Historical Figures Series: The Presidential Campaigns of George Wallace
Part 2: The 1968 Third Party Run That Foretold So Much of Politics’ Future
As has been recorded by countless historians over the more than half a century since, 1968 was one of the most violent years in the century and the frustration with the stalemate in Vietnam and the domestic riots that had been plaguing the streets for the last several years from Watts to Newark to Detroit infested every aspect of the Presidential election. The Vietnam War was at the center of the protest campaigns of Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy’s presidential run and helped propel Richard Nixon’s come back. Just as important was the backlash to both the civil rights movement and the fighting in the streets. Many candidates would run on these issues but few would manage to harness as effectively as George Wallace did.
Term-limited Wallace arranged for his second wife, Lurleen, to run in his place as governor of Alabama. By this point Wallace was perhaps the most public figure in the fight against integration. His behavior towards the marchers in Selma — where ‘Bloody Sunday’ was the least of his crimes -and that ultimately would lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 earned him castigation by liberals and African-Americans in the North and the admiration of the South and blue collar workers through the country. During his last year as governor he signed legislation to nullify desegregation guidelines in Alabama cities and counties. He was denounced by critics for political trickery and the forfeiture of federal funds. Wallace ignored them — he had bigger plans in mind.
In March of 1967 as Lurleen Wallace was being inaugurated, there was a strategy session of some of the most notorious white supremacists and anti-Semitic in the country. This organization led to the foundation of what would become known as the American Independent Party, arguably the most far right party in the history of the United states. Advocated the worst aspects of American-nationalism, anti-communism and most important segregation, George Wallace was quickly nominated to be the presidential nominee.
Wallace never expected to win but his hope was that he could syphon off enough votes in the Electoral college to keep both parties from obtaining a majority. This would send the election to the House of Representatives where he would essentially be a power broker. The end goal was for the Southern states to use their clout to make whoever the winner was end federal efforts at desegregation. It is terrifying to consider just how close he came just to doing just that.
Wallace’s position on Vietnam was significant different from both parties. He said that if within 90 days of taking office The Vietnam War was not winnable, he would immediately withdraw U.S. troops. The more significant part of his platform was the concept of ‘law and order’ a barely veiled reference to the crackdown on the protests on the streets everywhere. His campaign slogan went down in American political history: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties.”
Both the Democrats and the Republicans were terrified of Wallace’s campaign. Blue collar union workers in the north — a party of the Democrat coalition since the days of FDR — were heavily swayed by Wallace: a mid-September internal poll of the AFL-CIO showed that one and three union members supported him. But Richard Nixon was just as terrified of Wallace. Nixon was adopting the Southern strategy that Goldwater had begun to perfect four years earlier, and he knew that Wallace’s appeal could very well split the conservative vote and take much of the South that he was hoping to win.
Events throughout 1968 only seem to add momentum to Wallace, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy to riots that spread throughout the countries and climaxed at the disastrous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. Hubert Humphrey emerged from the battle so damaged that in some public opinion polls after that convention, he trailed Wallace in both the popular vote and states that he would win.
For much of the summer of 1968 Wallace was poling as high as 20% in the public opinion polls and anywhere between seventy and eighty votes in the electoral college. The rhetoric in his campaigns was arguably the most notorious in the twentieth century, some of it with a direct link to some of the political campaigns of today. Most famously: “If any anarchists lie down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile they ever lie down in front of. His reactions to the hecklers that were prevalent in his campaign was one more of amusement than outrage — he was known to blow kisses to them at campaign stops. When hippies called him a Nazi, he said: “I was killing fascists when you punks were in diapers.”
What is perhaps most striking — and indeed relevant — is not only how that the mainstream editorials excoriated him while the south embraced him, but that there were quite a few people on the Left who genuinely were impressed by his rhetoric. Indeed, the editor of the New Left magazine Ramparts said that “Wallace and the black and radical militants…share some common ground…In this year’s election, the only one of the three major candidates who is a true radical is Wallace.” Leftist Jack Newfield compared him to William Jennings Bryan for his attacks on concentrated wealth in his speeches.. and how the liberal hypocrisy had created so many Wallace voters.
Even the people who hated his opinions thought he was an entertaining campaigner. The links between then and now is crystal clear.
Wallace’s problems began when he had choose a Vice Presidential candidate. Some important names were considered, some for fame (J. Edgar Hoover) some purely for celebrity (John Wayne and Colonel Sanders of KFC fame.) The more serious contenders came down to retired Air Force General Curtis LeMay, former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson (who declined because of his being involved with the Latter Day Saints) and perhaps the most viable options Happy Chandler, former Kentucky Senator and Governor as well as the Commissioner of Baseball.
