On November 22nd, 1963, America was hit by a tragedy. Our Commander-in-Chief, the beloved John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswalt and the world would stand in disbelief as for only the would have to rise up and lead the country. This leader was Lyndon B. Johnson, and he had just under a year to assert himself as the right man for the job before he would find himself locked in a fight to retain it. His contester would be longtime senator and conservative hero, Barry Goldwater. Americans, including conservatives, were still apprehensive to adopt Goldwater’s style of conservativism after the success of JFK’s liberal principles and the progressive conservativism championed by Eisenhower during his stint as President from 1953-1961.
During the campaign, public sentiment towards more progressive principles was made to be an important factor. At the time, the Republican Party had found itself in a bipolar state, torn between “Rockefeller Republicans,” who maintained relatively progressive values and the more conservative wing of the party. Many Republicans understood that America was becoming more liberal and Goldwater would have little chance in the general election. Because of this, they ensured Goldwater wouldn’t have an easy trip to the nomination. Strong, moderate Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton would contest Goldwater in the primaries, but would end up losing to the far-right idealist.
Now, the same Republicans who fought against Goldwater would have to endorse him, but they knew the odds were stacked against them. When it came to the general campaign, Goldwater’s strict sect of conservativism left him isolated against the general public, who were seeing immense value in the incorporation of liberal social and economic policies. And to make Goldwater’s case worse, he refused to adapt to meet the values of the public majority. Instead, he continued to champion his conservative values and began isolating himself among not only the general public and the Democrats, but those in his party as well.
Known as one of the ugliest conventions in our nation’s history, the RNC in 1964 was filled to the brim with attempts to overtake Goldwater in the electorate. However, his base electorate on the right still maintained many of his values and thought Rockefeller, Scranton and the others were simply yielding to popular opinion. With this, Goldwater won the electorate by a very large margin and was off to the general election.
Now that we’ve reached the general election, Goldwater found himself in an ugly situation. He was no longer talking to an isolated group of conservative idealists. No, now he was talking with everyday people whose ideals seemed to starkly contrast his. His determination to not compromise led to LBJ winning the popular vote by the most convincing margin in U.S. history.
Basing his campaign on his primary concerns of increased government interventionism in the daily lives of Americans and speed and fluidity in regards to passing bills, Johnson needed to leverage Kennedy’s communicational prowess to reach the people. He was dry, policy oriented and lacking oratorical strength and relatability which meant he struggled to get his message out to the public.
The main issues that the candidates debated involved the Conflict in Vietnam, spreading communism, social programs and nuclear proliferation. In terms of portrayal around these issues, Johnson succeeded in conveying Goldwater as a right-wing extreme, fringe candidate.
But when it all came down to it, Johnson’s inability to reach audiences was vastly overshadowed by the isolating conservativism proponed by Goldwater and JFK’s success. These factors would lead the election to conclude with an immensely lopsided 61% of Americans voting for Johnson.
Goldwater surely didn’t lose in vain, though. He is credited with heavily influencing the conservative movement and helping it become what it is today. Conservative saint, Ronald Reagan was elected 16 years later and ran on many of the same ideals as Goldwater. And while Reagan was certainly more moderate on some things, Goldwater still deserves credit as a strong influence. So, if nothing else, we can thank Barry Goldwater for helping birth the modern, far-right Republican Party we have today. But hey, at least he discussed issues.