The ’68 Race

Good morning, it’s Thursday, January 3, 2019, Day 13 of the latest government shutdown. Seven years ago today, Iowan Republicans made their preferences known in that state’s quadrennial presidential caucuses. The results were a surprise — and confusing. The night of the caucuses, state GOP officials reported that Mitt Romney narrowly edged past upstart Rick Santorum. And I do mean narrowly: The winning margin was reportedly eight votes out of 121,500 cast, which was a record turnout for Iowa at the time.

But the reported results turned out to be untrue.

The underfunded Santorum had campaigned in all 99 Iowa counties, usually traveling in a pickup truck with a tiny entourage. Lagging in the polls and considered by the punditry to be a man whose time had passed, the former senator attracted little media attention. In December, however, his miniscule poll numbers ticked upward. By mid-month, this movement became an undetected surge as Newt Gingrich — on the receiving end of a barrage of attack ads, mostly from the Romney camp — began to fade.

When all Iowa votes were finally tallied, Santorum had narrowly defeated Romney, an inconvenient truth that the state’s GOP establishment wouldn’t officially acknowledge for nearly three weeks. I’ve sometimes wondered whether the 2012 campaign dynamic would have been altered by proper vote-counting and reporting that evening. That’s one moral of the story. Here’s another: Democracy can be a messy and inexact process, and not only in Florida.

Today is also the date in U.S. political history that Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota made it official: He was challenging President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary.

The ideological identity of the post-Vietnam Democratic Party was forged in the small towns and hamlets of New Hampshire 51 winters ago. Gene McCarthy started it by breaking with the president of his own party a few days after Thanksgiving over the escalating war in Vietnam.

“I am concerned,” said the Minnesota lawmaker, “that the administration seems to have set no limits to the price that it is willing to pay for a military victory.”

Many books have been written about the ensuing presidential campaign and about 1968 itself, including Jules Witcover’s masterpiece “The Year the Dream Died.” But five decades later, one striking feature of McCarthy’s great gambit is how it illustrates the difference in the pace of American politics between 1968 and now.

McCarthy’s public break with LBJ occurred on November 30, 1967. His official announcement about New Hampshire came on January 3, 1968. McCarthy didn’t take his first trip to the Granite State until January 25. The primary was March 12. The election returns were initially reported as McCarthy with 42 percent and Johnson with 49 percent. When Republican write-in votes were counted a few days later, the results actually showed it much closer: McCarthy came within 230 votes of upsetting Johnson. Then, as now, those numbers could be read two ways. Johnson’s political loyalists had neglected to put the president’s name on the ballot, meaning that all his votes were write-ins — and he still won. Pretty impressive. Or, you could say that an under-funded and quixotic candidate had nearly upended a president of his own party, thereby showing LBJ’s vulnerability. Johnson himself saw it as a glass half-full: On March 31, 1968, the president announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Robert Kennedy had been in the race for a couple of weeks by then, and Johnson’s announcement meant that Vice President Hubert Humphrey was able to join the field. McCarthy faded, and the fateful campaign was joined. All that in three months. My question, prompted by Elizabeth Warren’s announcement this week before the current president has even served two years in office: Do presidential campaigns really need to be two-year marathons?

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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