Wednesday, March 12, 2008

For LBJ, a victory that was a defeat

Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., talks to campaign workers and
the press at his
Bedford, N.H. campaign headquarters on March 12, 1968.

The New Hampshire primary on March 12, 1968, marked the beginning of the end of President Lyndon Johnson’s quest for re-election.

Johnson won an electoral victory over Minnesota senator and anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy by the smallest of margins -- 230 votes --in an election that highlighted the deep divisions in the country -- and the the Democratic Party -- over Vietnam.

Pollsters had predicted at McCarthy would take only 10% to 20% of the vote, even though LBJ’s name was not on the ballot. When all the votes were counted, Johnson had 29,021, or 49.4%, to McCarthy’s 28791, or 42.2%. McCarthy also got 5,511 write-in votes in the Republican primary, which was easily won by Richard Nixon. (Nelson Rockefeller, Nixon’s chief opponent, ran a write-in campaign.)

Youths were drawn by McCarthy's anti-war stand and the hope of revitalizing the political system. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it.) Time magazine reported that on the final weekend before the primary, McCarthy's headquarters had to turn away 2,500 volunteers, including a group that was ready to charter a plane from California. The Johnson campaign spent about $300,000 on the campaign and the McCarthy camp spent about $170,000.

This piece from An Abridged History of the NH Presidential Primary sums up the race.

"In 1968, the primary attracted wide attention when Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn, ran an anti-war platform against President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy’s young campaign volunteers cut their hair and dressed well to be "Clean for Gene." Johnson did not formally enter the primary but though he won the primary with 50 percent of the write-in votes, he had been politically wounded. Johnson became the first "winner" of the primary to lose the political and media expectations contest."

Just four days later, Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York would enter the Democratic race. And at the end of the month , LBJ announced he would not seek re-election.

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