Richard Nixon and the 1968 Election

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon began his political career in his native state of California, running for Congress during the 1940s. He took advantage of the postwar “Red Scare” to accuse his opponents of sympathizing with communism; the accusations were false, but the mere mention of the word communism was enough to alienate voters at that time. Before he joined the Senate, Nixon had been active in the House Un-American Activities Committee. (See Chapter 26 for more on this committee.) Eisenhower only reluctantly agreed to accept Nixon as his running mate in 1952, for lack of a better candidate; many Americans, including many Republicans, were uneasy about Nixon’s fitness to hold high office.

Nixon believed that the press was little more than a hostile conspiracy against him; still, the majority of the nation’s newspapers endorsed him for president. After losing to Kennedy in 1960, Nixon returned to California and ran for governor in 1962. During this campaign, he deliberately leveled false charges at his Democratic opponents—suggesting, for instance, that they had helped to lead a political riot in San Francisco in 1960. Nixon’s campaign also sent out mailings purporting to come from the Democratic Party and released doctored photographs of Governor Pat Brown, the incumbent, that pictured him with people he had never actually met. These unethical tactics failed to win Nixon the election. However, he would use them again in the future.

The 1968 Election

Well aware that no Republican could beat Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon sat out the presidential election. By 1968, however, the situation had changed. Americans desperately wanted some stability in society. John F. Kennedy, Mar- tin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy had all been assassinated; Governor George Wallace of Alabama had been paralyzed by an assassin’s bullet. The war in Vietnam raged on with no end in sight. War pro- testers continued to demonstrate. Nixon capitalized on the unrest by depicting himself as a law-and-order candidate who would bring new leadership to the nation and restore peace both at home and abroad.

The Democratic Party was deeply divided over the issue of Vietnam. Anti- war demonstrators clashed violently with police in Chicago during the Democratic Party convention. These riots were a symbol of the generational split that the Vietnam War had created at home. The younger generation had created a counterculture, burning draft cards, smoking marijuana, taking drugs, running away from home, dressing in outlandish styles, and defying all authority. To the older generation, this created a climate of uncertainty and fear. People of this generation turned away from the Democratic Party in large numbers to vote for Nixon, who won the presidency over Hubert Humphrey by about 500,000 votes.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Nixon Era and Watergate Practice Test

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