Opinion: The Republican Party went wrong back in 1964 when Nixon lost

The Republican Party had just lost a tough election and was trying to figure out how to win the next one. In particular, it struggled with whether to become more embracing of diversity and inclusion or whether to try to appeal to the angrier instincts of working-class whites.

And this ended up defining the party’s next presidential nomination contest.

While this could be an apt description of several recent election cycles, I’m actually talking about the Republican Party between 1960 and 1964. The path that would take them from Richard Nixon’s narrow loss in 1960 to Barry Goldwater’s nomination four years later was filled with consequential choices that would affect the party and the nation for generations to come.

After Nixon’s close loss to John Kennedy, Republicans debated among themselves just why that had happened. A great many of the arguments focused on race. More liberal Republicans criticized Nixon for not following Kennedy’s example in calling Coretta Scott King when her husband was jailed in Georgia.

This (among other less symbolic events) was a chance to demonstrate sympathy with Black voters at a key moment when people were paying attention. Baseball legend and active Republican Jackie Robinson urged Nixon to call King, and when Nixon refused, Robinson rued, “Nixon doesn’t deserve to win.” Nixon would go on to win 32% of the Black vote — impressive by today’s standards but actually an eight-point drop from Eisenhower’s performance in 1956.

More conservative voices in the party had an entirely different interpretation of 1960. They felt Nixon had lost because he sounded too much like a Democrat. He had moderated too much on issues like defense, civil rights, and Medicare. They could do better by giving voters more of a choice.

But if the party wanted to make up ground for 1964, it had to make some choices about which segment of the electorate to try to pick off. Should they seek to bolster their standing with Black voters, who had been strong Republican supporters following the Civil War? Or should they reach out to southern whites, who had long voted Democratic but were also deeply conservative on many issues, particularly race?

Many prominent Republicans, including Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, urged the party choose the latter route and “go hunting where the ducks are.” RNC Executive Director John Grenier asked simply, “What are you willing to pay for the South?”

Importantly, not all Republicans agreed with this plan. Nixon himself warned that if they went that route, “our party would eventually become the first major all-white political party. And that isn’t good.” Nelson Rockefeller agreed that “for that Party to turn its back on its [civil rights] heritage and its birthright would be an act of political immorality rarely equaled in human history.”

For a time, the party was truly going in both directions at once, backing initiatives to both reach out to non-white Republicans and also to convert southern white resentment into votes. By the early 60s, though, the RNC was giving far more attention and funding to the latter.

The 1962 midterm elections saw the Republicans pick up five congressional seats in the previously “solid” Democratic south. Many party leaders came to believe that the party’s future lay among southern whites.

This belief infused Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. His winning the GOP nomination was no small thing; he was hardly the establishment favorite. Instead, he relied on newly empowered groups of conservative activists, especially the Young Republicans. As pro-Goldwater forces took over state party convention delegations through a sophisticated 50-state campaign, they made sure to exclude Black delegates where they could. Georgia’s delegation to the Republican national convention in 1964 was its first all-white delegation in half a century.

In a series of events that should sound very familiar to Americans who watched the nomination contests of 2016, Goldwater marched toward the nomination while other candidates and party leaders were slow to pick up on what Goldwater’s team was doing and failed to counter-mobilize. Rockefeller, Nixon, and others took disorganized swipes at Goldwater. Michigan Governor George Romney jumped in to warn that Goldwater’s nomination would lead to “the suicidal destruction of the Republican Party as an effective instrument in meeting the nation’s needs,” prompting Oregon Governor Mark Hatfield to remark, “George, you’re six months late.”

Even after Goldwater’s nomination, the party showed no signs of turning back. The new chair of the RNC, Dean Burch, said the party would not repudiate the Ku Klux Klan, because “we’re not in the business of turning away votes.” Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had been pursuing a third-party presidential bid to give segregationists a voice, suspended his campaign, saying, “My mission has been accomplished.”

There are obvious parallels to modern times. After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, many Republican leaders argued that to win, the party needed to become more diverse and more tolerant of immigrants and people of different backgrounds. Others in the party, especially Donald Trump and his allies, argued that there were more white votes out there for the taking if they would take a stronger stance against immigration and “political correctness.” The 2016 election arguably ratified that viewpoint.

But there’s a key difference between the two eras. In 1964, the electorate overwhelmingly repudiated Goldwater and the Republicans. Lyndon Johnson won the popular vote 61-38, one of the largest landslides in history, claiming all but six states. Such a deep loss didn’t stop the party’s migration toward the white south – Nixon’s more subtle “southern strategy” and Reagan’s campaigning would cement that going forward – but it did delay and moderate it for some time.

In our polarized era, we simply don’t have presidential landslides anymore. No presidential candidate has won the popular vote by double digits since 1984. Basically, every major party candidate is guaranteed to get at least 46% of the vote. This means that no candidate, no party, no strategy, no matter how odious, is ever really repudiated.

This makes a party’s choices even more consequential today. Even when it makes a short-term decision to reach a certain group of voters, the effects of that may be felt for many years to come, regardless of the next election’s outcome.

When prominent conservative leaders and presidential aspirants accuse a Black Supreme Court nominee of being an affirmative action pick and demand the release of her LSAT scores, try to drive any reference to LGBTQ people out of classrooms, claim that Critical Race Theory is destroying America, exaggerate fears of inner city crime, and more, it’s clear what direction they’re trying to steer the party in and whose votes they’re seeking.

But it’s not something they can easily walk back after the election is over. Campaign fears tend to become policy proposals, and some of those become laws. And whether Republicans over- or under-perform this fall’s elections, it won’t be by much, and the party will have gone further in that direction.

Parties make choices. History throws them a set of circumstances to deal with, but how they play that hand is a matter of internal party decisions.

And those decisions aren’t just short-term campaign choices; they will echo for decades to come.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.

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