If you are 69 years of age or older, you should remember the Nixon/Humphrey/ Wallace presidential election of 1968. However, if you are even older—like me, 73 years or more—you may also recall the 1964 presidential election of Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater as well. (The Census Bureau estimates that over 40 million Americans were 65 years or older in 2012). That’s a lot of our current voting age population. These older Americans also vote more regularly than those who are younger and are an important target group in the 2016 election.
How could we forget the 1964 and 1968 elections? They were what I would call more “personality” and not mainly “issues” elections. Of course, the election of a U.S. president, may not be exclusively one or the other—they are often a mix—but some elections like those of 1964 and 1968 are focused on the personal characteristics and behaviors of at least one of the two or three candidates. Those 1960’s elections were rife with riots, disruptions, angst, GOP and/or Democratic party splits, destructive negative advertising, racial and class conflicts, and even some assassinations in 1968. This occurred during the build-up year of the elections during the caucuses and primaries. Occasionally, these ended up in summertime convention delegate fights and a very polarized electorate. Often, this led to a sort of conflict resolution—a very unsatisfactory one—for voters in the November voting booths. American voters, by election day, were frustrated, disappointed, disconnected from the political and governmental processes and just sick of political parties, news media and candidates. I would also argue that historically those kind of presidential elections—with impacts cascading down the ballot to state and local offices—weakened our democratic institutions and processes.
Sound familiar? That’s because I believe the 2016 presidential election has become a “personality” election and not for just the Republican party but, in a lesser sense, for the Democratic party as well.
Yet, for both parties, this 2016 contest started out as an “issues” election focused on income inequality, economic growth, trade, immigration, defense, and terrorism. But it quickly, through the debate process and the Trump candidacy, deteriorated into a personality contest principally centered on the Republican candidacy of Trump. Some personality concerns have also intruded into the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders race, but I think it fair to say that much of what now dominates the Trump/Cruz/Rubio/Kasich battle is more akin to the 1964 and 1968 campaigns.
Candidate Trump’s rallies are now scenes of violence, hatred and disruption on the 2016 campaign trail and will increase, fueled by him, and then spill into the GOP July Cleveland convention. I have vivid and sad recollections of the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco where I attended as Republican Michigan Governor George Romney’s Executive Assistant. Much of that 1964 party split had been covered over by the 1968 Republican convention which I also attended in Miami Beach. But, the 1964 past had not been forgotten by the “moderate” Republican governors and legislators who continued to fight on to no avail. Some observers assert that those divisions are still with the Republican party today—albeit with different names and leaders, but similar objectives.
Among us older voters, who can forget the violence on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention of 1968? It was carried over into their convention hall and replayed over and over during the fall, 1968 campaign and even now. That campaign and election, too, changed the Democratic party and resulted in the election of Richard Nixon. Some of us probably saw a repetition—on a smaller scale—at Trump’s self-cancelled Chicago rally just days ago.
I believe the 2016 campaign and election results will mirror those of the 1964 and 1968 elections with a “change” or “realignment” national election which will end in the reorganization of this nation’s Republican party. I don’t think it will result in the destruction of the GOP at the state and local level but it will decrease its current domination of that party. But, it will have some unintended consequences that no one can predict at this moment except to say that it will certainly happen.
So, a parting shot…history often does repeat itself…if only we could learn from it.
Below are listed my brief conclusions and personal guide to the nature of our presidential elections over the past 52 years:
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: 1964-2016 – PERSONALITY, PROCESS OR ISSUE ELECTIONS (Winner’s names in CAPS.)
1964 – Lyndon JOHNSON/Barry Goldwater – personality election: Goldwater portrayed as an extremist, racist, too conservative, lack of support and opposition of many moderate Republican officeholders, a split party during nomination, convention and election processes.
1968 – Richard NIXON/Hubert Humphrey/George Wallace – issues, process and personality election: crime, law and order, Vietnam, assassinations, race riots, disruptions added in with the personality of Wallace as a southern racist.
1972 – NIXON/George McGovern – issues election: Vietnam war.
1976 – Jimmy CARTER/Gerald Ford – issues election: Watergate, recession, fall of Vietnam. Ford was not nominated until the convention.
1980 – Ronald REAGAN/Carter/John Anderson – issues election: Iran hostage crisis, the economy, inflation, and unemployment.
1984 – REAGAN/Walter Mondale – issues election: economic recovery, personality as Reagan received highest electoral vote since FDR.
1988 – George H. W. BUSH/Michael Dukakis – issues election: good economy, law and order, stable international situation.
1992 – William CLINTON/George H.W. Bush/Ross Perot – issues election: economy, recession.
1996 – CLINTON/Bob Dole/Ross Perot – issues election: economy and international stability.
2000 – George W. BUSH/Al Gore – issues and process election: decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Major issue: Vietnam war.
2004 – George W. BUSH/John Kerry – issues election: terrorism, invasion of Iraq, financial issues and Great Recession.
2008 – Barack OBAMA/John McCain – issues election: Iraq war, Great Recession, financial crisis.
2012 – Barack OBAMA/Mitt Romney – issues election: Great Recession, terrorism, Affordable Care Act, Social Security, Medicare.
2016 – Presumptive Nominees: Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump – issues election: income inequality; economic growth, trade, terrorism; immigration; defense; also becoming a personalities election: experience, stability, conduct, and campaigns of nominees.
Dr. Walt de Vries is a political consultant, author, university professor, and founder of the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership (1974) and co-founder of the American Association of Political Consultants (1969). He has co-authored two books on ticket-splitters (1972 and 2000) and another on Southern Politics (1976). Walt has done public opinion polling since 1960 and formed his own political consulting company in 1967. He has polled in all 50 states and several foreign countries. He currently resides in Wilmington, North Carolina.