

slocum
Chuck Slocum

The presidential election of 1968 saw former President Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon, win the election over the Democratic nominee, Minnesota’s own incumbent Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

As a college student, I wrote an honors paper on that campaign, focusing mostly on the third-party efforts of Alabama Gov. George Wallace running his own independent campaign in the decidedly two-party American system.

The election year of 1968 was tumultuous, especially for a relatively protected Hamline University student. Widespread public opposition, especially among the young, to the Vietnam War that was largely waged by President Lyndon B. Johnson resulted in LBJ unexpectedly dropping out four years after winning a landslide 1964 victory in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s tragic murder.

The election year was also marked by the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. followed by what we called “race riots” across the nation, a second assassination, this time of the charismatic Democratic presidential challenger Robert F. Kennedy and the Democratic National Convention, unlike this year in Philadelphia, becoming a scene of violent confrontations between Chicago police and anti-war protesters.

While the ebullient Democrat Humphrey, called the “happy warrior” on the campaign trail, ran on an upbeat continuation of LBJ’s Great Society social programs, Republican Nixon promised to restore law and order to the nation’s cities and provide new leadership in his secret plan to end the Vietnam War. Nixon called a “silent majority” his target voters. Nixon won the popular vote by just over a half million votes of 72M cast (.07 percentage point) but easily defeated Humphrey in the Electoral College, 301-191, by carrying 32 states to Humphrey’s 13 states. Wallace won five states and 46 electoral votes.

As part of my homework, I attended a Minnesota rally for Wallace and interviewed his campaign operatives. His third-party effort allowed the populist firebrand to openly advocate for racial segregation. He carried several states in the Deep South and ran well in ethnic, industrial areas in the North garnering nearly 14 percent of the vote. This was the last presidential election where any state was carried by a third-party candidate.

While Humphrey, Nixon and Wallace ran in changing, unpredictable times, there was a measure of civility and professional respect between the two experienced frontrunners.

The election of 1968 was a realigning election as it signaled the dismantling of the Democrats New Deal Coalition that had dominated presidential politics since 1932.

1976

Eight years later, I was the Minnesota delegation “whip” at the hotly contested Republican National Convention in Kansas City in which the unelected President Gerald R. Ford narrowly defeated future President Ronald W. Reagan for the nomination.

It was there that I first connected with a young Reagan field man from Ohio, arranging for the Californian to meet with the Minnesota delegation to pitch his message. As a result, five “undecideds” from Minnesota announced their support of Reagan in a major announcement the next day. Eventually, I joined most of Minnesota’s RNC delegates in backing Ford for the nomination. He won on the first ballot with 1,187 votes to 1,070 for Reagan.

The field man’s name, by the way, was John Kasich, now Ohio governor and a candidate for president himself until a few months ago.

On Nov. 2, voters took out their anger with Nixon’s Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation in 1974 as they chose the relatively unknown former governor of GeorgiaJimmy Carter, as president. Carter’s running mate was Minnesota’s own U.S. Sen. Walter F. Mondale. Campaigning as a Washington outsider and reformer, Carter won the election and in doing so became the first U.S. president elected from the Deep South since Zachary Taylor in 1848.

Adding to the volatile political mix, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro T. Agnew, had resigned from his office in 1973 in the light of a scandal that implicated him in receiving illegal bribes when he was governor of Maryland. Ford, a long-time popular Michigan congressman who led the House Minority Republicans, had been selected as vice president as a result of the heretofore unused 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Ford was saddled with a poor economy, the fall of South Vietnam, and also paid a heavy political price for his “unconditional pardon” of the disgraced Nixon.

Ford and Carter were featured in three major TV debates, one in which Ford suggested erroneously “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Carter unwisely did an interview with Hugh Hefner in Playboy in which he addressed sexual sin. Carter and Ford became friends and allies on many important issues in their post presidencies.

With a popular vote of 41M (50.1 percent), Carter won 297 electoral votes in carrying 23 of the 50 states, including Walter Mondale’s home state. Ford carried 27 states and had just over 39M votes (48 percent).

2016

The U.S. presidential election will be on Tuesday, Nov. 8, when America’s 45th president and 48th vice president will be elected. The series of seemingly endless presidential primary elections and caucuses took place this year for five and a half months (Feb. 1 to June 14) staggered among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

I signed up to work for John Kasich as he became one of 17 candidates seeking the Republican nomination. Kasich, who I thought campaigned on thoughtful, positive ideas on the important issues and refused to get into the name-calling game, made an appearance in Minneapolis in which he and I recalled the Reagan meeting with Minnesota delegates some 40 years earlier. Kasich used the Reagan-Ford example as partial justification for an open, brokered nominating convention in which he could be a viable candidate on a later ballot.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, businessman, reality TV personality and upstart candidate Donald J. Trump became the GOP’s nominee, winning on the first ballot. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the Democratic Party’s nominee at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia by acclamation on a motion by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. This election marks the first time a woman is the presidential nominee of a major political party. It is also the first time since 1944 where both major party candidates running are from the same state, New York.

Various third-party and independent presidential candidates will also contest the 2016 election, of which two have obtained enough ballot access to win the presidency and have been sometimes featured in major national polls: the Libertarian Party nominee, former Gov. of New Mexico Gary Johnson; and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. Johnson and Stein each ran as their party’s nominee in the 2012 election.

Main issues are personal

The main issues playing out in the Trump and Clinton contest so far are quite unlike those in 1968 and 1976. Both candidates register very strong negatives concerning trustworthiness and honestly with two-thirds of U.S. voters, perhaps as a result of campaigns that focus on the disdainful opposition of each other. Nearly 70 percent of the public say consistently that America is headed in the wrong direction.

Trump Republicans would have the voters believe that Clinton does not tell the truth and is an insider lawbreaker — “lock her up” — who never does anything successfully, lacking the overall judgment and high character to be president. Clinton and the Democrats represent Trump as an ill-informed egoist and huckster who was born with a silver spoon. They present him as a greedy big businessman who has used the free enterprise system to benefit himself at the expense of workers, subcontractors, investors and the communities in which he operates.

What are the odds that the last three months of the 2016 campaign will enter a new phase where the presidential candidates concentrate their best thinking and earnest vision on America and beyond in a manner that honors the intelligence and good will of the voters?

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a Twin Cities management consulting organization. He can be contacted at Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/08/2016 - 03:03 pm.

    Excellent Review

    This recollection of earlier days pretty much matches my general outline. I’m wondering the extent to which your (perhaps denied) objectivity will be challenged here. Certainly all of us could go deeper into those events. That, of course, is not your purpose.

    George Wallace ran as the American Independence Party candidate, if I remember that bit of extremism. You did omit one prior relevant death, however: George Lincoln Rockwell–American Nazi Party, August 25, 1967. He was right in the mix back then, as well, enough to have some postmortem influence on 1968 craziness.

    Thanks for this clean bit of summary. Isn’t it nice to have been there, rather than rely on various questionable sources for their reconstructions?

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