March 6th, 2020


Past Campaigns: Hubert Humphrey's 1968 Campaign

On March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation by announcing that he would not run for re-election as President. Johnson said that he felt that it was his duty to concentrate on managing the Vietnam War, but by this point in time Johnson was facing challenges for the presidential nomination from two credible candidates: Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. McCarthy had won a larger than expected share of votes in the New Hampshire Primary, and although Johnson had won the primary, it was clear from the results that he was a vulnerable candidate and that the war was his political Achilles heal.

With Johnson out of the race, the logical establishment candidate for the Democratic Party was Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the former Senator from Minnesota and former Mayor of Minneapolis. Johnson's exit from the race set the state for a contest for control of the Democratic Party. The Vietnam War had intensified during Humphrey's tenure as Vice President. Support for the war declined as casualties mounted, victory seemed farther away and television news brought the carnage into the living rooms of voters across the nation.

The timing of Johnson's exit meant that Humphrey had entered the race too late to participate in any primaries. He relied on "favorite son" candidates to help him win delegates. These were locally popular politicians who were loyal to the party establishment and who ran in the primaries to win delegates that they could late pledge for Humphrey. He also lobbied for endorsements from powerful kingmakers within the Democratic Party to secure delegates in states that did not have primaries. This approach was criticized by the other candidates, who hoped to win the nomination with popular support.

Humphrey had first been elected to public office in 1945 as Mayor of Minneapolis. He served two terms of two-years each and gained a reputation as an anti-Communist and ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. He gave a memorable speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention arguing for the adoption of a pro-Civil Rights plank. He famously said at that convention, "The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states' rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." Later that year, he was elected to the United States Senate, where he developed a close working relationship with Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. While in the senate Humphrey gained the nickname "The Happy Warrior" because of his likable personality and persistence.

In 1960, Humphrey first ran for the Democratic Party's nomination for President, winning primaries in South Dakota and Washington D.C. He lost the nomination to Massachusetts Senator and future President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, Humphrey was chosen as the running mate of President Lyndon Johnson, who went on to win in a landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater. During his time as Vice President, Humphrey saw the nation endure trying times, with race riots and decreased support for the Vietnam War. President Johnson's popularity dipped lower and lower as the election grew closer.

President Johnson began a campaign for re-election, entering his name in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary for March 1968. But late in 1967, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota entered the race and leveled heavy criticism of Johnson over his handling of the war. Humphrey was assigned the task of campaigning for Johnson. This was problematic for Humphrey, who was loyal to the president, but not personally convinced that the course being followed in Vietnam was the right one. Following the Tet Offensive, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of American and South Vietnamese soldiers and an invasion of the United States Embassy in Saigon, many Americans came to believe that the North Vietnamese were stronger than they had been told and that the war was not nearing an end. McCarthy told voters that "the Administration's reports of progress are the products of their own self-deception." The Johnson campaign tried many tactics to maintain support for the war. In the New Hampshire primary, Johnson's campaign had used the slogan, "the communists in Vietnam are watching. Don't vote for fuzzy thinking and surrender". Election eve polls placed McCarthy around 10% to 20% in the state, but he won 42.2% of the vote, slightly below Johnson's 49.4%. Johnson could read the writing on the wall. Inspired by the result, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York soon entered the race, despite previously announcing that he would not challenge the President for the nomination.

Humphrey tried to encourage Johnson to be more involved in the campaign, but Johnson was preoccupied with the war. In late March, polls suggested McCarthy would likely win the Wisconsin Primary. When Johnson informed Humphrey of his decision to drop out of the race, Humphrey urged Johnson to remain as a candidate. On March 31, the President publicly announced that he would not seek nor accept the Democratic Party nomination, setting the stage for Humphrey to make a presidential run.

After Johnson's withdrawal, Humphrey began to set up a campaign organization. He unsuccessfully courted Larry O'Brien as his campaign manager, but O'Brien had loyalties to the Kennedy family. His campaign was managed by Senators Fred R. Harris and Walter Mondale. Harris was put in charge of winning delegates, and Mondale ran the convention operations. Before his official announcement, Humphrey met with Johnson and discussed the future. Johnson gave him some political advice and after weeks of speculation, Humphrey finally announced his candidacy. He made the announcement on April 27, 1968, in front of a crowd of 1,700 supporters in Washington D.C. He delivered a twenty-minute speech, that was broadcast on national television and radio. In his speech, Humphrey said that the election would be about "common sense, and a time for maturity, strength and responsibility." He said that he wanted to unite his party and added that his campaign would be about "the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, the politics of joy." His entrance occurred too late for him to qualify for ballot access in the primaries.

Humphrey tried to position himself as the conservative Democrat in the race, hoping to appeal to Southern delegates. Republicans began to attack him, describing his positions as socialist. They reminded Southerners that Humphrey was a "wild-eyed liberal." Despite this, he rose to number one among Democrats polled in the beginning of May with 38%, ahead of both McCarthy and Kennedy. An internal struggle developed within his campaign neophyte Senators Mondale and Harris on one side, and the old school politicians who tried to circumvent Mondale and Harris on campaign decisions. The older faction called Mondale and Harris "boy scouts".

