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  • The 1964 Election: A Closer Look
  • David B. Frisk (bio)

In one of American history’s great landslides, Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson by twenty-three points nationwide. At the same time, he made history for his party by winning five Deep South states, which had previously been part of the one-party Democratic “Solid South.” Familiar though these large facts are, the 1964 election calls for a closer look, and a look at some lesser-known facts.

It cannot be fully understood without noting what seemed to be Goldwater’s viability a year earlier, before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. After the violently suppressed Birmingham demonstrations in the spring of 1963, JFK lost much of his already mediocre job approval in the South when he proposed the Civil Rights Act that would pass Congress the following year. His popularity also declined nationally. Almost half of Americans—meaning not only white southerners—said he was pushing racial integration too quickly. Two-thirds of the public disapproved of his spending record, while 56 percent criticized what they viewed as an inability to work with Congress. In February 1963, Kennedy had a vast forty-point lead over Goldwater, 67 to 27 percent. By November, his lead was just sixteen points.1

The most damaging traits tied to the senator in 1964—a “shoot from the hip” tendency and a supposed extremism in his policies—hadn’t yet arisen as politically disqualifying perceptions even among many Republican professionals. In an Associated Press (AP) questionnaire answered by about 1,400 state and local GOP [End Page 51] leaders in the autumn of 1963, 85 percent said Goldwater was the party’s “strongest candidate” against Kennedy. Nearly 1,200 of the respondents viewed him in this way; New York governor Nelson Rockefeller got only fifty-six votes, while only forty-four respondents thought former vice president Richard Nixon was the strongest.2 In every state, the reason cited by far most often for this judgment was the sense of a “clear choice” between Kennedy and Goldwater—“the belief that Mr. Goldwater would not be a ‘me, too’ candidate.” 3 More neutral sources were taking him seriously as well. Time reported in early October that while most political observers had been certain until recently that Kennedy would be re-elected, many were changing their minds. Correspondents for the magazine judged, or guessed, that Goldwater now led him in twenty-six states. One of the era’s great journalistic insiders, James Reston of the New York Times, even reported anxiety within the president’s circle: Kennedy himself was “lighthearted about the prospects of meeting Goldwater,” but “privately his associates are not so sure.” 4

Goldwater was not entirely a rebel. He was more than an outspoken man with firm convictions, although it’s indeed accurate to classify him as “a conviction politician,” not a more ordinary, expedient one. He was also, in the good sense of the term, a professional politician. He had been a senator for the past eleven years, taking a leadership role in Republican politics for nearly that whole period. Goldwater knew the party’s stalwarts throughout the country, a political plus that resulted from large, continuous commitments of his time. He had become personally familiar to its state and local leaders as the very widely traveled chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 1956, 1960, and 1962 election cycles, and as “the most active party leader on the national banquet circuit” after 1960 as he continued to raise funds for the GOP, including lower-level candidates. In addition to being “charming and likable,” he expressed policy views shared by many state and local Republican leaders.5 Goldwater’s [End Page 52] insurgent campaign was by no means a revolt against the official party apparatus, as Donald Trump’s arguably was in 2016. It was a revolt against a powerful faction in the party and the closest thing it had to a national establishment, against people and political approaches that were now, too, associated with Nixon’s painful 1960 loss to Kennedy.

Another factor in the Republican equation was the political passion of the many right-wing citizens who...


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