Many historians view the mid twentieth century as a time of great change in American society. This is especially true in regards to politics. The 1964 Presidential election between Lyndon B. Johnson highlights this political shift. Historical interpretations attribute two main issues to Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory. The first issue is the vast liberal disposition of Americans following the untimely end of the Kennedy administration. The second is the concerns many people felt towards Barry Goldwater’s civil rights and foreign policy stances. Though these interpretations are not necessarily false, they do not represent a complete picture of the sentiments of voters at the time. Contemporary interpretations discredit the idea that Johnson experienced his victory because of a general trend of liberalism. Present analysis finds more validity in the idea that the landslide support for LBJ was brought about by drastic shifts in voter demographics and party association during the 1964 election.
Historical interpretations of the 1964 election point to public perception of Barry Goldwater as one of the two major driving forces behind the voter turnouts. Newsweek concluded in a post mortem analysis of the election that, “Barry Goldwater’s loss showed the nation will not go for an unabashed conservative.”[i] By “unabashed conservative,” Newsweek reporters were referring to the popular representation of Goldwater as right-wing extremist whose foreign policy stances advocated for the use of nuclear weapons as a solution to the Vietnam War.[ii] Goldwater was not in fact a racist, rather a victim of a relentless smear campaign led by Johnson’s administration. Goldwater’s opponents used his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to question him about racial equality. Goldwater’s opposition to the bill was not fueled by a racist demeanor, but constitutionalism. Dr. Lee Edwards asserts that, “Goldwater, who had voted for the 1957 and 1960 civil rights bills, wanted to support the 1964 act but objected to two of its provisions: Title II (public accommodations) and Title VII (fair employment).”[iii] He also didn’t vote for the act because he believed, “as a conservative… the federal government did not have the power to compel states to conform to its idea of racial equality, or to dictate to individuals whom they must associate with.”[iv] However, Goldwater’s explanation had little effect in defending him against the onslaught of criticisms from high profile civil rights advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson.[v] From then on Goldwater could not escape the negative imagery he had received through popular perception of his position on civil rights. While the idea that Goldwater’s negative image played a role in Johnson’s success in the 1964 election is not wrong- the idea that the domination of liberalism among a majority of voters attributed to Johnson’s success is misguided.
One idea that is popularized before and after the election is that much of Johnson’s success was based on his connection to the legacy of John F. Kennedy and the liberal policies he supported. Tom Wicker wrote an article for the New York Times that described how Kennedy’s name “Hang[s] over the Election.” Wicker later goes on to establish the, “powerful symbol of the Kennedy name,” as an issue supporting Johnson’s campaign.[vi] The Kennedy name was certainly an issue on the front of peoples’ minds given his recent assassination, but it is not clear that the public recognized themselves as ideologically liberal based on the successes of the Kennedy administration. Furthermore, there is no evidence that confirms there even existed a sense of liberalism within the public; that was brought on by Kennedy’s time in office, and directly correlated with Johnson’s victory in the election.
Researchers in the nineteen sixties conducted studies of voter ideology that lacked the capacity to make accurate interpretations of trends in voter ideology. Hasty conclusions were then drawn from narrowly focused data. The Washington Post[vii] presented its readers with a question: “Do you wish the government to continue its intervention in affairs which before 1932 were largely left to private decision?” “To that question”, said the Post, “the voters have answered ‘Yes!”’[viii] Popular political analysts such as Walter Lippmann[ix] and the New York Times[x] then presented commentary connecting the Post’s survey to a widespread trend of support for moderate liberalism. Although this correlation seemed like a valid explanation for the outcome of the election, critical analysis discredits the idea that liberalism was even a main concern in voters’ decision making process. Liberalist policies that were supported throughout World War II were still beneficial to some, and thus maintained positive approval ratings. This does not validate the idea that liberalism itself was an ideology that was increasingly supported by a majority of Americans. In fact, most voters at the time did not feel their decisions were based on one given ideology over another. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan researchers found that in the 1964 election, only 11.5% voters characterized their choice based on liberal or conservative terms. With 88.5% of the population disregarding ideology as an effect on their decision- one cannot make a creditable inference on liberalism influencing political outcomes. Dr. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot present these same findings in their book “The Liberal Hour.”[xi] Mackenzie and Weisbrot contend that, “America was not as liberal as the outcome of the 1964 suggested.” For these historical researchers the impact Goldwater had on reinvigorating conservatives shows that the right was experiencing a noticeable movement as well. This swell of conservative political fervor rooted itself in the sixty-four election- blossoming in the seventies and eighties with politicians like Clifton White and Ronald Reagan. These men were given the opportunity to get their name on a national political stage because of their work with the Goldwater campaign.[xii] If the country was on a trend that leaned heavily towards liberalism, then it would not make sense that a liberal presidential victory would foster a series of conservative presidents over the next two decades. Although the 1964 election did not represent a growing trend towards liberalism, it did have an effect on conservatism. That effect can be summarized as this: “The Goldwater campaign may have failed miserably in winning the 1964 election, but it succeeded famously in midwifing a modern conservative politics in America… Republicans would rise from these ashes much more swiftly than anyone would have dared predict on the day after the 1964 election.”[xiii] Historical interpretations varied when it came to the validity of their analysis of Johnson’s landslide victory. As time went on however, contemporary interpretations offered a more encompassing representation of the historic outcome of the 1964 election.
