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History Lesson

No, the 2024 Election Won’t Be Anything Like 1968

The election will be a challenge for Joe Biden. But looking to the past won’t help him—or us—understand what lies ahead.

Joe Biden speaks at a church while a shadow obscures him slightly.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Joe Biden speaking in January

The dominant headline on The Wall Street Journal’s home page at midday Wednesday was “Chaos on Campus, in Gaza, Threatens Biden’s Campaign.” The article is emblematic of a theme that will grow omnipresent as we move closer to the mid-August Democratic convention in Chicago.

Parallels to 1968 are irresistible both because of the locale of the Chicago convention and because Democratic disarray over Vietnam did help Richard Nixon win the presidency. It fits a long-standing media motif that when the Democrats lose the White House, it is usually because they brought it on themselves.

But the closer you look at the turbulent history of 1968, the more it reflects the 2024 presidential race with the accuracy of a funhouse mirror.

For all the horrors in Gaza, that war is a distant echo for most Americans—unlike Vietnam where nearly 17,000 U.S. soldiers died in 1968. Moreover, young men, unless they had the resources to obtain a deferment by going to college, were subject to the military draft.

Few presidential candidates have been as hapless as Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee after Lyndon Johnson abandoned his reelection campaign in late March of 1968. Historian Luke Nichter’s recent book on the 1968 election, The Year That Broke Politics, reveals that LBJ preferred Nixon over his own vice president—and undermined Humphrey at every turn. It wasn’t until late September that Humphrey, who kept begging for Johnson’s approval, had the temerity to call for a bombing halt in Vietnam without preconditions, which was a minor dissent from the administration’s position.

Nixon did make an inflammatory speech attacking the 1968 turmoil on the Columbia University campus as the beginning of a “revolutionary struggle to seize the universities.” Nixon also ran a series of TV ads decrying “the problem of order in the United States,” but almost all of the imagery appears to have been taken from the urban rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King. But Nixon, who ran a clever campaign, also broadcast a TV ad with a rock-and-roll soundtrack in which the excessively square GOP nominee solemnly declared, “American youth today has its fringes but that’s part of the greatness of our country. I have great faith in American youth.”

The violence at the Chicago convention was devastating for Humphrey. But it had its roots in Lyndon Johnson’s decision, when he assumed he would be the nominee, to hold the convention in Chicago because he believed Mayor Richard Daley could keep order. After King’s assassination, Daley had ordered the Chicago police to “shoot arsonists and looters—arsonists to kill and looters to maim and detain.”

Small wonder that when more than 10,000 protesters arrived in Chicago (including some violence-prone members of the left-wing sect the Weathermen) the result was a police riot. Three veteran British journalists wrote a chronicle of the 1968 campaign called An American Melodrama. The authors concluded that the ferocity of the Chicago police was far worse than anything that any of them had observed covering riots in Paris, Belfast, Berlin, Calcutta, and Detroit. What was different in Chicago, they wrote, “was the fact that the police went, quite literally, berserk.” A Gallup Poll, conducted immediately after the convention, captured the dominant law-and-order mood as 56 percent of Americans approved of the way that the Chicago police had dealt with protesters.

The Nixon campaign responded with a TV ad that was built around the devastating line: “How can a party that can’t unite itself, unite the nation?” Another Nixon spot (without narration) began with smiling convention pictures of Humphrey as the soundtrack played, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” before morphing to scenes of violence from riots and body bags from Vietnam.

The cleavages in the Democratic Party had been evident since antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy humiliated Johnson by winning 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. Not only did Humphrey not enter a single primary, but he also said at the time, “You have to be crazy to go into a primary. A primary now is worse than torture of the rack.” The 1968 convention, in fact, was a bit of a rigged game with one-quarter of the delegates selected in party-dominated caucuses in 1967. Any sense of a true contest ended when Robert Kennedy was killed after winning the June California primary.

McCarthy, by the way, waited until late October to tepidly endorse Humphrey, as the Minnesota senator declared, “The position of the Democratic candidate falls short of what I think it should be.”

Another major factor helped doom Humphrey to defeat: The Democrats were broke. The party could not afford to air a single TV ad between the convention and late October. Theodore White in Making of the President 1968 reported that Humphrey told friends after the campaign, “We could have won, and we should have won.” To Humphrey, the major factors were TV coverage of the violence in Chicago, the animosity of the McCarthy wing of the party, and the lack of a coherent campaign plan.

It is easy to grasp the poignancy of Humphrey’s regrets since he made a dramatic surge in the final weeks after an October 9 Gallup Poll showed him being trounced by Nixon by a 44-to-29-percent margin. Third-party candidate George Wallace, the former segregationist governor of Alabama, picked up 20 percent in the survey. On Election Day, Humphrey lost to Nixon by only 500,000 votes, even though the arithmetic was much bleaker in the Electoral College.

Two factors accounted for Humphrey’s surge. The vice president stopped agonizing over Vietnam and began emphasizing traditional Democratic economic positions. The other element was organized labor as the AFL-CIO worked overtime to win back Wallace voters in the North by making more than four million phone calls to union households.

Fifty-six years later, 1968 remains a fascinating election. Humphrey came across as weak in his efforts to placate Johnson over Vietnam. The antipathy of the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party to Humphrey dwarfed current unease over policy toward Israel. The violence at the Chicago convention was triggered by a thuggish mayor committed to order at any price. And the Democrats were running a campaign funded by loose change found under seat cushions.

Not much of a template at all for 2024. The Democrats are flush with cash. American soldiers are fortunately not coming home in body bags. And, though turbulent, the mood in the nation is largely shaped by Donald Trump’s disdain for democracy and not underlying social or economic conditions. In fact, the Democrats might have avoided hundreds of excessively glib parallels to 1968 if only they had decided to hold their upcoming convention in some place like Atlanta.