There haven't been many cliffhangers in presidential politics, and one of the most interesting, from the perspective of an historian, has to be the one that occurred 45 years ago today.
It was the last truly paper–thin popular vote margin in a presidential election in the 20th century, and it was the last time for nearly 40 years that voter turnout in a national election exceeded 60% — in spite of the fact that the voting age was lowered to 18 before the next presidential election.
And, if the outcome had been different, the nation might have been spared the Watergate scandal that consumed the Richard Nixon presidency.
But the Democrats' nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, had to win the grudging acceptance of those who had supported antiwar candidate Gene McCarthy in the primaries. The war influenced most voters that year, either directly or indirectly, and McCarthy's supporters didn't completely trust Humphrey because of his role in the Johnson administration.
Gradually, Humphrey had been winning them over that fall; Democrats who had supported McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy earlier in the year apparently began to realize that, like it or not, the choice was between Humphrey and Nixon, the man they had been demonizing for a couple of decades. About two weeks before the election, when Humphrey announced in Salt Lake City that he would pull the plug on the bombing in southeast Asia as "an acceptable risk for peace," the momentum was on his side.
"Up until Salt Lake City," wrote historian Theodore White, "the position of the Democrats had been that any bombing halt in Vietnam must be coupled with reciprocity on the part of the enemy. Now, in a three–point program, Humphrey declared that he would risk a complete bombing halt in the interests of peace, and then see what response might develop, reserving the right to resume bombing if no such response was clear."
The impact on the polls was immediate. Gallup reported that Humphrey had cut Nixon's lead in half.
Then, less than a week before the election, McCarthy ("who had been pouting on the Riviera" since losing the nomination to Humphrey, wrote historian William Manchester) announced his support for Humphrey — and, at that point, wrote Manchester, "Humphrey was at the top of his form; Nixon had begun to sound uncannily like Thomas E. Dewey."
The late Humphrey surge would have changed the outcome, many people argued, if the campaign had gone on for a day or two more — and, in fact, the Democrats had no one but themselves to blame for that. The Democratic National Committee decided to postpone the Chicago convention until the end of August to coincide with the birthday of President Lyndon Johnson.
At the time, it was the latest start for a national convention since the Civil War more than a century earlier — and the change cost Democrats valuable campaign time that could have altered the outcome of the general election.
(It is worth noting that LBJ was much more popular when that decision was made than he was when the convention was held.)
In hindsight, the whole election really hinged on the outcomes in three states — California, Illinois and Ohio. Nixon carried them all by relatively close margins. If Humphrey had carried all three, he would have been elected president.
And if Humphrey had carried any two of those three — or California alone — the independent candidacy of George Wallace would have accomplished its objective of forcing the election into the House of Representatives — where Wallace, who had been fading in the polls that autumn and must have been aware that he could not possibly win, could play the role of kingmaker.
Nixon, a native Californian, never really seemed likely to lose his home state (although the Republican ticket did lose the home state of the vice presidential nominee, Spiro Agnew). Oh, sure, some major party presidential nominees had lost their home states over the years — Democrat Adlai Stevenson even managed to do it twice — and, if that had happened in 1968, Nixon would not have won in the Electoral College (and, given his final popular vote margins in both California and the nation as a whole, he might not have won the popular vote, either).
But, contrary to what modern political observers may think of California's electoral tendencies, the fact was that, in 1968, the state had voted Republican in three of the previous four presidential elections, and it had never rejected Nixon in a national campaign.
Realistically, California was off the table.
But if Humphrey could have won about 67,000 votes from Nixon in Illinois and about 45,000 votes from Nixon in Ohio, he could have prevented Nixon from receiving enough electoral votes to be elected. And if he had carried both of those states, along with California, he would have won the election outright.
That kind of scenario (or something like it) seemed like a real possibility on this day in 1968 — even moreso after midnight, when all three states (along with Missouri and, for a time, Texas) remained too close to call.
Humphrey and Nixon were even with each other in the polls heading into Election Day, and many states remained too close to call well into that evening — and the early morning hours of the next day. In fact, it was not until the next morning that the TV networks called the election for Nixon — and, even after they did that, some states stayed too close to call for awhile.
My memory of those days is vague, owing primarily to my youth. But one memory stands out.
As I have written here before, I grew up within 350 miles of my grandparents. It wasn't all interstate in 1968, but my family still managed to visit my grandparents frequently. My father taught at a local college, which did not have summer sessions in those days, and my mother stayed at home until she re–entered the workforce in the mid–'70s so my family typically made two, even three trips to visit the grandparents in the summers — in addition to trips we usually made at Christmas and sometimes at Thanksgiving or during spring break.
I loved my grandparents and wanted to please them, and I'm sure I must have heard them talking about the election that summer. My mother's parents, with whom we always stayed when we visited Dallas, were Nixon supporters. My father's mother was a Democrat, and I am sure she supported Humphrey, but my maternal grandparents spent more time with me and had more influence on me.
Anyway, I must have heard them speaking of Nixon that summer. My grandfather could be — shall we say? — loquacious on certain topics, one of which was politics. My best guess is that I must have boldly asserted, at some point, that Nixon would win — and, then, as children will, I forgot about the conversation.
Until a day or two after the election.
It was then that I received the first telegram I had received in my then–brief life. It was from my grandparents and a couple of their friends (who must have been there when I made my prediction) congratulating me.
I wish I could say I still have that telegram, but I don't. As nearly as I can remember, it said something like this: "Congratulations on your prediction! We're all proud of you!"
At that point in my life, I knew nothing about politics, but I guess my grandparents' praise made me feel like I was some sort of prodigy, that I was destined to be some kind of political historian.
Maybe I was. After all, I still enjoy analyzing election returns, and I still like to make predictions.
I must confess, however, that those predictions involve considerably more thought and research than the one I made in 1968.