A battle for the presidency

Hubert H. Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey, a former mayor of Minneapolis, U.S. senator and vice president under Lyndon B. Johnson, ran for president in 1968. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The presidential election of 1968 was a riveting, close race at the ballot box between Richard Nixon on the GOP ticket and Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey for the Democrats.

And the process of getting to Election Day on Nov. 5 was long and complicated for one of Minnesota’s most famous politicians.

Humphrey, a former mayor of Minneapolis and U.S. senator, had been vice president for incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson since 1965. At first, all signs seems to point to Johnson and Humphrey running for reelection. But by the end of 1967, some half a million U.S. soldiers were fighting in the Vietnam War, and support for Johnson was dropping while antiwar sentiment skyrocketed.

By October 1967, Johnson’s approval rating was a record low — 31 percent.

A month later, another Minnesotan — Sen. Eugene McCarthy — announced he would challenge Johnson for the Democratic ticket with opposition to Vietnam as his primary platform. In March 1968, New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy also entered the Democratic race, arguing against the war. Within a few weeks, Johnson announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection.

With two antiwar contenders for the Democratic ticket, Humphrey entered the race representing the administration. Many Minnesotans found themselves caught between Humphrey and McCarthy.

As one state legislator said, “In no other state were Democrats so torn and troubled as they were in Minnesota, where they were compelled to choose between two of their leaders — men whom they respected as shapers and leaders of the DFL Party.”

Splitting from Johnson

Humphrey struggled to distance himself from Johnson’s shadow throughout the campaign, particularly on Vietnam. When the vice president drafted a potential statement announcing his support for halting bombing in North Vietnam — a split from Johnson’s tactics — the president strongly objected.

Humphrey later said of the moment, “If I announced this, he’d destroy me for the presidency.”

After Kennedy was assassinated in June, the Democratic ticket narrowed to McCarthy versus Humphrey.

Going into the Democratic National Convention, about 75 percent of Minnesota’s delegates were for Humphrey with a quarter for McCarthy. At the convention, the national party battled over what its position should be on Vietnam.

On the floor, peace supporters sang We Shall Overcome and chanted: “Stop the war!” Outside, antiwar protesters clashed with Chicago police, resulting in more than 600 arrests. In the end, Humphrey claimed the nomination, and the party narrowly agreed 1,567 to 1,041 to back Johnson’s war policies.

Throughout September, Humphrey’s campaign lagged some 15 points behind Nixon, and he was frequently met by antiwar protesters and hecklers. McCarthy also refused to endorse Humphrey unless he officially broke with Johnson on Vietnam.

On Sept. 30, the vice president finally decided it was time to make a televised speech announcing that, if he was elected, he would halt bombing in North Vietnam.

“If I am president, I owe it to this nation to bring our men and resources in Vietnam back to America, where we need them so badly,” he said.

Reaching peace

The announcement garnered a positive reaction, and Humphrey started gaining in the polls and crowds grew at his campaign speeches. In October, news broke that Vietnam peace talks were progressing, and on Oct. 31, Johnson halted all bombing in North Vietnam.

The end of the war seemed in reach, which helped Humphrey continue to gain ground. McCarthy even offered a last-minute endorsement.

The final Gallup poll was tight — with Nixon pulling 42 percent of the vote, and Humphrey close behind with 40 percent. Independent George Wallace held 14 percent. Other polls put Humphrey in the lead. It was too close to call.

But when the final results came in, Humphrey’s late surge wasn’t enough to win the presidency. Nixon snagged 43.4 percent of the popular vote compared to Humphrey’s 42.7 percent. And the electoral vote margin was wider — 301–191.

Looking back

Analysts disagree on what exactly went wrong for the vice president. If Humphrey had stepped away from Johnson’s policies earlier, could he have won the presidency? Is McCarthy to blame for holding back his endorsement — and the support of the antiwar side of the Democrats — until the end of the election?

There isn’t a clear answer, but Humphrey’s loss marked a notable shift in national politics. After Nixon’s election in 1968, the presidency would stay Republican-controlled for more than 20 years — with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s one term — until the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.

Dive into 1968

Visitors to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul can learn more about this presidential election and many other events of this era in The 1968 Exhibit, opening Dec. 23 to mark the 50th anniversary of this pivotal year. Learn more at minnesotahistorycenter.org.