Contemporary analysis finds more authenticity behind the idea that, “shifting voter seismology,” had a greater role in producing the outcome that was seen in the 1964 election.[xiv] The effect of race-relations and civil rights issues on the campaign caused dramatic changes in the demographic make-up of each party. Goldwater’s vote on the 1964 Civil Rights act pushed the liberal and minority vote towards Johnson. While Goldwater’s vote on the act disaffected civil rights supporters, Johnson’s vote would be the deciding blow that dissolved the “solid south” support that Democrats had enjoyed for the last century. Even Johnson knew that his, “support of civil rights legislation began the process that would eventually push the South consistently into the Republican column.”[xv] For contemporary interpretations, the radical shifts in party support played the largest roll in giving Johnson one of the greatest triumphs in election history. Although this rationale explains the majority support for Johnson in the election, it is unsuccessful in capturing the disposition most voters had towards the candidates and the election as a whole
Though shifts in party affiliation played the largest role in achieving Johnson’s triumph over Goldwater, the movement of minority votes to the Democratic Party was not indicative of Johnsons effect on voters as a presidential nominee. Shifts in African American support for the left had been developing since Harry Truman took, “home over 77% of the black vote,” during the 1948 presidential election.[xvi] Johnson did not give black voters any reason to shift their support that the Democratic Party was not already offering them. For this reason, the most accurate explanation of why Johnson experienced such a remarkable turnout in supporters has more to do with the candidates being offered rather than the various external influences effecting the election.
The votes casted in the election of 1964 were undoubtedly influenced by several aspects: Kennedy’s legacy, civil rights and foreign policy concerns, and shifting party alignments. To say that any one of these issues was the major factor in the outcome of the election would be misrepresenting the legacy that the 1964 election had on politics. In reality voters were struggling with the reality that they were choosing between two unpopular candidates. Neither Goldwater or Johnson’s platform offered voters anything that resonated with their beliefs long term. Johnson’s landslide does not represent a devotion by a majority of beloved supporters. What it actually represents is a combination of voters who could not bring themselves to support Goldwater over his various policies that became viewed as extremist and warlike. Goldwater is more often remembered as the candidate with the most image issues during the 1964 election. Because of the outcome of the vote in 1964 many people forget that Johnson had image issues of his own. What became the most, “damaging to LBJ’s standing… was his escalation in Vietnam.”[xvii] America had been involved in the war for a decade at the time of the election, and many people felt like Vietnam was a lost cause. This made Johnson’s decision all the more unpopular. Kenneth Walsh of US News and World Report is also highly critical of Johnson’s mentality as a politician:
“Johnson never made the transition from Senate majority leader to president of the United States. He was a nuts-and-bolts politician and a Washington insider, and lacked the communication skills or charisma to give the country a wider sense of vision or to inspire his fellow citizens, as Kennedy had done.[xviii]
The nation did not recognize Johnson as a leader that deserved ninety percent of the electoral vote and sixty one percent of the popular vote. That outcome was simply the product of a time in U.S. political history where voters knew what they didn’t want, but didn’t know what they actually wanted. Johnson was merely a better choice than what the Goldwater-Miller ticket was offering. The only theme that remains consistent among historical and contemporary reports of voter ideology is that politically speaking- the average American voter had no idea what they wanted ideologically. The two major political parties were experiencing great change in how they were going to meet the desires of the disaffected constituents they now represented. Liberals and minorities on the left and “solid south,” new conservatives on the right. Change truly was the overarching theme in this election.
[i] Goldman, Peter, and Eleanor Clift. “The Politics of Austerity.” Newsweek, January 29, 1979.
[iii] Edwards, Lee. “Barry M. Goldwater: The Most Consequential Loser in American Politics.” Makers of American Political Thought Series 11 (July 3, 2014). The Heritage Foundation.
[iv] Menand, Louis. “He Knew He Was Right.” The New Yorker, March 26, 2001. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/03/26/he-knew-he-was-right.
[v] Fairclough, Adam. Martin Luther King, Jr. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995, 94.
[vi] Wicker, Tom. “Johnson’s Problem- To Unify Democrats.” The New York Times, August 9, 1964.
[vii] “The Voters Answer,” Washington Post, November 4, 1964, A20.
[viii] Mackenzie, G. Calvin., and Robert Weisbrot. The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s. New York: Penguin Press, 2008, 109
[ix] Walter Lipman, “Return to Normal Political Setup After Election Seems Unlikely,” Los Angeles Times November 4, 1964, 87.
[x] “The Johnson Landslide,” New York Times, November 4, 1964, 38.
[xi] Mackenzie and Weisbrot, Liberal Hour, 109.
[xv] Levy, Michael. “United States Presidential Election of 1964.” Encyclopedia Britannica. August 17, 2009. https://www.britannica.com/event/United-States-presidential-election-of-1964.
[xvi] “How Blacks Became Democratic: The Myth of Republican Racism.” Soul Therapy, March 26, 2016. https://dathistoryguy.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/how-blacks-became-democratic-the-myth-of-republican-racism/.
[xvii] Walsh, Kenneth T. “The Most Consequential Elections in History: Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964.” U.S. News and World Report, September 17, 2008.