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Friday A/V Club: This Is What It Looks Like When a Political Party Splits

Republicans for Lyndon Johnson, Democrats for Richard Nixon, and the prospect of a Republicans-for-Clinton campaign


It works for so many candidates.

At last night's debate in Detroit, each candidate reiterated his promise to back the party's nominee even if it's Donald Trump—or, in Trump's case, to back him even if it's someone else. That won't necessarily prevent a major third-party or independent challenge this November: Anti-Trump Republicans could still go to war with a candidate not named Cruz, Kasich, or Rubio (if they have any sense, they'll prefer it that way), and Trump probably figures his campaign can file for bankruptcy and renegotiate its contractual commitments. But together with the big ballot-access barriers that a splinter candidate would face, last night's comments are a reminder that a three-way race is far from inevitable. We won't necessarily see a rerun of the Republican split of 1912 or the Democratic fracture of 1948.

That said, a split can manifest itself in other ways. Consider the last two times a major party picked a candidate that much of the party's leadership rejected.

In 1964, the Republican Party was coming off a long stretch of nominating relatively moderate presidential candidates—Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas Dewey, Wendell Willkie—and beating back Old Right challenges from the likes of Robert Taft and John Bricker. Then Barry Goldwater won the nomination with a program that combined the Old Right's skepticism about the New Deal order with a super-hawkish foreign policy; he also angered liberal Republicans by opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In virtually any presidential election, some people will defect from their party. But this time the defectors were a lot more prominent than usual, with men like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Michigan Gov. George Romney—Mitt's father—refusing to endorse or campaign for Goldwater. Sensing an opportunity, the Democrats started running ads like this one:

There weren't any major third-party campaigns that year, just a bunch of Republicans who decided to either throw in with the Democrats or stay home. Goldwater received a mere 38.5 percent of the popular vote.

America avoided the nuclear war invoked in that commercial, but it did get a vast escalation of the war in Vietnam. In 1972, one of Washington's fiercest opponents of the Vietnam conflict—South Dakota Sen. George McGovern—captured the Democratic Party's nomination. Once again, powerful forces in the party withdrew their support, most notably when the AFL-CIO declined to endorse him.

As in 1964, the admen on the other side rolled out a welcome mat for party defectors. A group called Democrats for Nixon—allegedly independent, in fact funded by the Committee to Re-Elect the President—produced ads like this one, which upbraided McGovern for the allegedly crippling cuts he wanted to make to military spending:

Again, there was no major third-party challenge, or at least not among disaffected Democrats. (On the right, a campaign by the Bircher congressman John Schmitz attracted over a million votes.) Again, there didn't need to be. When an institution like the AFL-CIO—ordinarily a key part of the Democratic coalition—refuses to endorse a candidate, that has an effect. Even some of the Democrats who did back McGovern clearly didn't have their heart in it. Chatting on the phone as the returns came in, Nixon told the previous Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, that he said he understood why he'd campaigned for the president's opponent. "Well," Humphrey replied, "I'll have to have a talk with you sometime….I did what I had to do. If not, Mr. President, this whole defeat would have been blamed on me and some of my associates."

When the ballots were tallied, McGovern did even worse than Goldwater did, getting only 37.5 percent of the vote.

If Trump is nominated, will he face those sorts of high-profile defections? For a lot of Republican officials, it'll depend on whether they think he has a good chance to win—they won't want to alienate a potential president, but they won't want to go down with a sinking ship either. Even if someone doesn't distance himself formally, he can still back off in practice. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio may stand by their pledge to support their party's nominee, but that doesn't mean they'll actually campaign for the guy. (Or that they won't campaign half-heartedly, a la Humphrey.) In the pundit class, some prominent neoconservatives have already declared they'll back Clinton over Trump if it comes to that, mostly (though not entirely) because they prefer her foreign-policy views. It remains to be seen whether that will move any more voters than Colin Powell's two endorsements of Barack Obama did.

There's one thing we can be sure of. No matter how well the Republican elites manage to hang together, if Trump is the nominee the Clintonites will start shooting a sequel to the Republicans-for-Johnson and Democrats-for-Nixon ads.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. The LBJ commercial comes via Nate Silver. I don't remember where I first saw the Nixon ad.)

NEXT: PSA to College Students: Tiny Sombreros at Tequila Party Are Very Not OK. Fur Hats at Cold War Party Are Just Fine.

