The presidential election year that most closely resembles this one, I have come to believe, is 1964.
That November, less than a year after succeeding to the presidency, Lyndon Johnson won 61.1 percent of the popular vote – the largest percentage of any presidential candidate since the Electoral College has been selected predominantly by popular vote; that is, since 1824. LBJ’s popular vote percentage exceeded those of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and all others since James Monroe’s re-election tally in 1820.
Johnson won 44 states, plus the District of Columbia in its first-ever presidential vote, for an Electoral College victory of 486 to 52. Johnson’s victory in Alaska was the first and last for any Democratic presidential candidate. He was the first Democrat ever to win a presidential vote in Vermont; the first to win a majority in Maine since 1852 – Maine and Vermont being the only two states that FDR never won.
Barry Goldwater won only six states – his home state of Arizona, plus the deep-South states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. Lyndon Johnson won 25 states (and D.C.) with more than 60 percent of the vote.
LBJ’s victory carried all the way down the ballot, through the House and the Senate to state legislatures throughout the country. Even though Democrats already held 66 Senate seats and 258 House seats, in 1964 they added two in the Senate and 37 in the House.
The Democratic tide washed through state houses as well. In New York, for just one example, Republicans began 1964 in firm control – they held the governorship, both Senate seats, and wide majorities in both houses of the New York legislature. In the 1964 election, they lost the Senate seat that was up – incumbent Republican Kenneth Keating was defeated by Democratic carpetbagger Robert Kennedy – and their large majorities in the State Senate and the Assembly both flipped to large Democratic majorities. Republican leaders of both houses lost their re-election bids.
Johnson’s electoral success was anything but fore-ordained.
Democrats began the 1964 campaign deeply divided between mostly northeastern liberals and mostly southern conservatives. Johnson brilliantly outmaneuvered the conservatives. He was the only candidate nominated at the convention, which ended with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy introducing a filmed tribute to President Kennedy, preceded by a 16-minute ovation.
Republicans also were deeply divided between their moderate “Rockefeller Republican” wing and their conservative wing. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller began the primary campaign as the front-runner, but nose-dived after the recently divorced Rockefeller married the even more recently divorced Margaretta Murphy.
Other moderates tried to pick up the slack – Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, Michigan Governor George Romney, and Maine Senator Margaret Smith. But in the end, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was unstoppable, and although the Republican convention was bitterly divided between moderates and conservatives, Goldwater won the nomination on the first ballot.
In his acceptance speech, Goldwater famously defended “extremism in the defense of liberty” and condemned “moderation in the pursuit of justice.” Many moderates took this as an attack on them, and moderates divided between those supporting Goldwater against Johnson (Scranton, Nixon) and those sitting the election out (Rockefeller, Romney).
Goldwater had a penchant for offending with off-hand remarks, like his description of President Eisenhower’s administration as “a dime store New Deal,” and his speculation that “this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.”
He joked about lobbing a nuclear bomb into the men’s room of the Kremlin, and, at one point, a poll of psychiatrists called into question Senator Goldwater’s mental stability – a notion the Johnson campaign was glad to second with its memorable “Daisy Girl” ad, which basically said that a President Goldwater would get us all killed in a nuclear war.
The general election campaign was in large part a referendum on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Senator Goldwater was one of only six Republican Senators to vote against the final bill. Although 21 Democratic Senators voted against the bill, President Johnson successfully positioned his party as the pro-civil rights party, and his campaign labored hard to position Goldwater as a racist.
Although Republicans were harshly divided, Democrats were not confident. They knew to expect a white backlash against Johnson’s strong support for racial equality, and they were afraid how big the backlash might be.
But on November 3, 1964, Johnson won huge. Or, in today’s parlance, Johnson won “yuge.”
Against the expectations of everyone except maybe The Donald himself, it does look like Donald Trump will probably be the Republican presidential nominee. But whoever wins, the convention and the party will almost certainly be deeply divided. A number of prominent Republicans will probably decline to endorse Trump if he is the nominee, and Trump will probably decline to endorse the nominee if it isn’t Trump.
Trump is a powerfully divisive candidate. His polling is extremely negative. Moderates and independents are offended by his manner, his rhetoric, and his political principles – to the extent that his principles can be divined. Trump’s ability to offend makes Goldwater look benign; his off-the-cuff remarks make Goldwater look Socratic. His statements on race edge beyond Goldwater’s conservatism into fascism.
RealClearPolitics’s polling averages have Hillary Clinton ahead of Trump by 11 percent of the vote, and Senator Bernie Sanders ahead by 16 percent. Still, Democrats in 2016 are right to be worried about the general election, as their 1964 predecessors were.
Americans have never elected a president with no government experience, whether electoral, high-level appointive, or high-level military – and Donald Trump has utterly no government experience, at any level, for any period of time.
Even his business experience does not seem to be especially apt. Trump has acted more as a salesman and an investor than as an executive. He has headed no large corporations, not even a large division of a corporation; he has no experience in moving a bureaucracy.
His ideas do not come from experience with the world, or from consultation with experts; they come from the instincts of his “good brain,” and his policy positions seem to be motivated mainly by a need to grab attention. Although he has written 18 books, it’s not apparent that he has read that many. We know he watches cable TV news, reads tabloid newspapers, and spends a whole lot of time on Twitter.
All these are reasons that Trump should lose by a landslide, but still Democrats are nagged by the unprecedented nature of Trump’s campaign so far, and the quite correct concern that we can’t know for sure how the general election campaign will go. Any nominee of a major party might become president, and that in itself is cause for worry about Trump.
But there remains the possibility, even after Republican voters lose their heads in sufficient numbers to nominate The Donald, as their predecessors nominated Barry Goldwater, that the general electorate will resoundingly reject Republican folly.
And if that rejection resounds down through the ballot, here’s how that might look.
Democrats now hold 46 Senate seats; seven Republican seats are considered to be at substantial risk, and Democratic control of the Senate is not at all improbable. Democrats now hold 188 House seats; if Democrats add 37 seats in 2016, as they did in 1964, they will control the House.
Of the 99 houses of state legislatures (Nebraska’s legislature is unicameral), Republicans hold majorities in 69. But 23 of those legislative houses are in states that voted for Barack Obama both times. And 10 of those would flip from Republican to Democratic control with a change of four seats or fewer: one house each in Colorado, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, and both houses in Nevada.
The Republican Party is imploding. The Republican Old Guard is so thoroughly anti-Trump that it is resorting to the most hated man in the Senate, Ted Cruz, as their last, best hope to stop The Donald from destroying their Grand Old Party. I don’t want Trump to win the nomination, although Ted Cruz is hardly my idea of good news. If either of them is the nominee, the downside for the country is almost unfathomable.
But the upside is President Clinton or President Sanders in a landslide: the end of a 45-year conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the end of rule by Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, the end of Citizens United, the end of union-busting in Wisconsin and Ohio, the end of abortion restrictions masquerading as women’s health protection, the end of Big Coal.