If you just arrived in the U.S. from some remote island, you might think the presidential election is being held this November and not 18 months from now. Media fixation with dissecting every “who’s in/who’s out” and “who’s up/who’s down” story, coupled with a public increasingly tuned in to politics, has ramped up the campaigning earlier than ever before.
By comparison, at this time eight years ago, Donald Trump hadn’t yet descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower to tell the world he was running. This time, his announcement took place last year, shortly after the midterm elections. And several potential challengers from both parties, including President Biden, have now joined him.
The phenomenon of the American people paying closer attention to electoral politics — while telling pollsters they have no stomach for the stuff — has been intensifying for decades. The 24-hour news cycle and constant quest to provide a unique perspective has added multiple dimensions.
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The late Washington Post journalist David Broder used to say that “getting mentioned” was the first step to establishing credentials as a presidential aspirant. Today it’s the Broder formula on steroids: It’s getting mentioned multiple times each day that jump-starts presidential candidacies.
Several announced candidates, both well known and obscure, are jockeying for position. The mix includes a scion of the Kennedy dynasty, former governors of two southern states, and some others who likely will end up as asterisks in the records of the 2024 election.
To date, most of the media attention regarding who might run has centered on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who hasn’t announced a candidacy but regularly acts like a candidate. Trump and DeSantis supporters already are lobbing less-than-gentle barbs back and forth across social media platforms. Groups supporting each candidate, and assailing the other, are even sponsoring early television ads. Of course, a number of other potential candidates are eyeing the race closely.
As a believer that true character is revealed over time and under pressure, I think there’s clearly enough of both aspects to allow voters ample opportunity to determine who has “It,” the magical quality that propels candidates to the front of the pack.
Already, there are apparent chinks in the armor of leading candidates. How opponents will exploit those, and whether voters view them as major factors, may well determine the outcome.
Analogies to previous elections are always dangerous, but I can’t help but think back nearly 60 years to the tumultuous 1968 election — held in the midst of the biggest divides in American society since the Civil War. We see the same degree of division today. And there are other parallels between then and now.
In 1968, opposition to the Vietnam War, the hippie counterculture and the emerging Black Power movement combined to create huge political, social and cultural divisions and rising tensions among people of various ages, races and socioeconomic standing.
An embattled and beleaguered incumbent, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was the early frontrunner. But he ran into strong political headwinds and primary opposition within his own party. His popularity slipped below 35% and the Secret Service limited his public appearances (he wasn’t even allowed to attend his party’s nominating convention later that summer) out of concern for his safety. Sound familiar?
One of Johnson’s major challengers was Robert F. Kennedy, whose son, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is now running for the Democratic nomination against President Biden — and already registering support in double digits.
The elder Kennedy was reluctant to openly challenge LBJ early on, but entered the race after the first primary in New Hampshire. Less than three weeks after that primary, Johnson dropped out of the race. Polls in other states had shown Johnson in bad political shape, and there were concerns about his health — a subject certain to be front-and-center in 2024, involving Biden.
When Robert Kennedy was tragically assassinated, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice president, became the favorite among the Democratic establishment. Humphrey cobbled together enough delegates to capture the nomination.
The Democratic convention was held in Chicago and came replete with riots in the streets. They were quelled by the Chicago police under the direction of Mayor Richard Daley. As protesters chanted, “The whole world is watching,” police employed tear gas and billy clubs to restore order. The next night, liberal Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) took to the convention rostrum to denounce Daley and his police force, referring to them as “gestapo” and provoking a profanity-laced response from His Honor. The actual nomination later that evening was anticlimactic.
Yes, the Democrats will return to Chicago next year for the first time since.
Republicans in 1968 had a different set of challenges. Their leading candidate, Richard Nixon, had narrowly lost the presidency eight years before, amidst lingering claims of election fraud. He hadn’t fared too well in the interim, losing the governorship of California and telling the media they wouldn’t have him to “kick around” any more.
The first non-incumbent vice president elected to the presidency — a feat equaled only by Biden — Nixon didn’t begin to actively campaign until January of election year, although he’d laid the foundation for months. Governors from opposite wings of his party challenged him — first, George Romney (yes, Mitt’s dad), who ended his candidacy following a trip to Vietnam and saying he’d been “brainwashed,” and then Nelson Rockefeller, the lion of the liberal wing, and Ronald Reagan, the favorite of conservatives.
Ultimately, Nixon’s early lead and organizational strength held up and he was nominated, despite open concerns about his “electability.” George Wallace’s third-party candidacy complicated the 1968 election and influenced politics somewhat going forward.
There’s talk of third-party candidacies again this time around, but none with anywhere near the potential of Wallace, who ended up carrying five states, with 45 electoral votes (plus an “unfaithful” elector from North Carolina).
In May 1967, few would have predicted that Lyndon Johnson would drop out of the race early. Or that Robert Kennedy would emerge as a frontrunner. Or that Richard Nixon would steamroll to the nomination — and ultimately the presidency.
In the deeply divided nation of 1968, we had an unpopular president challenged by Kennedy and others for the Democratic nomination and a Republican candidate who’d lost the presidency in an election marred by alleged voter fraud, suffered additional political defeat in the interim and had many Republican leaders openly fretting about his electability. Many supported popular governors instead (a la today’s Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Asa Hutchinson).
The ’68 campaign was a truncated affair, not really getting public view until the actual election year. Only three TV networks existed, with plenty of news to cover besides the “inside baseball” of presidential electoral politics. Today, with so much media attention and voter chatter already focused on the ’24 election, a little perspective might help.
Charlie Gerow (@Charlie_Gerow), CEO of Quantum Communications, is first vice chair of the American Conservative Union. He has held national leadership positions in several Republican presidential campaigns, beginning with Ronald Reagan.
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