Chandler was by far Wallace’s best option. They believed he would put him over the top in Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida, and solidify support in Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina. Wallace was cautious: as I wrote in an earlier article, Chandler had supporting the integration of baseball and as governor of Kentucky he had been a more liberal southern governor than most. But it was that exact fact that many of his aides urged him to take him on: as one put it in the blunt terms associated with Wallace himself: “We have all the nuts in the country, we could get some decent people — you working one side of the street and he working the other side.”
However when the deal was leaked, Wallace’s supporters objected, his Kentucky campaign chair resigned, and Nelson Bunker Hunt, a loyal member of the John Birch Society and one of Wallace’s biggest donors demanded he be removed from the ticket.
LeMay ended up reluctantly accepting — he feared being labeled a racist and his job as chairman of the board of an electronics company would be lost if he were to run for vice president. Hunt sent up a million-dollar fund to reimburse him.
Ironically, it was LeMay’s positions on Vietnam, not race, that hurt the campaign. His enthusiasm for nuclear weapons was well known and Wallace aides tried to persuade him to avoid the subject. However, on his first interview: he attempted to dispel ‘America’s phobias on nuclear weapons’ by discussing ‘radioactive land crabs.” Far worse were later suggestion he gave of the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Hubert Humphrey seized on this by dubbing Wallace and LeMay ‘the Bombsey Twins.” LeMay’s campaign appearances were halted but the damage was done, and it also reinforced his gender gap among women voters, particularly in the North.
Near the end of the campaign Wallace hurt his cause when rather than try and focus on winning the Carolinas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, Wallace chose to run a ‘national campaign’ and staged rallies in thirty three cities in the North but only one time each in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. While that decision no doubt hurt him in this campaign (and probably cost him the latter two states) the crowds he drew at those rallies no doubt helped his national appeal.
When election day came, Wallace campaign had been a remarkable success for a third party candidate. He won nearly ten million votes and carried five Southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi — for a total of 45 electoral votes. (A North Carolina elector pledged to Nixon cast his vote for him when the Electoral College met.) His percentage of the vote cast was 13.5 percent, the highest any third party candidate had managed since Robert LaFollette had run for President as a Progressive in 1924. Yet even these impressive numbers for a third party candidate underscore how large an effect Wallace had on the election.
He finished second with more than thirty percent of the vote in both North and South Carolina and received nearly 29 percent of the vote in Florida. He received more than thirty four percent of the vote in Tennessee and over twenty three percent of the vote in Virginia. His enormous strength in the South, combined with the fact that four of the five states he had carried had all gone to Goldwater four years earlier, caused many political observers (but not Richard Nixon) of the truth of LBJ’s observation of how the Civil Rights Act had given the Republicans the South. This truth would not be fully realized until Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.
But Wallace was not merely a southern phenomenon. He received nearly 400,000 votes apiece in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois, over 330,000 in Michigan, half a million in California, and almost six hundred thousand in Texas. Five of the biggest electoral prizes in the country had been influenced by Wallace’s presence. Neither side could deny the political power the Wallace vote was nationally.
In the narrowest of sense Wallace run for President was a failure in that he had not managed to achieve his objective. But considering just how close he had come to doing so (there are so many scenarios where if he could have managed to in a stronger campaign in states like Tennessee, North Carolina or Florida he could have done so and that’s just the most obvious one) no one could deny that both Wallace’s message and his personality had an appeal to a certain type of voter that the Democrats had relied on for decades and the Republicans were hoping to win over. Consider that Richard Nixon only defeated Hubert Humphrey by less than one percent of the popular vote and that his electoral total of 301 was just barely over the amount needed to win, no one could pretend that Wallace hadn’t altered the Presidential race immensely or that he would not be a political factor in future ones.
Indeed, other factors were about to make candidates like Wallace’s path forward even easier. After Hubert Humphrey had earned the Democratic nomination without competing in a single political primary, the Democratic Party had in the aftermath of the disastrous Chicago convention had set up a commission to reform and improve the delegation selection process for future conventions starting in 1972. Among their decisions involved an increase in the number of political primaries the Democrats would hold during the next cycle. This would shift the power of nominating process forever from the party chairs and head of state commissions to the voter. And one of those people’s whose fortunes would effect the most was George Wallace.
In the next article, I will deal with George Wallace’s 1972 run in the Democratic primaries from the start of his campaign, the attempt on his life, and how even afterward it affected the general election.