Despite having won the previous election in a landslide over Senator Barry Goldwater, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson's support had crumbled over the last three years due to the quagmire in Vietnam. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota announced in late 1967 that he would challenge the president for the nomination. Sharply criticizing the Vietnam War, McCarthy managed to capture support from the anti-war student population. With their help as volunteers, McCarthy came in a close second to Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, winning 42% of the vote. Johnson saw that he could not win the general election and withdrew from the race in a televised address to the nation. Senator Robert Kennedy and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey soon entered the race. Humphrey entered too late to run in the primaries, but this was not a great problem, as the party conventions would often have little to do with the actual results of the primaries.

Both Kennedy and McCarthy ran against President Johnson's war in Vietnam. However, McCarthy's supporters were more likely to be fervently anti-war. His student volunteers cut their hair and shaved beards and moustaches under the slogan "Clean for Gene", and went door-to-door campaigning for McCarthy. The primary race was close, with both senators winning key states. Finally, Kennedy managed to secure a much-needed victory in the then winner-take-all California primary. As he finished delivering his victory speech in Los Angeles, California, he was assassinated by Arab nationalist Sirhan Sirhan.

The stage was set for a dramatic convention. Humphrey had already locked up a majority of the delegates' votes, despite not having run a primary campaign. However, Eugene McCarthy was determined not to give up without a fight. Thousands of anti-war protesters showed up at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. In a chaotic event broadcast on national television, the Chicago police clubbed and tear-gassed protesters, which was inter-cut on television broadcasts with coverage of the similarly chaotic convention. Eventually, Humphrey was nominated as the party's candidate, and chose Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as his running mate.

In comparison, the Republican primary proceeded without event. Richard M. Nixon, former Vice President and 1960 Presidential candidate, was the clear favorite. He managed to win the nomination at the convention on the first ballot, beating California governor (and future President) Ronald Reagan and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon chose Governer Spiro T. Agnew of Maryland as his running mate.

George Wallace

George Wallace, Governor of Alabama, ran for President on the American Independent Party ticket in 1968. His platform focused mainly on states' rights, though he was well-known as a segregationist and anti-Communist. Wallace chose as his running mate General Curtis LeMay, the commander of the Tokyo firebombings and apparently the inspiration for George C. Scott's General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove.

Wallace's main objective was not to win the election, as he knew that would be next to impossible. Rather, his goal was to win enough states to deny either of the major parties a majority in the Electoral College. Then, he would offer his electoral votes to whichever candidate was willing to give him a better deal. Both candidates publicly stated that they would not bargain with Wallace for delegates, and it ended up not being an issue in the election. However, Nixon only narrowly won California, and a loss to Humphrey there would have denied him the majority needed to win.

General Election

Humphrey's biggest setback in his campaign was his support for the Vietnam War. This, combined with Eugene McCarthy's reluctance to endorse him, as is customary for primary opponents, caused Nixon to be an early frontrunner for the presidency. Nixon ran a popular campaign, claiming that he would take charge and end the Vietnam War with a "secret plan". Humphrey was painted by the press as a tool of President Johnson, and his failure to repudiate Johnson's war strategy played right into this. Days before the general election, two things happened that seemed to aid Humphrey's candidacy. First, the President announced a cease-fire in North Vietnam. Second, Eugene McCarthy grudgingly endorsed Humphrey, though this was seen by some as too little, too late.


Humphrey took most of the Northeast, Michigan, Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington, and Texas. Wallace took five states in the Deep South. Nixon took everything else.

Final Popular Vote
Richard M. Nixon/Spiro T. Agnew - 31,785,480
Hubert H. Humphrey/Edmund Muskie - 31,275,166
George Wallace/Curtis LeMay - 9,906,473

Final Electoral Count
Richard M. Nixon/Spiro T. Agnew - 301 votes
Hubert H. Humphrey/Edmund Muskie - 191 votes
George Wallace/Curtis LeMay - 46 votes

Encyclopedia Americana. "Hubert Humphrey".
2004 World Almanac

In the United States' long history of elections, some elections are seen as pivotal and dramatic (1860, for example), while some are seen as relatively sedate (1996 would be a recent example). The election of 1968, while not being quite as pivotal or dramatic as 1860, is still one of the most dramatic elections in American history, although perhaps "tragedy" would be a better term to use.

Presidential elections in the American system also have two aspects in which they can be dramatic: in terms of the issues and personalities involved, and in terms of the technical working of the election. Not surprisingly, elections with complicated issues and personalities involved are often the ones in which the technical complications of the United States' electoral process are likely to come out, and vice-versa.

The election of 1968 could have become much more complicated than it did. The election of 1968 is somewhat unusual in that the actual election, the day that voting took place and the ballots were counted and the winner announced, was somewhat anti-climactic. The year had already seen the assassination of two of America's most prominent figures, a host of riots, a bloody battle and the decision of a sitting president to not seek another term. But instead of being an anti-climax, the election could have turned into something even more complicated and acrimonious than what had occurred so far.

Richard Nixon finished the election with 301 electoral votes to Hubert Humphrey's 191, and George Wallace's 46. While the electoral margin between Nixon and Humphrey was relatively wide, he won with a plurality, and a margin of .7% . And because there was a third party candidate with some electoral votes, the situation was very close to there being no electoral majority. There were many ways that a shift of a few tens of thousands of votes in certain states could have swung Nixon below the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. There are a number of scenarios in which Wallace or Humphrey or both could have won several states, putting Nixon below the 270 electoral votes.

According to the 12th Amendment of the United States Constitution, if no majority exists in the electoral college, the United States House of Representatives votes amongst the top three recipients of electoral votes. But instead of each representative voting singly, the delegation of each state has one vote, with a majority of states needing to approve of a winner. What this process would have looked like is hard to guess at, other than it would have been messy. At the time of the election, the House had a majority of Democratic representatives, both in total numbers and in states controlled. However, many of those were conservative Democrats from southern states that supported Wallace. Would they have gone with party loyalty and supported Humphrey, or would they have supported Nixon, who was perhaps closer to Wallace's views? How much horse trading and fig leafing could have gone on? What would have been the popular reaction to Humphrey being named President with a minority of the popular and electoral votes? What would have been the effect of Southern Democrats supporting Richard Nixon en masse? If Humphrey's denial of Nixon had come about because he had won Delaware by 500 votes instead of losing it by 7000, what type of recounts and legal challenges would have happened? And, what would this period of indecision and political maneuvering done to a nation that was already badly confused by the events of the past year?

This is simply a series of "What If?" questions, although very plausible ones. They show how an already contentious situation could perhaps have been pushed over into total chaos by seldom used structural features of the American electoral system. Although hopefully we will not be seeing a repeat of 1968 anytime soon, it is not impossible that in the foreseeable future, we will see a contentious election that is "solved" by the provisions of the 12th Amendment.

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