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  1. One thing to look forward to from a Trump presidency is Chris Christie standing in the background of Trump’s official portrait.

    1. Not to mention his tarred head stuck on a pike in the Rose Garden.

    2. One thing to look forward to from a Trump presidency is Chris Christie standing in the background of Trump’s official portrait won’t be president.

    3. And Mitt Romney kneeling in the foreground.

  2. The Clintons are reclaiming the Democratic Party after control was wrested from them, so I think it’s safe to assume the GOP establishment will rebound from this hiccup.

    1. That strikes a spark with me:

      Obama has been assiduously creating his own power center (Organizing for America). I wonder what he’s going to do with it?

      1. Merge with The Clinton Foundation?

  3. I remember back in the Reagan years, several of my Democratic friends used to discuss the hopeful possibility of Reagan being assassinated- opening the door for regime change.

    Admittedly, this was back in an era when Presidents used to occasionally actually get shot at.

    1. Good times….?

  4. Loved that video. Especially when he lit up. All that was missing was him threatening to move to Canada. Thanks Jesse.

  5. Goldwater would be lucky to get 38% in 2016. Look at these crazy words from his acceptance speech:

    I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

    “Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.”

    1. Nice.

      If Reason magazine in its present form were around back then, its editors would be trashing Goldwater of course.

    2. And remember, this is what the Media now dubs as “ultra-right wing”!

      And Goldwater supported eliminating the ban on gays in the military.

    3. Not to mention:

      “Let’s lob one into the men’s room at the Kremlin.”

  6. If only we had a man like Chris Christie in Washington…unfortunately, we’ve got 20,000 like him.

  7. These aren’t the only examples. Jerry Ford probably would have beaten Jimmy Carter if Ronald Reagan had given Jerry his full support, but Ronnie really didn’t want Jerry to win. In 1968, the Democrats were probably too split to win, but if Gene McCarthy were somehow convinced that Hubert would be a “peace president,” maybe that would have happened. It was a close election. In 1980, some Democrats thought Jerry Brown wanted Carter to lose. But he would have lost anyway.

    1. Jerry Ford probably would have beaten Jimmy Carter if Ronald Reagan had given Jerry his full support

      Doubt it. Highly.

  8. The ship in the Nixon vid appears to be the USS Van Voorhis DE-1028

    Fairly unremarkable career (Commissioned 1957, sold for scrap 1973). The most interesting bit of her service:

    July 1958 she was ordered to the eastern end of the Mediterranean in mid-July to patrol off the Levantine coast. She supported the Marines who landed in Lebanon in response to President Camille Chamoun’s request for help during a crisis precipitated by Arab nationalist factions in reaction to his administration’s pro-Western policies and its adherence to the Eisenhower Doctrine. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal representative Robert D. Murphy helped the factions to negotiate a settlement which resulted in the election of General Fuad Chehab to the presidency on 31 July. President Chamoun’s refusal to yield office before the expiration of his term kept the country in turmoil until late September. However, political conditions in Lebanon remained highly volatile, so American forces remained there until after General Chehab took office in September. During this period, Van Voorhis alternated normal 6th Fleet operations with patrols off Lebanon.

  9. My mother-in-law told me that she remembered the ads for LBJ saying that if you voted for Goldwater in in 1964 you were going to get a war. She voted for ol’ Barry, and sure enough we were at war in 1965. Damndest thing.

    1. Goldwater would have gotten us into a war-war, not just that police action thingy. There are levels at play here.

  10. I can’t believe some of the comments I’m reading here. A guy who’s handle is Libertarian says that Goldwater statements were bat-shit crazy? Goldwater was the most libertarian candidate either of the two major parties has run in my lifetime (52 yes old). To me Goldwater’s convention speech was pure libertarianism. The passage quoted above is terrific. I urge all of you to read it in its entirety. Here’s the Web address.


  11. I also particularly like this quote, from The Conscience of a Conservative :

    “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is “needed” before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ “interests,” I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”

    Goldwater was also a strong believer in the separation of church and state. He strongly criticized Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. He supported guys in the military.

    The things they said about Goldwater wanting to get us into war were the same things they later said about Reagan. Reagan proved that the fears about Goldwater were unwarranted.

    I would be proud, as a Libertarian, to support him were he running today.

  12. Goldwater thought it was wrong to commit ground troops in Vietnam, without a commitment to winning.

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