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How Goldwater Changed Campaigns Forever

Oct 27, 2014

By Larry J. Sabato
Originally published in Politico on October 27, 2014

If you were to ask a sampling of analysts which post-World War II presidential elections predicted the political trends we see today, there probably wouldn’t be many votes for 1964.

It was a Democratic landslide year, with President Lyndon Baines Johnson winning 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes to Sen. Barry Goldwater’s paltry 38.47 percent and 52 votes in the Electoral College. Astoundingly, LBJ managed to capture the GOP strongholds of Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming while Goldwater posted victories in only his native Arizona (barely) and the five Deep South states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Yet if you look beneath the surface, you’ll see in 1964’s outcome many of the contours of today’s political map. More importantly, some of the techniques that still power our very partisan politics 50 years later had their origins in 1964’s deeply polarizing contest.

The golden anniversary of 1964’s election for the White House—which is being commemorated in our new University of Virginia Center for Politics/Community Idea Stations documentary coming to PBS—is a good time to reconsider a race that produced a significant switch in both Northern and Southern party loyalties; pushed Democrats to the left; created the modern conservative GOP that took a giant step to the right with Goldwater; made polished, vicious negative advertising the campaign tool of first resort; and showed the collective power of ideologically driven, broad-based grassroots organizers and small donors.

That’s quite a list of influential trends initiated or stimulated by a single presidential election.

All this happened despite the uncompetitive nature of the election. No one who understood politics in 1964, certainly including Barry Goldwater, expected the Republicans to prevail. Voters were still recovering from the trauma of President Kennedy’s assassination less than a year earlier, and three presidents in a year would be one too many. Moreover, in his first months in the White House, Lyndon Johnson had performed brilliantly in channeling the wave of emotion that swept over the nation in the wake of Dallas. The former Senate majority leader’s legislative skills and dominant style quickly produced the historic Civil Rights Act, a vision for a war on poverty, plus drawing-board proposals for many other expansions of the federal government’s role. Read more.