In the Indiana primary, Governor Roger Branigin stood in for Humphrey in Indiana, and placed second, in front of McCarthy but behind Kennedy. Senator Stephen M. Young of Ohio was the favorite son in Ohio, and won the primary. He won his largest share of delegates during a six-week period after May 10, when the Vietnam War became less of a campaign issue because peace talks were beginning. In May, he gained 57 delegates from Florida, as favorite son candidate Senator George Smathers defeated McCarthy in the Florida primary with 46% of the vote. Humphrey also picked up delegates from Pennsylvania, following an endorsement from Philadelphia Mayor James Hugh Joseph Tate, and he also collected delegates from leaders in New York, Minnesota, Montana, Utah, Delaware and Connecticut. The other candidates accused Humphrey of organizing a "bossed convention", contrary to the wishes of the people.

In early June, Humphrey's rival Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Shaken by the event, Humphrey took off two weeks from campaigning. He met with Johnson, and the held a three-hour meeting to discuss the future of his campaign and of the party. Humphrey said that he "was doing everything I could to win the nomination, but God knows I didn't want it that way." A large number of Kennedy delegates switched to Humphrey, but he lost money from Republican donors who had been supporting him because of concern about a Kennedy nomination.

Popular opinion polls shifted in favor of Senator McCarthy within the party and Humphrey was booed before 50,000 people on June 24 at the Lincoln Memorial as he was introduced at a Solidarity March for civil rights. He often encountered anti-war protesters and hostile crowds while campaigning. Humphrey asked for Johnson's permission to distance himself from the administration's position on the war and to call for a bombing halt and drawback of forces. An angry Johnson refused to do so.

In July, Humphrey criticized McCarthy for simply complaining about the war effort and offering no plan for peace. In response, McCarthy challenged Humphrey to a series of debates on an assortment of issues including Vietnam. Humphrey agreed to one debate prior to the Democratic National Convention, but that debate never occurred, largely due to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, as well as insistence of other candidates to participate.

Humphrey began to court Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, the younger brother of Robert Kennedy, as a possible running mate, hoping the Senator would bring many of his late brother's supporters to Humphrey's cause, but Kennedy declined the offer. Humphrey once again asked Larry O'Brien, who had been named as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to be his campaign manager. O'Brien reluctantly agreed to do so.

That month Humphrey held what he thought was a private meeting with 23 college students in his office. There, he candidly discussed his thoughts about the political climate, unaware that reporters were also in the room and that his statements would soon become public. Humphrey said that young people were using the Vietnam War as "escapism" and ignoring domestic issues. He said that while he had received thousands of letters from young people about the Vietnam War, he had received none about domestic policies to attack poverty. But the war continued to divide the party.

On August 10, just two weeks prior to the convention opening, South Dakota Senator George McGovern entered the race. He tried to make himself the inheritor of Robert Kennedy's legacy. But as the 1968 Democratic National Convention began in Chicago, Humphrey had more than enough delegates to secure the nomination.

The news media took the focus off of the message inside the convention, and turned to what was going on outside. Protests against the war and sleep-ins were held in the streets and parks of Chicago, forcing Mayor Richard J. Daley to order federal troops into the city. 6,000 federal troops and 18,000 Illinois National Guardsmen were outside the convention, defending the premises. A televised debate was held featuring Humphrey, McCarthy and McGovern. Humphrey hoped to unite the party during the debate, affirming his support for peace in Vietnam, but his challengers garnered more applause.

Humphrey won the party's nomination on the first ballot after a two-hour debate among delegates the next day. He received 1,759.25 votes, compared to 601 for McCarthy. McGovern finished in third with 146.5. McGovern offered a mild endorsement of Humphrey, asking him to be "his own man". McCarthy refused to endorse Humphrey. Humphrey also narrowly won the party plank in support of the Vietnam War, although his campaign team had begged Johnson to accept a compromise with the anti-war wing of the party, but Johnson refused.

Humphrey's victory and the victory of the pro-war plank in the platform caused the protests to intensify. The police and guard used tear gas against the demonstrators, which Humphrey could smell in his hotel room. The violent tactics used to quell the protests were criticized by certain Democrats as being excessive. They were broadcast across the nation by TV media. During his acceptance speech, Humphrey tried to unify the party, stating "the policies of tomorrow need not be limited to the policies of yesterday."

Humphrey had asked former Republican candidate Nelson Rockefeller to be his running mate, but Rockefeller said no. He also asked Texas Governor John Connally, but Connally suggested Vietnam ambassador Cyrus Vance. Another name suggested was Kennedy brother-in-law and former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver. Humphrey chose Senator and former Governor Edmund Muskie of Maine. Muskie had been active in civil rights and labor and on neither side of the war issue. Republican nominee Richard Nixon congratulated Humphrey on his victory as the general election campaign began.

Humphrey went on to lose the election, despite a last minute surge in his campaign after he decided to distance himself from Johnson's pro-war stance. Some historians have suggested that if Humphrey had cut his ties with Johnson sooner, or if Johnson hadn't been so stubborn and had let Humphrey adopt a more moderate stance on the war, Humphrey would have won the election.