As the current presidential election winds to a close this month, many reporters have drawn parallels between the 2016 election and the 1968 one.
Both years were marked by societal unrest, tense party conventions and an anti-establishment Democratic candidate — Vermont’s Bernie Sanders in 2016, and in 1968, a longtime Minnesota legislator, Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
In the late 1960s, many Democrats became disenchanted with President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies, and a “Dump Johnson” campaign formed to halt the president’s reelection in 1968.
In November 1967, McCarthy challenged Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Opposition of the Vietnam War was his primary issue: “I am concerned that the administration seems to have set no limit to the price which it is willing to pay for a military victory,” McCarthy said.
Making it real
When the New Hampshire primary votes came in, McCarthy had 42.4 percent of the vote compared to Johnson’s 49.4 percent.
His supporters also controlled 20 of the state’s 24 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Indeed, the senator had dealt a significant blow to the president’s campaign.
His campaign was particularly attractive to young people and college students, who were strongly antiwar.
During a time when unrest and violence were a constant undercurrent, McCarthy hoped to give youth a political outlet — rather than a radical one — for their frustrations.
McCarthy’s political appeal became apparent at the New Hampshire primary in March 1968. Student volunteers were able to canvass more than half the homes in the state.
At the same time, Johnson’s Tet Offensive had ramped up military efforts in Vietnam, and news of increasing the draft and additional troop deployments swirled.
Media outlets across the country — including Time magazine and CBS’s Walter Cronkite — started questioning Johnson’s decisions.Young women turned out in large numbers as volunteers for Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy during his bid for the 1968 Democratic nomination. A campaign worker likely wore this dress, which spoke to McCarthy’s antiwar platform. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Parade of candidates
On March 16, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy announced he would also seek the Democratic nomination. (Previously he’d waffled over whether to run. McCarthy had met with him in November 1967 to discuss a potential campaign, feeling RFK was the logical choice to challenge Johnson.)
Barely two weeks after Kennedy’s announcement, Johnson shocked the nation by declaring in a televised speech: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” He also announced that he would strongly curtail bombing in Vietnam and enter into new peace talks.
Johnson and Kennedy’s moves hurt McCarthy’s campaign.
RFK was very popular and also strongly antiwar, and Johnson’s decisions to not seek reelection and scale back in Vietnam weakened McCarthy’s momentum on his key issue.
Vice President and fellow Minnesotan Hubert H. Humphrey soon entered the race as the establishment candidate, further splitting the Democratic vote.
After Kennedy’s assassination in June, most of his delegates switched to supporting Humphrey or remained neutral rather than moving to McCarthy.
During the summer of 1968, though his nomination seemed unlikely, McCarthy kept on the campaign trail.Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy became the rabblerousing Bernie Sanders of his day when he tried to take on President Johnson and the Democratic establishment in 1968. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Competing at the convention
When the Democratic National Convention convened in Chicago in August, Humphrey earned the nomination as expected with 1,759.25 delegates compared to McCarthy’s 601.
The convention was also infamously marked by violence and clashes between police and antiwar protesters.
During the convention, McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey and ultimately withheld his endorsement until the last week of the election, arguing that the vice president’s position on Vietnam was too similar to Johnson’s.
When the final votes came in on Nov. 5, Humphrey narrowly lost the presidency to Republican Richard Nixon with 42.7 percent of the popular vote versus Nixon’s 43.4. Some blamed McCarthy for the Democrats’ loss.
McCarthy chose not to run for reelection to the Senate in 1970, and after 22 years representing Minnesota, he left office in January 1971.
He wrote poetry and books on politics and public policy.But his political career wasn’t entirely over.
He made several more presidential runs as a Democrat and as a third-party candidate, but none of the campaigns gained the same momentum as his bid in 1968.
McCarthy died in 2005 at age 89 from complications from Parkinson’s.
Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.
See a local exhibit
You can learn more about McCarthy at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Eugene McCarthy and the 1968 Presidential Campaign exhibit running now through Jan. 22, at James J. Hill House in St. Paul and at The 1968 Exhibit, which returns in November 2017 to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Learn more at mnhs.org.