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March 10, 2014 12:25 PM The GOP 50 Years Ago This Month

By Ed Kilgore

At a listserv on which I am a member, someone asked about the identity of the early front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. It was a reminder that fifty years ago this month (yes, the primaries didn’t begin until New Hampshire on March 20 of that year) the runup to the LBJ/Goldwater wipeout began—the election that represented the momentary apotheosis and temporary eclipse of the conservative movement which held its semi-official reunion at CPAC last week.

At this point 50 years ago, Nelson Rockefeller (whose front-runner status for ‘64 had been diminished by negative reaction to his remarriage after a divorce) and Barry Goldwater (whose minions were already nailing down delegates in non-primary states, especially in the South) were criss-crossing snowy New Hampshire, and a write-in campaign for U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. (who had represented neighboring Massachusetts in the Senate for a term until he was defeated by JFK in 1952) was just beginning to get marginal media attention. Goldwater (endorsed by the abrasively conservative Manchester Union-Leader and senior senator Norris Cotton, was so confident that he predicted just before the primary that he would receive 40% of the vote. Instead Lodge won by a landslide, with Goldwater a poor second and Rocky a poor third (just ahead of a separate write-in campaign for Richard Nixon).

Unable to openly campaign, Lodge was bounced from the nomination contest in Oregon by Rockefeller, who in turn was bounced by Goldwater in California. Stop-Goldwater efforts eventually coalesced around Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, but it was far too little and far too late.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, at this point 50 years ago George Wallace (who had announced a presidential candidacy in Dallas the week before JFK’s assassination) was barnstorming through northern primary states and mobilizing anti-civil rights voters against surrogates for LBJ, eventually wracking up shocking (if minority) numbers in Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland. At the same time, Wallace’s southern segregationist compatriots were flooding into the Goldwater campaign, all but executing a Dixiecrat takeover of the Republican Party that would sweep five Deep South states into the GOP column in November, even as Goldwater was suffering a catastrophic defeat elsewhere (other than in his native Arizona).

Without question, the 1964 campaign accelerated the ideological sorting out of the two parties that has reached its zenith in our era. Its personae dramatis included Ronald Reagan, who made his political bones campaigning for Goldwater in California, and whose own nomination and election in 1980 is generally recognized as signalling the takeover of the GOP by the movement spearheaded by Goldwater (sweeping GOP “moderates,” who learned to ape the pieties of the Movement, along in its train).

You can read about the ‘64 campaign and its impact in Rick Perlstein’s fine 2001 book Before the Storm. But it’s probably a good time for those of us who actually watched that campaign unfold to unearth our memories. It was a very wild ride with a very long afterlife.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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